Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Geoff Dyer, writer

'There were no books at home'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Geoff Dyer, 49, is the author of Yoga for People Who Can't Be Bothered To Do It, which received the W H Smith Best Travel Book Award. The Ongoing Moment won the Infinity Award for Writing about Photography and is out now in paperback. His book on jazz, But Beautiful, won the Somerset Maugham Award. He is currently writing his fourth novel, with a working title of Jeff in Venice.

All my education was free: free primary, free grammar school, Oxford on a full grant and then reading Russian and French literature on the dole!

Naunton Park seems ideal now, a lovely red-brick school in Cheltenham, a seven-minute walk to school from an early age with no fear then of paedophiles. The standard of teaching was high. In junior school, we weren't conscious of the huge, divisive consequences of the 11-plus; it was passed off as something not to be too frightened of. A third of us ended up in the grammar school, a third went to a less academic "tech" school and the other third, who failed, stayed on at the senior school of Naunton Park.

Cheltenham Grammar was one of the famous grammar schools. Maybe 95 per cent stayed on to do A-levels and 90 per cent of those went to university. There were no books in our house, apart from Second World War books such as The Three They Couldn't Kill, which my mother, a dinner lady at my junior school, read and described as "hardgoing". But she had a cultured lady friend who owned a Hammer recording of Richard III, an O-level set book, and as a result I had the whole play in my head.

I got good at English at about 14 or 15 and fell under the spell of the head of English, Bob Beale, who got me into reading. Then I started to be good at all subjects and loved studying. I got very good grades at O-levels and, after a crazed bit of advice from my father – "Don't do history, that's all in the past" – I ended up doing English, economics and geography A-levels.

I wasn't a swot who had always been top of the class but was like a long-distance runner sprinting to make an attack just before the line. My greatest achievement was three A grades and one S-level; it's been downhill ever since. After an intensive Oxbridge entrance term, I got into Corpus Christi, Oxford.

I had a good education at Oxford. The course is a great foundation in terms of English literature from Beowulf to Beckett and I'm glad Wordsworth is in my bloodstream; but it was a disappointment in terms of the teaching. For tutors, teaching is a distraction from their research or writing reviews for the New Statesman. It does mean you become very good at teaching yourself and finding your way around bibliographies. I got a Second.

It's a shame that they direct you towards secondary texts. You're not doing English; you're doing criticism. You read Dickens in the holidays but criticism in the term. There's such a gap between the literature being written about and the way criticism is written.

I had no idea of class until I went to Oxford. I was becoming unpleasant and precocious, speaking differently from my parents. I tried to improve their lives, get them to read a different book or drink a different tea. On a visit home in my third year, my mother came back from work and we both started crying. We knew this was something about class and the different world I was now poised to move into.

My parents hoped I might get a job in the Civil Service but I moved into a house in Brixton where we would-be bohemians were on the dole. There was all this Russian and French literature to read. It probably cost the state less than if I'd done a PhD.

jonty@jonathansale.com

Comments