Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Diana Melly, writer and wife of the jazz singer George Melly

'I was at school in a barn in a field'
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The Independent Online

Diana Melly, 68, is a former night-club hostess, model and novelist. Take a Girl Like Me, her account of 45 years with George Melly, came out last week in paperback.

I have no memory of a single lesson at school. At four years old, I was at a school in a barn in the middle of a field near Swaffham, Norfolk. My aunt was the teacher and my only memory is of my father coming in, dressed in Air Force uniform, because this was during the war and he was being sent away. I went up to the front of the class, he gave me a watch and that was it; he was away for five years.

At about five, I was sent to the Convent of Marie Auxiliatrice in Finchley, north London. When my mother took me on my first day, one nun said: "She's very small for her age." And the next nun said: "She's very tall for her age."

My grandmother lived quite near and at weekends I used to go to her. I had to do two things: have my neck clean and go to the lavatory properly. They would say: "Have you been?" And I, not knowing what they meant, would have a pee and say: "Yes." They would look in the bowl and say: "You're lying." And then I wasn't allowed to go to my grandmother.

I was once sent to my room for painting "do not sit" on chairs put out for sports day. I ran away but got lost in Golders Green and sat on the pavement crying until a woman took me home and gave me milk and biscuits. I was taken back and I think they were nicer to me after that.

When I was eight or nine, we moved to Essex and I went to Kingsland House, a little school in the village of West Mersea, again a big sort of shed in a garden. It was mixed and a boy called John used to tie me to a tree and kiss me, which I think I enjoyed, and then leave me tied up and I got into trouble. We did one scene from The Merchant of Venice and I was Portia. My mother had sent me to elocution lessons so my accent wasn't as broad as some of the other kids.

Then we had to take the 11-plus, which we called "The Scholarship", and I went to Essex Grammar School for Girls in Colchester. I used to go with my best friend, Madeleine, to Chelmsford, because there wouldn't be any teachers there, and we used to sit in a hotel foyer smoking Du Maurier cigarettes and wearing lipstick but a teacher did see us and we were hauled up in front of the headmistress.

When I was 13, my parents started getting on very badly and my mother liked to keep me at home with her because she was lonely. Then I was sent to live with my godmother in Hampshire and went to a co-ed grammar school in Brockenhurst. I didn't have a uniform, so I stood out and on my third day a girl said: "The head boy wants to meet you behind the cricket pavilion for a snogging session." I said: "Yes, of course." But I remember not enjoying it much: he was very plain and said: "I'm sorry if my breath smells - I've just been to the dentist."

I was there for a term and a half. I left because I didn't like living with my godmother; she was very strict. I got a job; I was 14. When my son, Patrick, was taking his O-levels, I thought I would take English language and literature too, at 30, by correspondence. I did enjoy that but I think it was quite irritating for him.

Before that, I did go at one point to the Lucy Clayton School of Modelling, where you learnt how to open a door without turning your back on the room and how to get out of a car without showing your knickers.

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