I didn’t have a happy time at Sloane Grammar School for Boys although it’s situation on the Kings Road, Chelsea in the swinging 60s was ideal for a music mad kid like me. I entered my teens hanging around ‘The World’s End’ pub in school lunch breaks in the hope of seeing one of the Rolling Stones who, we were told (wrongly) drank there. All good fun but I never did much school work, hated Latin and dreaded the long trek from London W10 to SW6 every morning.
Then, when I was 14, a new English teacher arrived at Sloane. Mr Carlen had a mellifluous voice and an authoritative presence in class which meant he never had to use the cane that every teacher was licensed to beat us with. Nobody misbehaved in Mr Carlen’s classes. He took an interest in my reading and, more importantly, my writing, encouraging me to send my silly detective stories off for publication. He gave me a dog-eared copy of the ‘Artists and Writers Yearbook’ which had the address of every UK publication no matter how obscure and off my stories of Inspector Andrews and Mr Midnight would go. When I received the inevitable rejection slips, Mr Carlen would tell me that every great writer could paper their walls with them.
“Don’t give up,” he urged and 56 years later I dedicated my first thriller, ‘The Late Train to Gipsy Hill’ to him. The wonderful thing is that Mr Carlen is still around to mark my homework. A nonagenarian living in Bath with his wife, Pat, he went on to have a long and successful career as a head teacher at several London comprehensives.
Although he was only my teacher for that final year at Sloane, (I left aged 15 as one could do at the time), he continued to contribute to my education.
Mr Carlen used to provide all his pupils with a list of thirty books they ought to read over their lifetime. It’s an exclusively masculine list of writers but the school was a very masculine place. Thanks to Ladbroke Grove Library, I’d read all thirty books by the time I turned twenty. I list the titles here so that others can benefit from the wisdom of a great teacher.
- Rogue Mail and A Rough Shoot by Geoffrey Household
- David Copperfield and Bleak House by Charles Dickens
- No Highway and A Town Like Alice by Neville Shute
- Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
- The Card and The Old Wives Tale by Arnold Bennett
- Lord of the Flies by William Golding
- The Moonstone and The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
- Animal Farm and 984 by George Orwell
- The Kraken Wakes and The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham
- Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
- A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
- Whiskey Galore and Carnival by Compton
- Mackenzie Germinal by Emile Zola
- The Man Who Was Thursday by GK Chesterton
- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
- The Four Just Men by Edgar Wallace
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
- The Hound of the Baskervilles by Dr Arthur Conan Doyle
- Beau Geste by PC Wren King
- Solomon’s Mines by Rider Haggard
- The Time Machine and War of the Worlds by HG Wells