Journalism

My Mentor: Autobiographical
Essays for Vanity Fair

By Anne Sebba

Contributors: Diane Abbott, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, William Boyd, Shami Chakrabarti, Robert Hughes, Philip Pullman, Anne Sebba, Nicholas Shakespeare,Charles Spencer, by Anne Sebba

Psychiatrists will tell you that failing an exam is one of the most likely causes of a recurrent nightmare. I did not fail, thanks to the calm and thoughtful treatment of one of my tutors. But still, from time to time, I sleepily relive one awful June morning during my BA finals in 1972. What I learned that day was worth much more than getting a first. My tutor, my wise and trusted counsellor, taught me that difficulties in life are best confronted. I owe him more than this short tribute.

Professor Douglas Johnson, approaching fifty when he taught me French history at UCL, was probably already balding but as he wore a jaunty French beret I never noticed. He was so authentically French in every fibre that in my nightmares he smokes Gauloises. But I have probably invented that. In fact, he was thoroughly English but his wife is French and he was as good as.

The story of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish army officer wrongly sentenced to penal servitude on Devil’s Island in 1894, was one of his many specialties and he brought that grisly episode alive in a way that should become a master class for other teachers. Waiting until his handful of students were settled in a semi circle in his small room, he would take a piece of paper from his desk, scrunch it up and dramatically hurl it into the wastepaper bin. Slowly he retrieved it, carefully unfolded it and calmly explained why one should always be more careful in disposing of incriminating pieces of paper. For this was the beginning of the unravelling of the Dreyfus scandal, which tore France apart with devastating consequences.

On another occasion he would lie on his study floor, act as if he had been attacked by an angry mob, and describe what it must have felt like for the French socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum, a man of culture and refinement, to be set upon on his way home from the opera dressed in a white dinner jacket, now blood spattered. No wonder Blum was denounced as not being a man of the people, enabling right wing thinkers to declare he had lost control; if he was allowed to continue in office this would mean the reign of the Jew in France.

With such dramatic actions as these (sadly performed for me only once a week) I understood why history mattered. I immediately bought Douglas Johnson’s textbook on France, the first book I had bought myself by an author whom I knew. I have it by my elbow, now, as I write this, heavily annotated as I was preparing for my finals and was determined to impress Professor Johnson with how carefully I had absorbed everything he had taught us.

London University then (and for all I know still today) had a system of giving students the summer term off. For revision. On the first day of term we all rushed in to copy down our exam time table – when were the special papers, the optional papers, the dreaded medieval history (compulsory) and the wonderful modern history papers – and then rushed off home. Some to revise, some to have fun. All to meet again in the Senate House, which served as the examination room for most London University students. The first few exams whizzed by in a haze of pleasure. I had swotted well and was thrilled to show off my knowledge.

But then came the important exam, the one that Douglas Johnson had set based on our “special subject.” As I queued up outside, ready to burst in and scribble away, I discovered from the others’ chit chat, that it was a different subject we were being tested on that day. One I had not revised for.

I was devastated. My mind emptied, only to be blocked up with a grey haze of nothingness. Water soon seeped into the sockets behind my eyes – from where? My heart bumped against my chest, I could hardly breathe and my face reddened. I was experiencing, aged twenty, the sort of extreme stress I have since learnt gives middle aged or obese men heart attacks. I ran back along the corridor where hundreds of students were noisily queuing, downstairs and out into Bloomsbury. I dashed along Malet Street, crossed Torrington Place into Gordon Square desperate to find Douglas Johnson yet with no clear idea of what I should say. Breathless, I banged on the door of the room where I had learnt so much. He was in the middle of preparing a book review but opened it quickly. I fainted into his waiting arms.

Immediately his secretary appeared on the scene… a scene which today would all too easily be misinterpreted, and asked him if he needed any help. I rapidly recounted my foolish story. I had prepared for the wrong exam and what could he do to help me?

Nothing, of course. And yet he could. As he sat me down and gave me water – the easy part – he explained that if I did not enter a name and some sort of answers on the exam sheet I would get no marks. But, although I would never be able to do well in this paper, I could get some marks if I went back and did the best I could in the time remaining. To make sure I did not run away again, from this exam or from anything else in life, he walked with me and explained to the invigilator why I was arriving late.

I answered, poorly, two out of four questions. Strangely, the exam itself I can barely recall but the image of my immature self panting, breathless and terrified running through Bloomsbury and Douglas Johnson’s calm, quiet response I can conjure up instantly.

I knew then I wanted to be a historian if that was what gave one a perspective on life. What’s more, I wanted my first book to be a biography of this misunderstood man, Leon Blum. It was not long before I had a chance to propose it to a publisher. I have never seen the colour drain from a man’s face so quickly as it did on this occasion.
“Leon who?” he shuddered.
“Err, I don’t think so.”
That book remains unwritten. But Douglas Johnson remained a friend and advisor until his untimely death two years ago.

Anne Sebba scraped through her finals with a BA (hons) 2:1, she then joined Reuters as the first woman graduate trainee and Anne Sebba is the author of Jennie Churchill : Winston’s American Mother (John Murray, £25) in September 2007