The teacher who changed my life: In this moving tribute to his old English master, who's just died, CLIVE ASLET says his one regret is he never thanked him
Classroom colossus: Frank Miles was an English master at King's College School in Wimbledon
A fortnight ago I heard that the English master who taught me at school, the great Frank Miles, had died, aged 92. I say great — he was great to us, the ones for whom reading came to matter so much as a result of his highly individual influence.
Although he was a teaching giant, and recognised as such by former pupils and colleagues, there is barely a mention of him on the internet. That is exactly as he would have wanted it: modern communication methods were not for him.
He only just tolerated the telephone; a telephone which rang at an inopportune moment, such as when he was marking essays or exam papers, could easily be thrown out of the window. And that was in the Seventies, when landlines were cherished.
He would have despised the internet and the cult of self-publicity that it has spawned. He was, in many ways, a very private man.
But when he was teaching, Frank made his uncompromising views extremely plain. The classroom was his theatre. His performances were, in the true sense of the word, awesome — he held us spellbound.
By the time I arrived in his set, in the late Sixties, he had already been teaching for around 20 years, all of them at King’s College School, Wimbledon.
In physical presence he was, I suppose, quite slight. But to a boy in the fifth form his reputation made him seem several times lifesize. That reputation alone was enough to instil fear into the idle and quell the unruly.
He barely had to do anything to keep order. His arrival, always after we had gathered for class — his auburn hair neatly brushed, blue blazer spotless, brogues gleaming — caused us all to fall silent, instantly. It was always the same entrance.
Lessons would begin with what a friend has described as ‘a ferocious, almost neurotic intensity’. They could be very funny, as long as the class — or set, as it was called at school — was performing to the highest level.
Frank’s put-downs were annihilating. No boy whose formative years were exposed to the onslaught of that slightly world-weary light tenor voice could ever forget it.
At Frank’s funeral this week, several of us confessed that we could hear it still, on a daily basis. His values were austere and Olympian.
I still feel guilty when I read novels by Anthony Trollope, whom Frank witheringly condemned as a hack writer, simply because he wrote 2,000 words before breakfast and then headed out to his day job in the Post Office — a feat that, as a journalist, I later came to admire.
After the first homework I ever did for him, Frank judged the standard so poor throughout the entire class that he tore up every halting composition and threw it in the bin. All except one, and I blush to write that the piece saved from oblivion was mine. It would have been much better for me if someone else’s effort had been picked.
While I strove to maintain the standard that had been set for me, I was inevitably toppled from the pinnacle before very long. But for part of one term I basked in a glory that I had never achieved before, nor would ever do again.
Frank determined my life’s path. He got me into Cambridge University. Nobody else could have done that.
'By today’s standards he was deeply politically incorrect and had precious little time for rules and regulations. In fact, in the modern bureaucratic world he would be the teaching establishment’s worst nightmare.'
He was certainly idiosyncratic and at times plain bonkers. He was highly opinionated and brooked little dissent from those who disagreed with him. By today’s standards he was deeply politically incorrect and had precious little time for rules and regulations.
In fact, in the modern bureaucratic world he would be the teaching establishment’s worst nightmare.
Yet he was a truly inspirational teacher who held his class in rapt attention. Because, above all, he had a complete passion not only for his subject but also for education. What was most important to him was his pupils’ intellectual grasp of English, and he was not afraid to tell his charges when they were failing to reach his high standards.
He would have been utterly dismayed by so much of today’s teaching orthodoxy of low expectations and equality of achievement, a culture in which no pupil can be seen to fail.
As I write this article, I hear him on my shoulder. Heavens, Aslet, do not be superficial. Remarks of this kind would be followed by the pop-eyed stare that was a stock-in-trade.
I’ve been remembering the stare, along with Frank’s other peccadilloes, because of a flurry of emails that have appeared on the internet between his old pupils. I don’t mean my contemporaries.
There have been emails from men who were taught by him in the Fifties, and from others who caught the last of his reign in the early Eighties.
Aside from his brilliance as a teacher, all of us dwell on the same things. The handkerchief produced for dramatic effect, before a flamboyant swipe of his nose. His spontaneous generosity: ‘Take mine,’ he once said to a boy who was without a writing implement, giving him a silver propelling pencil, adding, ‘You can keep that.’ He gave me the complete works of Chaucer.
Prestigious: King's College School in Wimbledon, where Mr Miles spent his entire teaching career
It wasn’t unknown for him to lend his car, a Rover, which was considered quite a racy vehicle at the time, to pupils who held driving licences.
That might appear reckless in the extreme, but to us it seemed to epitomise his cavalier contempt for ordinary rules. Frank was so furious at having to wear a seatbelt when the law requiring drivers to do so came in that he abandoned his car for a time.
All of Frank’s career was spent at KCS, as we called the school, and he lived next door to it in a handsome villa called Gothic Lodge.
The flat below his was occupied by Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, and we were all thrilled when a Gothic police box was erected outside the front door for security in those days when the IRA was a serious threat.
In 1981, the IRA succeeded in evading the policeman by going round the back. That evening, Frank went to bed early after, inevitably, a tiring marking session, and half an hour later a bomb went off. If he had still been sitting next to the window, marking, it would have taken his head off.
The next morning, his set were amazed to find that Frank was behind his desk as they filed into the classroom. From under the desk he produced a jeroboam of champagne, to toast his survival.
'While some words were expunged,
extraordinary words became embedded in our young lexicon. I shall never
forget Frank chalking onto the blackboard a construction that began with "eschatological"'
Typically, he wanted to enjoy this offering of thanks with his pupils, not his colleagues or friends.
As for Havers, he escaped unscathed because he was out, although he never enquired about the man who was nearly killed in his stead.
