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Ferdinand Mount

John le Carré taught me German

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Before John le Carré became a spy, then a novelist, he was my German teacher at Eton, says Ferdinand Mount in The Oldie. David Cornwell – or Corns, as we called him – was barely 25 and innocuous-looking, “with a mop of corn-coloured hair and a soft, hesitant, slightly insinuating voice as though he means you to read between the lines of what he is saying”.

The sixth-form German class was notoriously tough: the previous incumbent “retired hurt to go and teach in a girl’s school”. But from the start Cornwell was in control, switching on charm or menace at will. “When the yobs at the back start to make trouble, he delivers merciless and exact parodies of their arrogant, languid voices.” His end-of-term reports could be scathing.

We struck up a friendship – dinners after school with his wife, rambling conversations about Goethe, debates about Eton’s funny hierarchies and uniform rules. I’m not sure why he liked me. Maybe because I was quite good at German. Maybe because my mother had died over the summer holidays and I looked glum. “Looking back, I sometimes wonder why he was just about the only person who could get through to me in my frozen misery, when his own mother had disappeared from his life when he was five years old. But perhaps that was why.”

Cornwell left Eton only a term or two after I did. He was going to join the Foreign Office, but somehow word got round that there was more to it. “Corns is going to be a spy,” everyone said. “Waste of a good teacher, I think.”