Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Candida Lycett Green, writer
'I wrote Enid Blyton a fan letter'
Thursday 27 April 2006
Candida Lycett Green, 63, is the daughter of the late John Betjeman and has edited his collected letters, to be published in a new paperback edition in August. She presented the television programmes The Englishwoman and the Horse and The Front Garden. Her books include The Garden at Highgrove and, out now in paperback, The Dangerous Edge of Things. She is currently organising a young people's poetry competition and other events to mark her father's centenary (details on www.johnbetjeman.com)
My village school was my best school by miles. There were 11 children in the school in Farnborough, a remote village on the Berkshire Downs. Miss Whitaker, who taught us everything, was exceptional. She was a comforting, regular presence - a safe haven, with her eye on us all, a broad bum and beaming smile that made tiny dimples appear in her cheeks, like currants in a bun.
My first reading books were the "Mr Lobb" beginner's series, and then I got on to the Enid Blyton books. I wrote her a fan letter when I was about nine and she wrote me a postcard back, which I've still got.
The whole school was like a gang; we were never apart. It was like a family and we lived in each other's pockets. I traced six of the 11 when researching The Dangerous Edge of Things, and did long transcripts of their collective memories. The other children's parents were farm workers. I had no idea what my father did; all I knew was that he went to London on a train. He was very popular with the children because he organised treasure hunts at the weekends. My mother had a pony-and-trap and the school would come out to have rides on it.
I was there for about four years and then was sent to Great Oaks, a boarding school near Goring, which was run by nuns and was the junior school of St Mary's, Wantage. From then on, life was hell. Collectively, girls are extremely cruel. There was a sort of kangaroo court run by the head girl; if you didn't use the same toothpaste as her, you would be thrown off a wall into a lot of nettles. It was a bit like being under a dictatorship. With some friends, I started a guerrilla warfare movement, and she didn't come back to school the following term.
Sister Sylvia fired me up about art and, when I went on to St Mary's, the art teacher wrote on my end-of-term report: "Candida works quickly and well." I do work quickly - and badly. I was never much good at art but she liked my dad's work. I did nine O-levels.
I was basically against authority, because I had been running free all day and night, except for a brief period in class. I've rebelled ever since. At a school dance I went off to the Ridgeway with one of the boys. He said, "Is it about here that the car breaks down?", but I didn't know what he meant. I got back an hour late and was kicked out.
I was sent to France to brush up my French, and then went to a crammer in Notting Hill Gate where I got French, English and History A-levels. Various friends were going to Oxford, but I said, "How can you bear to go and have more bossing about?". I was sent to Oxford - to secretarial school and a sculpture course at the local tech. I hung about with Richard Ingrams, John Wells and Paul Foot, and started dropping out of my classes, so I was whipped out of Oxford and made to live at home and go to secretarial college; I travelled in the baker's van to Newbury every day.
Editing my father's letters is probably the biggest job I've ever undertaken in my life. Perhaps university might have helped me to formulate a way of doing research. I've done very unacademic footnotes, because my dad hated them - "Foot-and-note disease", he called it. An Oxford don told me, "That'll take you about 20 years." I said, "I'll do it in five because I need the money."
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