Once in a while, a gang of us would be invited to dinner. The meal and the wine would be sumptuous and some boys overindulged, with the usual consequences. I don’t think anyone was actually ill beside the antique mahogany furniture, but Frank would not have shown the least surprise.
He was a stoic, on whom the foibles of the world could have no effect. Of course, he was not without foibles himself. His mannerisms and language lent themselves so well to imitation that the image of boys pretending to be Frank is sometimes more vivid than the memory of Frank himself.
Oh dear, Frank would not have let me get away with the last sentence. The word ‘vivid’ was forbidden. I never entirely understood what he had against it; even so, it must have been 20 years before I dared to use it in print.
While some words were expunged, extraordinary words became embedded in our young lexicon. I shall never forget Frank chalking onto the blackboard a construction that began with ‘eschatological’ (it means, pertaining to the end of the world), which was not to be confused with ‘scatological’ (a preoccupation with filth), which meant the same as ‘coprological’ and ‘cloacal’, from cloaca... ‘the Latin for sewer, d’you see?’ he would say.
Other recruits to our vocabulary were contumacious (wilfully disobedient), banausic (utilitarian), excoriate (verbally flay), otiose (indolent or useless), nimiety (superfluity) and many more. There were some doubles, too, as in ‘egregious solecism’ (conspicuously bad mistake), and such florid language inevitably resulted in bouts of pretentiousness among his young students.
Schoolboy: Clive Aslet as a young man in 1977
One of Frank’s pupils, on a school exchange to the U.S., stayed in the house of a postman. When asked if the steak was cooked to his liking, he could not help saying that it satisfied his ‘atavistic propensities’ (primitive inclinations). I’m afraid we became like that. Some grew out of it.
There were more than half a dozen professors of English and several other university academics at his funeral. Their careers are, in part, a testament to their teacher. In the pub afterwards, we discussed — just as we might have done at school — the never-ending question: who was Frank?
He once told me how lucky I was to come from a loving family. He had not got on with his father. Other than that, his childhood — let alone his emotional life — was, to us, a complete blank.
Like Hector, a popular teacher played by Richard Griffiths in Alan Bennett’s play The History Boys, he lived for his pupils. If other relationships had once existed, nobody knew about them. Unlike Hector, he was not, as far as we could tell, homosexual.
Had there, in the past, been a grand amour that went wrong? A rumour, handed down through the years like a family heirloom, suggested that he had once had a nervous breakdown, as a novice in the classroom, because he couldn’t keep order. This idea, lthough current for decades, couldn’t have been true.
He had been a captain during the Second World War, and once remarked on a pillbox he had built on Leith Hill in Surrey; and he had served in India and Persia. Someone who was used to keeping squaddies in line would not have had a problem with small boys.
The war had broken out as he left school, and he went straight into the Army. After 1945 he experienced an intellectual awakening at Cambridge, where he studied under the austere and, to him, godlike literary critic F.R. Leavis.
These were the years of postwar reconstruction; a time for serious men who could rebuild the world as a better place. Leavis made the study of English literature serious; his method was detailed analysis of the texts.
He allowed few authors into the canon of literature he considered truly great, beyond half a dozen novelists, Shakespeare and the 17th-century metaphysical poets such as John Donne. Even John Milton was suspect, because his verse was considered too remote from the tone of the spoken voice.
Armed with Leavis’s formidable prejudices, Frank appeared at King’s College, Wimbledon — and never left.
I may have given the impression that the school was privileged. So it was. It was unashamedly academic. But while the parents of most boys had to pay fees, many did not.
Under a system similar to that of the direct grant grammar schools that the Labour government ended in 1976, a quarter of the places were filled by scholars funded by the local education authority.
Of course, in those days LEAs cared about bright pupils achieving at the highest level.
King’s was not, however, the superbly equipped powerhouse that, in line with other private schools, it has now become. Nor were the fees so astronomic.
Frank would have taught anyone who showed a spark of aptitude for his subject — as well as our top set, he taught the bottom set on principle, determined to raise standards. He was particularly pleased when a boy who had previously been written off could be raised to achieve spectacular results.
Although he despised snobbery and money, he could fairly be called an elitist — but only in the sense that he expected the best from every boy he taught, whatever their background or potential.
There were, of course, a few terrible teachers in those days. I remember hearing of boys lighting a fire during one lesson given by a hopeless alcoholic. I’m told that some cooked fish fingers over a Primus stove during another.
I was lucky to come under the eye of a classroom colossus. Sadly, Frank did not find relationships outside the classroom easy. He became a recluse in his last decade and died in a bare council flat.
And the tragedy is that I never told him how much he influenced my life — and that of so many others.
Clive Aslet is Editor at Large of Country Life.
Most watched News videos
- CCTV captures final tragic moments of Mirna Salihin's life
- Mother shaves daughters hair after she 'bullies cancer girl'
- GRAPHIC CONTENT: 'Ghost' rises from body after fatal crash
- Bulls head butt each other then die instantly from brutal blow
- Shocking moment girl gets viciously beaten after starting fight
- Mother releases devastating footage of son's final moments
- Lorry smashes into car leaving driver with severe injuries
- Is this the creepy moment the corpse of a girl OPENS her eyes?
- 'Big fat gypsy wedding' in Romania goes on for FOUR days
- Groom ALREADY tired of marriage life just after 15 minutes
- 'Pascal's a G!' Kim Kardashian speaks well of her bodyguard
- GoPro captures the moment a croc swims amongst swimmers
The comments below have been moderated in advance.
The views expressed in the contents above are those of our users and do not necessarily reflect the views of MailOnline.
We are no longer accepting comments on this article.