I never sat my 11-plus. On the day of the test, I wandered around the hills near the golf club above my home town of Mirfield in West Yorkshire. I ate my lunch sitting against a dry stone wall, looking down on the town, where I could see my school pals in the playground during a break in the exams. I doubt if I would have passed, anyway. And, frankly, I just didn't see myself as a grammar-school boy.
Had I sat that test, I might never have met Cecil Dormand, a teacher at the secondary modern where I ended up, who would change my life when I was 12, by putting Shakespeare into my hands for the very first time. It was The Merchant of Venice. He gave copies to most of us and told us to look up Act 4 Scene 1 (or the famous trial scene, as I was to learn). He cast all the speaking roles and told us to start reading. We all did, but silently. "No, no, you idiots, not to yourselves!" he yelled. "Out loud! This is a play, not a poem. It's life. It's real."
The first words – "I have possessed your grace of what I purpose" – was the first line of Shakespeare I ever read. I barely understood a word, but I loved the feel of the words and sounds in my mouth. A 400-year-old writer reached out a hand in invitation to me that morning. I felt a sense of an internal, private me being released and connecting with something mysterious, alien and exciting. I was hooked.
"Cec", as we called him, was my form master and my English teacher. I liked him at once, as did most of the children he taught. His style was very relaxed, funny and provocative, but when it came to teaching he was articulate, interesting, engaging and, most of all, passionate.
I suspect Cec had already intuited that I loved to escape into the world of fiction and out of my dull, uncomfortable and sometimes scary home life, living with an abusive father. But he made literature and language feel like a part of our lives, too.