Education: Passed/Failed Margaret Forster

Margaret Forster, 60, is the author of many novels, including Georgy Girl and Lady's Maid, as well as biographies of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Daphne du Maurier. Her next novel, The Memory Box, is to be published in June
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The Independent Online
Dead writers' society: Ashley Street Infants was one of the poorest schools in Carlisle. It was a typical Victorian-built school, with 46 in each class and very few amenities. I was madly over-stimulated at school because I was too eager to learn. To prove that there was no school on Saturdays or Sundays, I had to be taken down to Ashley Street and shown the locked doors. My arm used to ache from having it bolt upright all the time: what a pain! I was a bookish child in a non-bookish family. I had a very good teacher, Mrs Crabtree, who used to hand me back my compositions and say: "You'll be a writer one day." This puzzled me because I thought writers were all dead: Austen, Bronte, Dickens...

Hey Mr Postman! Very few of the pupils at Ashley Street passed the 11- plus. You got the results by post. I saw the postman put something through the Gillespies' door on the other side of the road. Moments later Mrs Gillespie shouted, "Colin's passed for the grammar school!" The postman walked straight past my door. My mother said: "Just go to school. It can't be helped." I nearly got run down by a milk float. Then my mother caught up with me and shoved a brown envelope into my hand. "The postman came back. You've passed for the high school."

Hot swot: I loved high school even more than Ashley Street. Holidays were purgatory. I was a truculent and aggressive pupil in class but still mad keen to learn. I didn't mind being called a swot. It took me three years to catch up with the girls who had been to the posh primary school, but I did well in O-levels. I passed eight O-levels with good grades - but I failed Latin. I re-sat that O-level, and then the teacher said I had to do it at A-level because Latin went with English and History. I learnt the set books from cover to cover. The pass mark was 45 per cent; I got 45 per cent, which looked disgraceful compared to my marks in English (90 per cent) and History (95 per cent).

Stop Hunter now! There was lots of drama: ghastly things like Milton's Comus. I was Everyman in Everyman; the best thing about it was that I was dressed in 10 yards of crimson velvet. Hunter [Hunter Davies, her husband, the author, journalist and Independent columnist] came with his school to sit in the back and laugh. I had him pointed out to me when he came to play our school at hockey; he was supposed to be mad, bad and dangerous to know.

Principal attraction: I was summoned for interview at both Oxford and Cambridge; I'd never been further south than Nottingham. Girton was so ugly. Somerville was much better. The Principal, Janet Vaughan, asked me what I thought I might do after university. I said I wanted to write biographies; I mentioned Christabel Pankhurst - although I never did do the Pankhursts because they were so well covered. Somerville offered a history scholarship.

End of history: History to me was the World Wars but when I got to Oxford I found that history stopped, apart from one paper, somewhere around the Tudors. It did me a lot of good, though; it pruned my language and style. My tutor made me write essays in which I was not allowed to use an adjective or an adverb. I got what was called a "good second". After finishing the last exam, I whipped out and into the register office in St Giles. Parents were so dreadfully embarrassed if one wasn't married.

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