Holland Park: what's school got to do with it?: My friends all smoked Gitanes: Student - Seventies

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The Independent Online
Angel Bacon was at Holland Park from 1970 to 1975. She is a writer, illustrator and philosophy student.

ALL THAT freedom was wonderful, particularly when one's cousins were nose to the grindstone at private schools. But looking back I think it's appalling to be so streetwise and hardened at such a tender age, when you could have been reading Keats.

The teachers were heavily into the 'Red Flag'. All our history lessons were very one-sided - left wing with little room for anything else. Teachers would say things like 'Your grandfather would have given his eye teeth to be here'. It didn't wash with us because our grandparents had had very good public school educations, and the Shepherd's Bush crew thought it was a load of poncy nonsense.

I was an extremely good, pony-mad creature when I arrived. I had spent a year in a strict French school near St Tropez. My chums and I had come straight out of Beatrix Potter and Le Petit Prince and there we were in this terrifying place. We soon learnt to speak 'mockney' and get tough so we could defend ourselves.

We were called snobs and hippies. People were always saying they were going to get you, and they frequently did - several chums of mine were beaten up. There was a fair amount of resentment that we were different.

People fought because they were allowed to. I saw a guy jump on the headmaster's back once and get him in a half-nelson, and he wasn't even suspended. It made St Trinian's look like Lucie Clayton.

Everything was very democratic. The school council voted out uniforms. But that emphasised the barriers between us, because we had our own uniform of navy guernseys, 501s, and Anello & Davide bar shoes.

We thought we were so cool. We all smoked Gitanes or Disque Bleu - unlike the girls who hung out in the loo and wanted to kill you. They smoked Number 6 or Embassy, and tried to stub them out on one's neck.

By the time I went to the school I think my mother had realised that it wasn't too hot, but my brother and sister were there, and apparently I insisted on going. Having an older brother was useful, but he was sent to a private crammer a year later and my sister went to a college in the country.

My mother was active in the PTA. There were lots of women of similar ilk who really put themselves behind the school, but I think they were floored by the ethos that was coming from the head. Perhaps they didn't want to see what was going on, and we certainly didn't let them. We were all busy being tough and acting as if we didn't have parents at all.

I think our parents' generation felt slightly guilty about the privileges they'd had. There were some very woolly liberal ideas floating around. Holland Park was everybody's dream. But there were also lots of mothers who smelt the first joint, watched their children's IQ wane, and took them straight out. My two best friends were sent to boarding schools, and my father observed: 'State schools exist to make you all as thick as each other.'

I think the brighter children felt hard done by, ignored and, at best, used as guinea pigs. The attitude was: you sit quietly while we deal with everyone else. If you're stuck in a class full of slow learners and people who don't speak English, you get very impatient and eventually just switch off. In the search for equality, the teachers wanted us to take CSEs instead of O- levels. We knew they were rubbish so we just thought, what's the point of taking any exams?

It was the druggiest place on earth, but I think that was symptomatic rather than causal. People took drugs because they were so frustrated and the school offered no structure, discipline or skills to help them combat this frustration.

They say that if you can survive Holland Park, you can survive anything. But at what price? An unusually large number of my contemporaries have committed suicide, colloquially known as 'the Holland Park malaise'.

(Photograph omitted)