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Penny Smith's Mentors

Friday, September 05, 2008
Category: Guardian
Penny Smith owes her love of words and rhetoric to two erudite women
There have been two people in my life who have had a great influence on me despite the fact that I’ve only met one of them. The first is Miss Judd who was my English teacher when I was about 15 years old and she was just one of those fantastic teachers you remember for the rest of your life. She used to have an open house for any students who wanted to drop by and talk to her about the book they were reading and so quite regularly I would trot off to her house with a couple of friends and we would sit and talk about books for hours .It was so refreshing to read for pleasure and it was from her that I learned that you could hold a view about something, an opinion and then expand on it and that it was even in fact quite all right once you had explored something a bit further to change your mind about it. Until then in typical teenage fashion, I thought changing your mind was a sign of weakness. 
She was young enough not to seem like other teachers or at least I would never have gone to another teacher’s house, but she was so enthusiastic about her subject and that rubbed off on her pupils. She had a great joy of language and thrilled in using words that weren’t everyday words and then encouraged us to look them up. I didn’t keep in touch with her at all -when I left home I didn’t go back to Rutland for the best part of 20 years but she was a very influential part of my life I don’t think I’d have been a journalist had I not met her because I wouldn’t have had the courage of my convictions and to instil that kind of confidence in another person is such a great thing to do.
Around about this time I discovered the journalist Katharine Whitehorn’s column in The Sunday Observer and I don’t think thereafter I missed one of them. She was and still is the most superb writer. In the same way that Miss Judd could, I would hold a categorical opinion on something and then read her column and think; ‘oh’ and instantly I could see the logic of what she was saying. She was so clever and always had a different take on things that was what she was so brilliant at. I don’t remember reading an article and not being swayed by what she said and even if I agreed with her from the outset, she expanded the ideas I held and made me think more deeply about it, added a new perspective. I always wanted to write like that but of course have failed miserably. 
I read the column avidly and often would save it until quite late on a Sunday before reading it and when I finished it I would sit for a couple of minutes thinking about what she’d written , my determination to become a journalist stronger. In those days of course I didn’t realise there was a hierarchy in newspapers, I thought you went along and sort of said to the editor, ‘I don’t want to be involved with any story that involves death or human suffering, but could I write a weekly column that gives people the benefit of my sagacity.’ Of course nothing like that happened and when I became a cub reporter I was in state of shock for quite a while.
Recently when reading her autobiography I was reminded all over again of her great wisdom and turn of phrase; I was taken back in time and I cried at the end and was just in awe of her all over again- I’ve never met her but would love to tell her that without knowing it, she played a crucial part in my career choice.
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