Private pains


The one thing in my life which I’m most ashamed of is that I was partly privately educated. This has caused me to regularly lie by omission, to present misleading CVs and to pretend that I’m like other people, even though, statistically, I’m not.

My father, a not very successful solicitor, would have been happy to send me to a good state school but that wasn’t an option for me in the days before comprehensive education, which, despite being an obviously good idea, somehow got trashed during the Thatcher/Blair years.

So to get a place at a grammar school, I would have had to have passed an 11-plus exam testing me in maths, a body of knowledge which I’ve yet to master, or even to nibble at, despite carrying a bus pass. The alternative would have been to go to a secondary modern school designed to prepare pupils for a life in factories or other workplaces from the olden days.

The highest point you might hope to reach was a job in ‘the office’. This mostly meant excelling in a lost art called technical drawing, which was very soon replaced by the use of primitive computers and which I wouldn’t have been able to do anyway because angles and set-squares make me weep.

So I was sent to a dreadful boarding school in Wales, where I wept quietly most nights while creating elaborate fantasies centred around escape or suicide. It was character-building, although not in a useful way.

The school (called Ruthin in what was then Denbighshire) was about as cheap as a boarding school could be and mostly patronised by the parents of 11-plus failures. Academically, it was remedial and it failed to instil the public-school spirit, along with the public-school accent, so thoroughly that I emerged from it as a quivering left-wing wreck showing no evidence of having had a privileged education.

On my last day at the school, I refused to buy an Old Ruthinians tie, even though my best friend there, as disenchanted as me, said there was no point at all in going through all that misery unless you had an Old School Tie to wave in people’s faces at the end of it.

I moved on to enter the sixth form of my local, free council grammar school , Queen Elizabeth’s in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, having passed six O-levels at average grades, to the amazement of my Ruthin schoolmasters (and they were all masters, which probably contributed to the school’s low-level whiff of paedophilia and occasional arrests).

Six O-levels was almost genius-level by Ruthin standards; I was the only pupil to pass two science subjects (biology and chemistry) and no one at all managed to pass physics because the teacher, the only one in the school to hold the title ‘doctor’, was mercilessly bullied for being clever, and therefore contravening Ruthin’s ethos . He was undergoing a slow mental breakdown and if I could do some time-travelling and meet him then as I am now, I would put an arm round his shoulder and say sorry for the bullying and he should get the hell out of the place.

Queen Elizabeth’s was not a brilliant school either, but I enjoyed it and if I can summon up any school-days nostalgia (which I can’t, much), it would be for the sixth-form camaraderie of the common room, where we would listen to pre-Python Radio 4 comedies and think ourselves very sophisticated; the breaks spent smoking outside the shop across the road, where nobody asked us our ages and we could buy in packets of five, and the local pub, which we used to visit in school uniform for lunchtime beer and bacon sandwiches.

There were also, which came as a jolt to me, girls across the fence at the neighbouring high school. Sometimes sixth-formers from both schools would have joint debates and I was amazed to find that girls were not as terrifying as I thought they might be. Through life, I’ve qualified that a bit.

I was probably, as a solicitor’s son, the poshest boy in school, Gainsborough then being a working-class industrial town, though the working and the industry collapsed soon afterwards. Nobody went, or expected to go, to Oxbridge and the concept of taking more than three A-levels, let alone getting them at A-star level, was unknown.

My sixth-form friends lived mostly in council houses (or in one case a pre-fab) and they used their education-time to enjoy and explore their lives, which, without any exception I know of, went on to be useful and productive. You wonder what might have happened had Ofsted intervened.


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