Passed/Failed: An education in the life of author Conn Iggulden

'I stopped working at the age of 15'
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The Independent Online

Conn Iggulden, 38, is the author of the Emperor series about the life of Julius Caesar. His non-fiction books includes The Dangerous Book For Boys and, just out, Tollins: Explosive Tales For Children. He is due to appear at the Guildford Book Festival today and The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival on Saturday.

At my first school, when I was three, I spent some days with my head over a bowl and a towel over my head because of my asthma. Later, I remember trips to hospital in ambulances. I was about a year at this school in Eastcote, north London.

At Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Primary in Ruislip, Middlesex, I was accused of breaking a window. I hadn't done it but the headmistress said: "I know when little boys are lying." Years later, I met her on a station and said, "You won't remember me but 20 years ago you accused me of breaking a window." She said: "I'm sorry, I don't remember who you are." Having been a teacher myself, I know these things are much stronger for children than teachers.

Mrs Brown was my favourite teacher. I found out 25 years later that she'd kept a poem of mine. I was fascinated by words from an early age. I would tell my father stories to send him to sleep.

I was miserable. Certain kids are miserable. I was sullen, morose, withdrawn. I had very few social skills. I revelled in stories of the individual against the state – and still do. I'm still convinced my superpowers are just around the corner.

From 11 to 13, I went to St Martin's School in Northwood, Middlesex. I hated it. I liked the lessons; I just didn't get on with anyone. The headmaster was a deeply unpleasant man who on my first day said he had put me in the lowest stream because the state primary could not have prepared me for the rigour of his school. I came first and was moved up. The other teachers were lovely.

I passed the Common Entrance exam and went to Merchant Taylors' School in Northwood, Middlesex. I was miserable, of course. But having read Billy Bunter, I loved the old buildings and the fact we called it "quad" instead of "court", and referred to the "tuck shop". I stopped working at the age of 15; I knew I was bright enough to coast. I got seven O-Levels: one A, two Bs and a few Cs.

At A-Level I started pure and applied maths but in the first term found that A-Level is a huge leap and kept hitting a glass ceiling of my understanding. One night, my parents went with my brother and me to St Dominic's Sixth Form College, in Middlesex. I met my future wife – and crashed her computer, which she was demonstrating as one of the pupils. I thought, "Good Lord – there are women here!" I was there within two weeks.

I was happy. It was a chance to get to know some intelligent – and nice – people. An awful lot of people there had an unhappy time at school and were going to St Dominic's to re-invent themselves. I did English and religious education A-levels. I got an A and a B, which I probably didn't deserve; I'd accidentally studied the right things.

I went to read English at the nearest college of London University, which is now Queen Mary. I found it thoroughly disappointing: it wasn't Cambridge. There weren't enough unusual characters around. I disliked most of my courses and got a lower second.

I missed a term's lectures because they all took place in the morning. I was, as the Americans say, "phoning in" my degree.

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