Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Craig Murray, former ambassador

I always came top in the exams

Craig Murray, 48, was Our Man in Uzbekistan until the Foreign Office took exception to his inconvenient reports on local activists being boiled alive. He was withdrawn from the country and resigned from the Diplomatic Service. Murder in Samarkand, which came out in July, is to be filmed by Michael Winterbottom with a script by David Hare.

I enjoyed Sheringham Primary in Norfolk enormously but I was worried that I was going to be separated from half of my friends, whether I passed or failed the 11-plus; teaching was old-fashioned with learning by rote but it seemed to work and half the pupils got through.

Paston in North Walsham was 15 miles away and the nearest grammar school. I hated it. It was run on rather military lines; most of the teachers had been in the Second World War and didn't seem able to leave it behind. The cadet force was compulsory and they took it terribly seriously, as if they expected Nazis to invade Sheringham any day. I was suspended, mostly for refusing to turn up for the cadets. The teaching was very formal, in large classes, and we were very much force-fed information. I had one or two inspirational teachers and the history teachers were excellent.

My O-levels weren't terribly good; I got about seven. I was off for the four months leading up to the exams when I had peritonitis and very nearly died. I did English, history and French A-levels but not at all well. I didn't choose Dundee University, Dundee chose me: I got in through Clearing. In those days you could get in with half an O-level, though nowadays it is one of the top universities.

I had the most wonderful time at university. It was immediately like a release from the shackles of force-fed learning. I loved the place and, despite having a social life, I really enjoyed learning. Single-sex education at school is a terrible thing and I was well into my second year at university before I could talk to a girl without blushing. I made a policy decision not to attend any lectures but to read voraciously and teach myself history. In the February of my second year, I was chucked out for not having attended any tutorials - despite having come top in the December exams. They hated me! (In my entire university course, I never came anywhere other than top in any exam.) They let me back in but I had to repeat the second year; I still didn't go to my tutorials.

I got active in student union politics and finished as president - twice - which meant two sabbaticals. The university Court passed a change in the university charter to say that nobody could be president for more than two years, because they were afraid I'd do it again. (I had no intention of doing so.) This change had to be approved by the Privy Council in Westminster. I was there for seven years: it was a four-year degree, one year was repeated and there were two sabbatical years. I got a First.

The Foreign Office was never an ambition but I took the Foreign Office exam because my friends were doing it and was in the top three in the entrance exam.

I've been getting e-mails saying, "I'm enjoying your character in The State Within." I gather the BBC say it's a complete coincidence but in this series there's an ambassador from a non-existent country called Tyrgiztan who was sacked for exposing human rights abuses. By another complete coincidence, his name is James Sinclair: I live in Sinclair Gardens. I'm not complaining: he seems a good guy, so far.

I loved it in the Foreign Office. I was always conscious of being unorthodox but I was very effective. They accused me of being an alcoholic but you can't serve as a foreign diplomat without being occasionally hungover and I certainly didn't drink any more than many very senior colleagues. I was an ambassador at 42; that's not bad. And I'm quite enjoying myself now. Being a dissident is quite fun.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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