Primary colours: "Tosher" Oliver, a teacher at my primary school in Stockton-on-Tees, said that one day I would see my name in lights. I had a gift for composition, and I used to get my stories up on the wall with gold stars for all the parents to see. I saw that the way forward was
to get as many gold stars
Secondary characteristics: Of about 35 pupils in my class, only one, a pale, spidery boy called Williams, passed the 11-plus, or "the scholarship". The reason I failed was that I was no good at shapes, which the intelligence test involved. Words, I scored on.
I went to Stockton-on-Tees Grammar School as a fee-paying pupil; you could buy your way in. Fee payers began in the B class and I became an A in the fifth form. I did very well at school certificate (GCSE), with five distinctions and four credits. When the headmaster asked us what we wanted to be, I couldn't possibly say I wanted to be a writer, not in Stockton-on-Tees at that time, so I said "Journalist", because that was living by the pen. He nodded sagely.
I was very fond of tennis. The great advantage was that you could play with girls. The great courtship place was the Saturday-night public dance. You could go up to any girl and ask her to dance and then ask if you could take her home. The noise, the saxophone, the reek of perfume from the girls and beer and cigarettes: at 70 I'm getting quite excited just to think of it!
In the sixth form, I did arts, English literature, French, history and Latin as a subsidiary subject.
I did really very well; it was my intellectual peak, and I've been declining ever since. I got As and a state scholarship. I left school in clouds of glory. There was a place offered at Oxford that depended on postponing it for two years and doing National Service first, but my father advised me that I should go straight to university. At the time that was a cause of regret, but it doesn't bother me now. Oxford would then have been Brideshead- y, but I wasn't a Brideshead-y person - I was a provincial.
University challenge: Manchester was a bit of a disappointment. I didn't make the transition very well from sixth form to university. I was rebellious; I didn't much like the way we were taught. I didn't set fire to the buildings or anything, but I was shy and reticent and so I didn't find it easy to take part in seminars.
I wanted to have gold stars on the walls.
I started writing poems, which I think even at the time I knew were bad, and short stories, which were very derivative. I came across A Curtain of Green by Eudora Welty, a wonderful collection of short stories about the American Deep South. I became fascinated by the Southern United States and tried to write stories which were half Mississippi and half Stockton-on-Tees.
I got a lower Second: I didn't even have the distinction of getting a Third. I was desperately anxious to avoid the Army, which was waiting for me, so I badgered the head of department to let me do another degree. He was exasperated. He said: "Go forth and teach" - the assumption being that I was not much good for anything else. Ironically enough, Manchester University has given me an honorary degree.
Although I was not very distinguished as an undergraduate, there I was in cap and gown.Reuse content