Passed / failed; Celia Brayfield
Thursday 28 May 1998
Pearls Before Little Swine? Most of the families in Wembley Park [Middlesex] didn't bother with educating their daughters, so St Christopher's Preparatory School was 75 per cent boys. In a small minority, girls were aware of being beaten up on a regular basis but it left me with some useful reflexes. My father wanted his children to follow him into dentistry and he planned my education with that in view. I won the English Prize and received the Complete Works of Shakespeare, printed on "Bible" paper, virtually tissue paper, and Fowler's Modern English Usage.
Pauline Conversion? At 11 I passed the St Paul's exam and found myself well out of my depth. It is a very tough place, the leading academic girls' school in England: a machine for producing Oxbridge deans. There was no point in being pretty, captain of netball, or original; the only value was rigorous intellectual snobbery. I'm mildly dyslexic.
That old Black Magic? My father was 50 when I was born. His patients adored him but he was very pigheaded and bad-tempered to me; it was like living with Ian Holmes's King Lear. My top three O level grades were in both the English exams and French. I said, "Look, Daddy, the teachers think that they could get me to Oxford with my English." He insisted I specialise in science - and in botany and zoology as separate A levels, plus physics and chemistry. It was immensely cruel. I did enjoy physics but chemistry was black magic; none of my experiments worked. My copper sulphate crystal fell off my string; I used to to write stories in the back of my experiment book.
A Breath of Fresh Airheads? I did bloody awfully. I failed chemistry and physics, ending up with two not very good A levels and a very angry father. He sent me to The Queen's Secretarial College in South Kensington - in the middle of Swinging London. I think I giggled solidly every day for three months. Queen's College was so full of airheaded debs that the only people in college on the day after Queen Charlotte's Ball were me and the foreign girls. For about six months I did a course in France at the University of Grenoble, which I picked for the skiing; I had a very handsome teacher and a nice bunch of fellow students.
Grammar - he's making eyes at me! I'm left with a sense of educational inferiority and so am a great taker of courses. The last was on screen- writing, given by Anthony Minghella, who directed The English Patient, and Peter Flannery, who wrote Our Friends in the North. When Pearls came out, Sebastian Faulks, the literary editor of the Independent on Sunday, gave it to Anthony Burgess, probably because it was half set in Malaya [where Burgess had taught]. Burgess said: "And her grammar is impeccable". I was so thrilled; it was the happiest I'd been since my daughter was born. I thought, That's it - I don't have to prove anything to anyone ever again. When you've been to St Paul's, you really do care about getting things right.
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