Many memoirs, perhaps especially by writers, acknowledge the roles played by teachers in the shaping of people’s careers. Sometimes the teacher occurs as far back as primary school but more commonly later, and occasionally the mentorship morphs into a lifelong relationship.
I can remember the names of only a very few of my primary teachers and only one teacher at high school stands out. This was Ben Munday, the legendary History teacher at Melbourne Boys High School. For many years Munday’s students secured Exhibitions at the matriculation examinations. I didn’t, but Munday singled me out for praise a few times, which confirmed me in the belief that history was my subject.
This was consolidated at Melbourne University by my tutor in British history, David Johanson. He was fair, gown-wearing, a smoker of all-white Kent cigarettes – the height of chic. He rode a motor scooter and would have been a charismatic figure for those attributes alone, but he was also a magnetic teacher to whose imaginative engagement with the subject I responded strongly. Desperate to impress Johanson, I read everything prescribed and more and attended every lecture.
My reward was a letter Johanson sent me, which I’ve kept for 52 years: ‘Now that the results have been published,’ he wrote, ‘I can tell you how much I enjoyed reading your paper. I gave it a higher result than any other I marked …’ He encouraged me to enrol for Honours, which I did. I continued to perform well and wrote to Johanson at Oxford, where he’d gone for the then almost obligatory Oxbridge degree, to tell him so. He wrote back with continued encouragement.
I enrolled in the combined Honours course of History and English because I was an omnivorous reader with a vague ambition to be a writer. In my second year I encountered my next compelling teacher – poet and critic Vincent Buckley.
No teacher had a more profound effect on me. It worked in two ways. Buckley brought poetry to life in his tutorials on Blake, the Romantics, Yeats and others. He wanted his students to see how poetry worked and why it mattered. I stretched myself to stay with him and when I got a nod of approval from him for a comment I was uplifted.
Crucially, Buckley gave me the only piece of advice I remember receiving from a teacher that affected my writing style, which, at the time, must have been pretty pedestrian. He encouraged me to vary the rhythm and cadences of my sentences and demonstrated how to do it.
Buckley barely cleared five feet, but had an impressive mane of swept back brown hair and a strong, beaky profile. He had a beautiful voice and when he lectured to hundreds in one of the huge theatres in the Old Arts Building, his diminutive stature didn’t matter a damn. He was a heavy smoker of Craven A cork tips. I remember him once rushing out to borrow some cigarettes from another teacher in the corridor to see him through the hour.
I’ve also kept for over 50 years a note I had from Buckley after my second year. ‘Dear Peter,’ he wrote, ‘I was very pleased with your results, which entirely vindicated your decision to change to Honours. The poetry paper was a clear First …’
I saw David Johanson a few times years later at the ANU where he was a lecturer. He seemed to have lost his brio. He went to La Trobe, where he taught for some years. He died at an early age and the university established an essay prize in his honour.
Later still, I met Vincent Buckley when he visited the CAE I was teaching at. I’d admired his poem about the horse races at Kilmore. I was then writing my history of prize fighting in Australia.
‘Given your poem on the Kilmore races, Vin,’ I said, ‘are you interested in popular culture? How about boxing?’
‘I’m not interested in popular culture,’ he said. ‘I’m interested in horses.’
I felt put down.
So I didn’t develop long-lasting relationships with my two great teachers, but I have my memories and their letters.