Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Dick Strawbridge, TV presenter
'I used to argue in maths'
Thursday 05 February 2009
Dick Strawbridge, 49, was still an army officer when he became a 'Scrapheap Challenge' contestant on Channel 4. He presents 'It's Not Easy Being Green' (Wednesdays, BBC2) and has written the book of the series
In the early 1960s the idea of a school uniform – shorts and cap – was the best thing since sliced bread. I enjoyed Bangor Grammar Prep School, in County Down, Northern Ireland, where I went when I was five. Our family moved to County Antrim and at nine I went to Ballyclare High School, first of all to the small prep department. We all used to go singing for the old folk and, although I am completely tone-deaf, I had to attend because we needed the numbers. I used to mime, until one old lady near me thought there must be something wrong with her hearing aid. I started to sing – and she turned it off.
I passed the 11-plus and went up to the senior school, where my two older sisters had already gone. I was in the "A" stream but in the third year they asked me to give up Latin; no one had ever got 7 per cent before. I spent a lot of time in detention because I used to argue with the maths teacher. My punishment was a long division sum that was never solved; it ran to 50 decimal places.
I got 10 or 12 O-levels – including maths and additional maths – with a mixture of As and Bs. Then I went to Welbeck College, a sixth form college in Nottinghamshire for young men who wished to be army officers and join the technical corps. I was the first of seven children to leave home and wasn't very happy about boarding but my parents encouraged me to stay. The college was then all-boys and positively monastic. It was like being caged but I used to go two miles through the "Wilderness", as the deer park was known, to the pub and meet girls. I got away with it and became head of college.
Although I didn't come from a bigoted background (I was born in Burma and had Catholic friends) I was a quite a narrow-minded Ulsterman and needed my horizons broadened. There were only 150 people at the college, 75 in each year. Studying was easy and the system worked. At A-levels, I got As in pure maths, applied maths and combined maths. I got a B in physics, which was a bit of a disgrace.
The first seven months at Sandhurst consisted of officer training and the second seven months, after I'd been commissioned, were "professional studies": the place of the Army in society and military history. Now an officer cadet, at the age of 19 I went off to Germany to command soldiers and then came back for a signalling and communications course, and then went back to Germany. I dug a lot of trenches back in those days. This was in 1980, when we were still expecting the Soviet Union to attack and we were the first line of defence.
At 22 I came back to do a three-year degree course in electronics and electronic engineering at the Royal Military College of Science at Shrivenham Military College (now a campus of Cranfield University). I lowered my golf handicap, met my wife and left with a son. I got a "sportsman's degree" – a 2.2. A lot of my youth was spent playing sport: if in doubt, play rugby or do athletics. I was captain of the rugby side at Shrivenham – as were my two brothers after me.
I was still a serving officer when I competed in Scrapheap Challenge, initially as a major and then a lieutenant-colonel when I was joined by my brothers in a team called "Brothers in Arms". My role was as the leader. Although I am the oldest with the biggest moustache, my brothers are progressively taller; I put it down to the extra potatoes they were able to eat after I left home.
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