Education: passed/failed Melvyn Bragg
Thursday 04 December 1997
New Boy? It was a spanking new school built in 1938 - called The New School. My mother took me there the first day; I told her that I didn't want her near the place after that. Here was this four-year-old walking three-quarters of a mile through the back alleys of Wigton, pottering around near the rivers. These days we'd have been reported to the police.
Toy Boy? I was absolutely knocked out by the toys in the first-year classroom. I'd never seen anything like the rocking horse. When they cut the grass, we piled it over the bushes and made massive caves. There was an awful lot of learning by rote, with the sort of education you could have got from a Victorian "Board" school in 1846. We used to sing our times tables and I've been very sound on elementary - but only elementary - maths ever since. Two years before 11-plus, I went to what we called The National School, which was really grim - just yards, not a blade of grass. My knees were skinned all year.
Homework Shy? At Nelson Thomlinson Grammar School I was absolutely affronted at having to do homework. I used to do it on the way to school, copied off other people. I did History, English and Latin A Levels. I got interested in work then; the teachers were very good. I played a lot of rugby and was in the first team with several schoolboy internationals; they played the game and you tagged along in their slipstream. I was rather baffled when we played against public schools. I thought, "I'm glad I'm going back to Wigton tonight and not staying in this terrible dormitory," although they had a certain glamour from school stories.
Battle Over Hastings? Mr James the history teacher said to me, "Why not have a crack at Oxford?" I said "Yes," and didn't give it a moment's thought. I got a Hastings Scholarship to Queen's. When I wrote to them to say that I had missed having to do National Service by three months and could take the place immediately, they said that I would have to wait two years. I then got an Open Scholarship to Wadham.
Long Tall Shirty? Oxford was something of a culture shock: all men, the equivalent of boarding school, with customs I'd only read about. But with a few friends, you're soon okay. I did a bit of acting. I was the star of a silent film called All Together, Boys. I wore a black shirt and looked significant; I was annoyed; it cost pounds 3 and itched like hell. There were a lot of awfully good writers at Wadham then and I kept my writing very much to myself, apart from film reviews for Cherwell, which was edited by a Peter Preston. I liked History and got a second; I took the exams in Warnford Hospital with a very violent attack of glandular fever. I was supervised by barmy vicars who kept ordering more cocoa and biscuits so they could see the nurses.
And finally? There's a lot in all this that I haven't written about, which is nice: the material is still available to me. A Tango to the Music of Time?
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