A writer’s confession


NOBODY IS PERFECT, not even yours truly.

I was a pupil at London’s Highgate School when I was studying to take state examination, then known as ‘O Levels, taken by 16 year olds. I was studying for 9 subjects, but decided to drop one of them, German. Its grammar was beginning to defeat me and to jeopardize my chances of success in the other 8 subjects.

German was not the only language that was causing me trouble as I approached the O Level exams. Unknown to me and possibly unnoticed by our English teacher, Mr B, my command of written English was insufficient for me to pass the English Language O Level exam. It was the only O Level that I failed. I passed the other subjects, but without displaying much academic excellence.

My failure to achieve the pass marks in English Language cannot be blamed on anyone except me, but there were factors that predisposed me to downfall.

During the examination, I attempted an essay that asked the candidate to discuss whether or not it was fair that pop musicians often earned more than nurses. Being by nature somewhat contrarian, I decided to write an essay in defence of the high remuneration of pop musicians. This idea, to which I no longer subscribe, expressed with poor grammar and spelling, cannot have made the person marking my paper feel sympathetic to me.

The other predisposing factor was our teacher Mr B. He was far more interested in using class time analyzing the poetry of Ted Hughes and Philip Larkin than ensuring that all of his charges were proficient in basic skills such as grammar and essay writing.

Failing English Language did not prevent or delay my commencing the subjects in which I was to prepare for the A Level examinations that were required for admission to university.

One of my three A Level subjects was biology. The senior biology teacher was Mr S, affectionately known by his first name George. He set us three essays per week. On Saturday mornings, we had a double-length period (one and a half hours) with him. During this, he went through our essays, pointing out their good points and bad ones. The essays of one student, ‘P’ were particularly dreadful. His spelling was awful as was his punctuation: there was none except a full stop at the end of each foolscap page. And, to my annoyance and surprise, P passed English Language O Level at the same time as I failed.

Six months after failing my English Language O Level, I took the exam again. I passed with a good grade. I believe that I had learnt a great deal about essay writing from George’s Saturday essay critiquing sessions. I shall always be grateful to him.

On Saturday mornings, parents thinking of sending their sons to Highgate were shown around the school. The biology laboratory, where the essay classes were held, was on the tour. George, who was a genial old fellow, allowed us to relax during the Saturday morning classes. However, he always told us that if we heard the door to the laboratory being opened, we were all to act as uf we were concentrating on something serious while the parents peered in.

On Friday afternoons, we had a three hour practical class during which, for example, we dissected the parts of dogfish not required by fishmongers. Friday lunchtimes found George drinking in one of Highgate Village’s numerous quant pubs.

George used to arrive at the Friday afternoon practical classes having drunk far too much. For the first hour of the class, he was a menace, arguing with anyone unwise enough to approach him. After about an hour, he used to sit down and fall asleep. The last two hours of the class were supervised superbly by George’s deputy, Mr Coombs.

George was a wonderful teacher. He inspired his pupils’ enthusiasm for biology. Like my PhD supervisor, Robert Harkness, his range of interest extended from microscopic intracellular detail to the whole organism. Once, when walking to the Dining Hall with George, he stooped down and picked up a fallen tree leaf. He asked us what kind of tree had produced it. None of us knew. He said:

“That’s the trouble with you youngsters. You know all about DNA, but you cannot recognise a leaf from a plane tree.”

George was, as far as we knew, probably celibate. When we reached the part of the biology syllabus that dealt with human reproduction, he told us:

“You know all about this. You can read up the details in the book.”

I have wandered from my starting topic somewhat. Maybe, you were beginning to believe that I was trying to distract you from my sad performance in English and from thinking that, given my record, I have great ‘chutzpah’ writing and publishing books.

Picture shows coat of arms of Highgate School, founded in 1565

Teach yourself anatomy

Dr Thomas A Quilliam, who died in 2008, taught me general human anatomy during my first year as a dental student at University College London (‘UCL’). His teaching method was quite unlike anything I had encountered before.


At our first meeting with him, Quilliam told us that as he was lazy, he preferred the students to give the lectures whilst he sat and listened at the back of the lecture theatre. He was not kidding, because this is exactly what happened.

We had anatomy ‘lectures’ five days a week and did dissections of a human cadaver on several afternoons. Each week, several students were assigned particular topics chosen from the syllabus. Each student was required to compose a twenty-minute talk on his or her topic, as well as designing simple diagrams, which could be drawn quickly on examination scripts, to illustrate it. For example, I can remember being asked to talk about the lymphatic drainage of the mammary glands. You might well wonder whether this was ever any use during my 35 years in dental practice. I am not sure that it was.

At each class in the lecture theatre, three students gave their presentations. Before that, Quilliam would treat us to short extracts from (usually) American medical education films. I can remember one with the thrilling title “The surgical anatomy of the kidney”. We would watch the first few minutes, before Quilliam switched off the projector. Then, each of the three students who had prepared for that day, gave their presentations. Most students, even the shyest in the class, did a good job, and made useful drawings and diagrams. Some enterprising students even prepared informative models of the anatomical structure they were describing. Every now and then, Quilliam, who sat at the back of the banked seats in the lecture theatre, used to ask a question to clarify what the speaker was saying. If the student answered “maybe” or “perhaps”, Quilliam would say: “That’s a typical University College answer.” Actually, it was. When I was studying physiology at UCL, we were taught to question everything and be reserved about stating that something was a certain fact.


There were 50 students in my year. In all, we must have had at least 150 hours of ‘lecture’ sessions. As three students gave talks each session, this meant that everyone on the course had to prepare about nine topics from the syllabus. This ensured that everyone was likely to encounter at least one of his or her own topics in the final written or viva-voce examination.

You might be thinking that Quilliam really was a bit lazy, but you would be wrong. What his method achieved was very clever, and an important preparation for the clinical environment. Not only did his method avoid hours of having to listen to the same person giving the same lectures that he might have given year after year, but it also taught us to communicate ideas. Quilliam’s method of making us, the students, give presentations was a good training in the art of presenting unfamiliar topics clearly and comprehensibly. In dentistry, especially nowadays (and even when I entered practice), patients like to be kept informed about the nature of their problems and how they can be resolved.