Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Clare Francis, novelist

'I was made to sit in front of slimy mince'
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The Independent Online

At my kindergarten near Thames Ditton, Surrey you literally rose up the class as you got older: the smallest sat at the front and the benches rose higher and behind them.The local primary school was superb. Parsing, spelling, adverbial clauses: I learnt more about grammar there than I ever learnt anywhere else.

We moved to Esher when I was eight and I went to the primary school in Claygate. This was rougher. I was made to sit through the play period in front of a meal I could not eat: grey, slimy mince. I already had the makings of a vegetarian. I was always ill with some infection or other - the beginning of my ME - and I felt I was going from the top to the bottom of the class.

Then I went on to Claremont, a Christian Scientist school (although we were not of this particular faith). There was a great emphasis on mind, body and health. You did not call doctors; you prayed. The education was excellent. I remember it as a school of female teachers who encouraged us to go on to higher education and a career.

To strengthen my physique, I went to ballet. I had started far too late (at the age of 10!), but my teacher wanted to put me in for the Royal Ballet School. My parents were against it but I wore them down. I went for an audition and - sadly - I passed. It was probably the worst thing for me then.

At my first class at White Lodge, the junior school of the Royal Ballet, the other girls were miles ahead. Perhaps there were one or two girls who had talent and ambition to match - the rest of us knew we weren't going to make it to the Royal Ballet. The academic teaching was patchy, although the maths teacher enabled me to see the light.

I was at the junior school for two years and got seven O-levels, none outstanding. At the senior school in Baron's Court I had back problems and at 17, I had to face the world. My father - bless him - said, "What about getting some A-levels?" and offered to fund me to go to a crammers.

St Clare's in Oxford decided I should go in for English and history of art, which are probably the most difficult to do in less than a year. Although I began reading then and never stopped, I got a grade C in English and a D in art, so I then went to a wonderful crammer near the British Museum. I went for subjects that I felt could be cracked easily: economics, and British constitution. I got an A and a B, so now had an alphabetical list.

I felt too old - 20 - to go to a campus university, so went to University College London, which was a wonderful place with good teaching. Considering the amount of work I did, I was thrilled to get a 2.2.

My main interest was Dramsoc: I had the lead in The White Devil. I think UCL had a sailing club, but, although I had started to sail at the age of 10, I wasn't at all interested. Everyone thinks my nautical career lasted for years, but I haven't really been near a boat for decades.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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