passed/failed: Alice Thomas Ellis

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The Independent Online
Anna Haycraft, 65, is a writer, under her own name and more frequently as Alice Thomas Ellis. Her novels include `The 27th Kingdom', nominated for the Booker Prize, and `Fairy Tale', just out in paperback. Her non- fiction includes the autobiographical `A Welsh Childhood'. Her next novel will be entitled `Lucifer's Hotel'.

Between a rock and a hard place? At my first school I remember asking about the spelling of "Penmaenmawr", the place where we lived. It is between Conway and Bangor, and means "big rock head". They started teaching us Welsh. It was a "national school", for the children of the poor, and it was bloody good. We were brilliantly taught - unlike my own children who, in the end, I had all taught at home with tutors.

A legend after her lunch time? We were surrounded by legends, which they told us about in the afternoons. The school looked out over the sea where Helig's Castle - Helig was a bad egg - was inundated. (I have a house in Wales which is on a "thin" place. That means the barriers between this world and the next are thin; it's got a ghost.)

Welsh rare bit? I passed the 11-plus to Bangor County School, where clever girls learnt French and the rest learnt Welsh, which was still a language regarded as holding you back. This was madly politically incorrect and the policy was all over the place. Miss Hughes, the headmistress, had been to Oxford and could speak French, Latin - and Welsh.

Goodbye to all hat? I was not a writer-to-be, because I thought that would be rather bluestocking. I was put off all that because I didn't want to be like the teachers, who all seemed incredibly old: 25 or 30! That was why I didn't want to go to university. When I got my A-levels in English, art and history of art, I went to art college in Liverpool, which was regarded as the capital of North Wales. I had been thrown out of school, I have to say. It was very amicable. I was not a bad girl in any way, but I was bored with school and you still, at 16, had to wear that awful hat. We got divorced very amicably.

Alice in Wonderland? When I first got to Liverpool, it was wonderful, full of chaps who had just come out of the Army, and very easy-going. It was a very good course and they taught you everything. Then all those students left, and a lot of spotty youths came. They started locking the college, and if you were late you couldn't get in. I just left; I didn't stay much longer than 18 months. I carried on with my painting until I was 30.

Nun on the run? Soon after that I went to a convent as a postulant, where they taught me theology and Bible study and I got a jolly good grounding in the faith. Everywhere I've gone, I've had to leave; in this case it was because I had a slipped disc after about six months or a year. All this was before [the reforms of] Vatican II; I think they call them The Sisters of No Discipline now.

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