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A blast from the past

My old college lecturer just popped up on TV - boy, do I feel old?

I had one of those blast-from-the-past moments late night while watching the telly. My old lecturer and college mentor, Mary Beard, was on, presenting a programme about Pompeii.

I knew that she was a Cambridge don, of course. But it's quite different actually seeing and hearing someone again. She had exactly the same walk, for instance, which made me nostalgic, and other than having gone from brown to grey, she had changed little from the last time I saw her, about 30 years ago. And what a shock it is to realise that it is THREE DECADES.

Where on earth does the time go? It seems like five minutes ago. 

Back then, in 1981, the now-Professor Beard was a lecturer studying for her doctorate, and - already known as a rebel and iconoclast - she took a particular shine to certain students each year. For some unknown reason, she was very kind to me, perceiving something in me that her fellow lecturers certainly didn't, and gently chivvying, cajoling and hectoring me along, according to requirements. Without her intervention, I would probably have been thrown out at the end of my first year, for non-attendance. 

Her smoke-filled study at King's College was the kind of room I'd never seen in my life before, lined with books from top to bottom, with ideas whizzing thick and fast, jokes, cigarettes being passed back and forth. There, in her domain, Mary would expound just as freely on sex (at that time a theoretical issue as far as I was concerned), wine or drugs as on Ovid, Hesiod or why Catullus's mistress didn't really exist.

I had never before met an intelligent person who swore. Or smoked. Schoolteachers don't do that sort of thing in front of their pupils, and being from a resolutely working class background, my teachers were the only 'clever' people I knew. My parents saw almost no-one socially (they only went out once a year), and we didn't know any white-collar folks. Meeting Mary was like meeting someone 'off the telly'. Like David Attenborough.

She was therefore one of those people, like my Latin teacher Mr McChrystal, who had a big influence on me without ever knowing it, simply by being themselves. Those people who give you a glimpse into another world, and whose words you can still remember, decades later. This is the broader meaning of the word 'education' - the adjunct, and not the synonym, for one's schooling. 



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