Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Eddy Shah, novelist and founder of 'Today' newspaper
'I was suspended for bad behaviour'
Thursday 20 November 2008
Eddy Shah, 64, revolutionised newspaper production in the UK when he launched the now defunct daily 'Today'. He also owned 60 local newspapers. Shah recently started up the eco-house business Green Ladder Homes. His fifth novel, 'Second World', is out this month.
As a child, I always wanted to write. My father was Cambridge-educated – unlike his son – and a barrister with the UN. From when I was 12, my father would make me read a book a fortnight and ask me what I thought about it: The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell; Thomas Wolfe, Allen Ginsberg, Shakespeare, Jack Kerouac. These books gave me a great feeling for how words looked on paper. At 16, I wrote a novel called Cornice; I had a lot of rejection slips (I'm not surprised).
I was a lousy pupil. I had a broken schooling but I think it was perfect for me: it gave a maverick feel to my life. The first school I went to was in Cambridge, where I would be dropped off at a stop near the station and collected by my grandparents. I remember once running out from behind a bus and a car just missing me. Years later, I saw a painting of a boy running out from behind a red bus, a car, his parents and a station in the background: it was just that scene.
As my parents were always moving, I went to Pakistan to be with my grandparents who were living there. I attended Karachi Grammar School. We came back here, and I ended up at Hillside prep in Reigate. I got caned for fighting a bully called Ashley; I banged his head against the wall and he never bullied me again.
Gordonstoun, the Scottish public school, didn't have the normal Common Entrance but had manual dexterity and aptitude tests; you had to put square pegs in round holes. Or something. Did I enjoy Gordonstoun? Not really. With a nomadic background, I had no roots or childhood friends. My saving grace was that I was great at sport and broke some school records. I was suspended twice for bad behaviour. Years later, the headmaster said he would like me to talk to the sixth form. I said: "No – I was a failure at school!" But he wanted me to speak about the fact that there is life after school.
At 16, I went to Reigate Grammar – but for only two terms, as I didn't go in much – and then to secondary modern in Haywards Heath (now Oathall Community College). I liked it there; I was starting to get comfortable with myself and had my first girlfriend. Then I was sent to Davies's Tutorial College, a crammer in Hove. Having already got English language and English literature O-levels, I passed geography and physics and some other O-levels, which added up to eight or nine. I then went to a technical college in Barnet; I only lasted a term there. The idea of the Army was mooted by my father but I said I wanted to work in the theatre. For my first show, I was a dresser for Arnold Wesker's Chips with Everything at the Golders Green Hippodrome; the guy I dressed was John Noakes, who later went off to Blue Peter.
I didn't even start any A-level courses, but I became an A-level subject in media studies and they ask questions about me on The Weakest Link. When my son was at the London College of Printing, he got into a yelling match with one of his tutors. She was sounding off about how bad I was with the unions but, in fact, I had given power to the journalists instead of the printers.
Thanks to my schooling, I have been able to think outside the area in which other people think. Second World, my fifth book, is a novel that takes a look at the future, but my publishers said they wanted a political thriller like the previous four, so I put it away for 12 years. It is now a "Read of the Week" at WH Smith.
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