Passed/Failed: An education in the life of David Bailey, photographer
'The head was awful, despicable'
Thursday 23 February 2006
David Bailey, 68, began as a fashion photographer for Vogue in 1960. Now our best-known photographer, he has also made television documentaries and commercials. Books include the recent Bailey's Democracy and Havana, which will be published in the autumn. Examples of his work are included in the Olympus Inheritance Exhibition (photographs viewable at www. olympus.co.uk, plus details of the exhibition's national tour and the chance to win David Bailey's E-500 Digital SLR).
I remember our house being bombed when I was three. It was in Leytonstone - Alfred Hitchcock was born in the next street - in the East End, and we moved to East Ham. Some days you went to school and some days you didn't, and some days at school you went into the shelter.
I remember watching the doodlebugs - V1 flying bombs - in the sky. A V2 rocket knocked out a cinema in Upton Park where I used to go. I was pissed off: I thought Hitler had killed Mickey Mouse and Bambi.
I remember looking through the railings, waiting for my mum to take me home from Plashet Grove school. And I remember that for once in my life I got something right: when we were asked, "Who built the Suez Canal?" I said, "The French." I got it right by accident: I thought everyone who was foreign was French. After that, it was downhill all the way.
I am dyslexic; I used to get the cane for not being able to spell. You could ask me to spell words like "ant" that I had just read, and I couldn't. I still can't spell. I go by the appearance of words, not the letters. If I'm trying to find something specific, I can look at a page and find it very quickly. Maybe if I was Chinese, I wouldn't be dyslexic, because it's done by symbols. Well, that's my theory.
Then I went to a kind of private school, Clark's College in Ilford, which cost about £7.50 a term. They taught me less there than the "council" school. We were posh East End, if that's possible, but I had cardboard in my shoes and was at the social bottom of this cheap private school; some of the parents had tobacconist's shops, which was a bit posher.
Caning was rampant and the head, who was ex-RAF with a moustache, had a special cupboard made for his 30 canes. He made you choose the one he was going to use; I always chose a thick one because I thought the thin ones would be more whippy. I used to have scars - congealed blood - on my arse. He was awful, despicable. When I won a prize for writing a story, the arsehole never gave it to me; it was probably just a book about the Air Force. He used to take spelling lessons and I tried to bunk off on those days. In one year, I went to school only 33 times - and I wasn't the worst.
Teachers are not all saints, and the head didn't know that some of the male teachers would try to kiss you. One of them, an alcoholic with veins on his nose, put his lips next to mine; I remember him coming round to our house and asking if he could give me extra lessons.
The teachers thought I was an idiot, although when I was 12 or 13 there was a woman art teacher that liked me. I could draw and paint. My mother always said: "My Dave, he's going to be a commercial artist," but the head told her, patronisingly, "Somebody's got to dig up the roads."
I left school at 15 and educated myself. Like my hero Chet Baker, the jazz trumpeter, I began to read Hemingway and Scott Fitzgerald and then Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. Now I probably read more than most people; I don't sleep much at night. And I can write quite well, as I always look for the words I can actually spell.
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