As the dark clouds of the world's economy and global climate change cast their gathering gloom over today's young people, most of whom recognise the mess that is their inheritance from us, I look back to those austere years of my childhood and think how fortunate was my generation. In contrast to today's generation, ours started with the awfulness of the war and the post-war shortages – general deprivation – but received the benefits of the welfare state and saw a steady improvement in the well-being of the population, most especially of women. And I was especially fortunate in a way that many people would understand but rarely acknowledge in public: I had two inspirational teachers.
I'm afraid I know little of Dennis Curry. I don't know what his qualifications were. He arrived at my school in 1947 when I was nine to teach Latin and English. It was a boarding school, a bit of a dump which taught by rote and threats of the cane, and he transformed it. His skin resembled leather and was stretched tightly across his skeleton, as he had just come out of the 8th Army and had spent the war fighting across the deserts of North Africa.
He immediately set to work, arranging to rent a field which with our help he transformed into a games pitch, cricket in the summer (this was Yorkshire), rugby after Christmas and football in the autumn. We erected posts that could be changed from rugby to football by moving the crossbar and we helped him pull the heavy roller in the summer to provide a wicket in the middle. He taught us the skill of re-turfing. He started a scout troop that worked on military lines and awarded no badges but was great fun, taking us camping at weekends and teaching us to use a compass, read maps and light a fire.
But what he did most effectively was teach. Every time I sit down to write (and that has been on most days of my subsequent life), I remember his instruction. Every time I try to read the Latin inscriptions on mediaeval tombs or Roman ruins, I think of him. If you, reading this, find errors of grammar or infelicities of style, I shall have embarrassed his shade.
Harry Edwards was completely different. I encountered him later, aged 13, as my biology teacher and he introduced us to Darwin. He didn't seem to be a bundle of energy but his lessons were always meticulously prepared and he was a humorous, kindly and likeable man. We began to understand the beauty of evolution and were equipped with a means of trying to understand life itself. We learnt in field trips to discover things for ourselves.
As my chosen profession was to be medicine, this method has regularly helped me to address and sometimes answer questions about the relationships of our health to the environment we live in and to changes in that environment. It led me to understand that we are but one species on this planet, in competition with many other organisms and dependent on a fragile adaptation. Harry Edwards has accompanied me in my thinking all my life.
Between them, these two teachers have been the guiding light to my life's research and have given me the tools to communicate it to others. In the later part of my career, a school friend who had achieved eminence in the arts and I, in discussing our influences, recalled with regret that we had never contacted our teachers to express our gratitude. Alas, when we finally tried to find them it was too late – both had died.
Teachers are too often taken for granted by their pupils. So often they are undervalued by government. But they remain a most important part of all of us and should be celebrated. This is my shamefully 70-year delayed tribute to two of mine.