The Worst of Times I've been an outsider since the 11-plus: John Godber talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
I failed my 11-plus, which was quite a shock as there were only two out of a class of 22 who failed. Everyone had expected me to pass, because my mother made me go to bed early, and that was seen as an indication I must be brainy. There was a massive stigma attached to failing your 11-plus, and I remember people being fascinated to discover somebody who had failed, it was like a Martian had landed.

I'd had no preparation for the 11-plus, all I knew was you went into a room and took an exam, and if you passed it, you went to the grammar school and got a uniform, and could have a good job later on, and if you didn't pass it, you went to Upton Secondary Modern School.

So anyway, the 11-plus day came, it was a steaming hot afternoon, absolutely boiling. We went into the school hall and sat down for three hours, and answered these questions. I'd never sat down for three hours before.

There's only one question I remember: 'What does 'quenched' mean?'

Now here I am, 11 years old, my dad works at a pit, my mother is a housewife: we had never, ever used the word quenched in our natural conversation. I had never read a book containing the word 'quenched', I had never seen a film with the word 'quenched' in it, I didn't know what it was. 'Quenched'? 'Quenched'? - it could have been a three-headed monster.

I wanted to play football for Leeds when I was 11, I wasn't interested in anything else; I wanted to be Gary Sprake, the Leeds goalkeeper, and every night I went to bed with my Leeds scarf around my neck.

After about two months, the results came out. A letter dropped through the door. I can still remember my parents reading it and being completely destroyed that I hadn't got into grammar school. My dad lost his temper with frustration and disappointment, and he began shaking me.

The other kids on our estate now had racing bikes, because for some bizarre reason, if you passed your 11-plus, you got a racing bike.

Naturally, I didn't get a racing bike, and I went to the comprehensive, which was really grim. Upton Secondary Modern School. It was secondary, and not very modern, about 500 yards from our house.

Upton was a mining village, half a mile from the pit, and, of course, most of the lads from the secondary modern went down the pit.

The other boys, the ones who had passed the 11-plus, went to Pontefract Grammar School. Pontefract is only five miles from Upton, but it was an enormous distance; Pontefract was posh, doctors lived in Pontefract, people from Pontefract went to Oxbridge.

Every so often, I'd see the boys of my class who had got into the grammar school, and suddenly I realised they were in a different league. Pontefract was the school to go to, it was in nice grounds, they had a proper rugby team, and they played rugby union, while we played rugby league. They wore a dark- blue and grey uniform - we didn't have a uniform at Upton Secondary Modern. I sort of yearned for the grammar-school trappings, and yet I despised them at the same time.

Later, I went to train as a teacher, and these grammar-school guys were doing degrees in economics, and science, and so they would continue making you feel small, insecure . . .

The only good thing I can say about the 11-plus is I did a degree, and then I did a Master's degree, and I did a five- year PhD, and then I was given an honorary PhD. I don't think I would have sought all that so much if I'd passed my bloody 11-plus.

I'm actually still coming to terms with it now, and even though I've got accolades and degrees and awards for my work, quite honestly, I still feel I'm on the outside of the theatre fraternity, I don't belong to it at all. And I know it was the 11-plus which helped me feel like an outsider.

John Godber's latest play, 'April in Paris', a comedy, at the Ambassadors Theatre, has been nominated for the Olivier Award.

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