Education: They said I was useless, but look at me now: My essays were a write-off; today I'm a writer

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The Independent Online
MARTINA COLE, 33, received a pounds 150,000 advance for her first novel, 'Dangerous Lady', a story about a working-class woman who gets mixed up in crime in the East End of London. She comes from a working-class background and her work owes more to her natural Irish-Cockney blarney than a formal education.

I LOVED primary and junior school, but as soon as I went to secondary school I just rebelled and went downhill. I simply hated it and played truant all the time.

I just found school really boring. No matter how good you were in some subjects, you were still put down for the things you were bad at.

The only thing I loved was reading: I read the whole of The Godfather at the age of 12 in one go. But the school didn't approve. They kept on catching me with 'unsuitable' books like The Carpetbaggers or Jackie Collins novels.

One of my school reports said I had outstanding ability in English, but I still got low marks for essays. 'You won't amount to anything, Martina Cole,' said the teachers. 'You'll spend all your life just getting by on a laugh.' Which is exactly what I have done.

So I left school at 15 (which was illegal) with no qualifications, got pregnant at 18 and went from job to job, working in supermarkets, offices and as a nursing auxiliary.

I would often daydream about being a successful writer and was forever scribbling Mills & Boon stories down in exercise books. But my friends said: 'Working- class people like us don't do things like that. We don't write books.'

Then one day I jacked in my job, bought an electric typewriter with my tax rebate, said to my husband: 'I'll give it a year,' and set to work on my first novel, which is partly based on my experiences of East End life. I finally sent off the manuscript to an agent, sat back and waited.

When he rang me up and said, 'Martina - you're going to be a star,' I thought he was drunk. And then when he told me that he'd put it up for auction with several publishers and managed to sell it for pounds 150,000, I just couldn't believe it.

I sometimes think that writing talent is innate, although there is a knack to it as well. I had an Irish ancestor called John the Pen, so perhaps it comes from him. My father, who was a seaman, was always writing me long letters which were more like sagas from faraway places like Rio.

I have to admit that I don't have to work at writing: the words seem to flow out of me. Most writers I know are incessant chatterers - and I tend to write as I speak.

I am sometimes aware of my lack of knowledge of grammar and vocabulary. When I told my agent I was thinking of doing a creative writing course, he said: 'Don't you dare. We can sort out the grammar. Don't ruin what you've got.'

(Photograph omitted)

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