Passed/Failed: An education in the life of David Lewis, Lord Mayor of the City of London

'Amazingly, I was made head boy'


David Lewis, 60, is the 680th Lord Mayor of the City of London and the Alderman for Broad Street, the ward of the real Dick Whittington. His entire career has been working for the corporate law firm Norton Rose

My father went to Malaya as a humble teacher, was locked up with his brothers in a Japanese POW camp, and then became head of education. I went to the Army School in Singapore, which was part of Malaya in those days, and every morning a three-ton lorry used to collect the boys and girls in our street. I don't think I learnt much.

It was a huge shock when my parents retired early to the UK and I was sent, at eight, as a boarder to the Dragon School in Oxford. I was behind the others, and in my first term, was bottom of the school in every single subject. (I'm now chairman of the governors, and everybody keeps reminding me of that.) Gradually, with much help and prodding, I moved up the class and began to enjoy Latin, Greek and history. I was taught classics by the headmaster, Keith Ingram – "Inky". You called the masters by their nicknames to their faces: it's a bit eccentric, but I insist on it now. Amazingly, I was appointed head boy in my last term but nearly screwed up by organising a pillow fight involving 70 boys at 4am.

At St Edward's, my public school in Oxford, I continued only to do enough to just get by academically. Despite being a corporate account lawyer for 38 years, I've always found maths extremely difficult. I passed maths and chemistry O-level at the lowest grade; in my chemistry practical, the Bunsen burner destroyed the test tube. My Latin and Greek got starred grades but the classics master said, "You're not scholarship material in classics".

I took three A-levels: history, history with foreign texts and English. History with foreign texts was the most interesting; it was history written in Latin and French. My two history teachers, John Todd and Malcolm Oxley, changed my life. The value they added to my education will never appear in any league table, but with their help I just scraped into Jesus College, Oxford.

My father, who came from a Welsh-speaking family of poor tenant sheep farmers in Carmarthenshire, had won a scholarship to Jesus and graduated in 1926, the year of the General Strike. My son failed to get into Jesus – but got a first in classics at King's College London.

In my day, law was a subject in which it was easier to get into Oxford. I knew nothing about law but I remember the first paper I studied for was criminal law and we started with murder. I thought, "This is interesting!".

For me, Latin lived on in Roman law. International law was interesting, as at the time Southern Rhodesia was declaring UDI. I began to work very hard for the first time in my life.

Having done Finals, I was very surprised to be called for a viva voce [oral examination] for borderline candidates. You went into this awful room with six or seven professors and dons who had set the exams. They fired questions at me for half an hour and then sent me out while they discussed my performance. This was repeated twice, so it took 90 minutes. I have always been a pessimist and thought I was on the borderline for a Third or a Second. If I'd known I was actually up for a First, I would have been rather more confident, which was what they were looking for.

Finally, I was told that I had been awarded the best Second of the year but had failed the viva for a First. It was rather like Mastermind; I was terrified and had experienced the worst 90 minutes of my life.

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