Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Joanna Briscoe, novelist

I was a total slacker at university

I went for one afternoon a week to a nursery school in Letchmore Heath in Hertfordshire, where The Midwich Cuckoos was filmed (as the Village of the Damned). My only memory is of saying, "I want Carol" - we used to call our parents by their Christian names - and my relief at the teacher saying, "She's over by the doll's house". I rushed over - and it was a child called Carol.

We moved to Ashcott near Street in Somerset and I went to the local primary, where I was smacked on the first day for not eating my lunch. I was there for only a year and then went to Catcott Primary, again in Somerset, for five years. I hated it and was very unhappy. They said I was "posh" (it was just because I wasn't a farmer's child) and I was the only one in the school who wasn't christened (it was a C of E school). There was a great cult of the horse; all the girls went round neighing. I just wasn't interested in ponies.

I was a bit of a sad, friendless child. I loved the teachers like mothers. I read well and early and was always quite good academically. When I was 10 I thought about being a writer; I thought I would be a poet, which I have never thought of since.

We left because my parents fell in love with a house in Dartmoor. I went to the primary school in Widecombe-in-the-Moor but I was there for only half a term. Even in the top class some of the children couldn't read and the teacher used to sit on the other side of a little hatch making telephone calls and rapping on the glass at us. I wanted to take my 11-plus and was getting really worried.

A friend of my parents was setting up a home-school in her amazing Dartmoor house. There were just seven of us, aged from seven to 13, children of hippies, with an unqualified 21-year-old teacher and lessons sitting on the tors. I did the 11-plus and passed.

My parents announced that we would go back to Somerset and I went to Bishop Fox's Girls Grammar in Taunton. I adored it. I was born for a girls' grammar; it was all quadrangles and uniforms and that suited me down to the ground. I had great friends and was very good academically. I started writing books about girls who were half-French and had hair down to their knees. (I got loads of rejections from publishers.)

I was only there for two years. We moved back to the house in Dartmoor and my final school was King Edward VI Comprehensive, where the academic standards were far below Bishop Fox's. I got two As, five Bs and a C at O-level, not very good grades.

Even in the sixth form it wasn't academic but there was a brilliant English teacher. I got an A in English and a B in French and German. I became very urban as an antidote to growing up in the wilds, and read English at University College, London. Bizarrely, after being a swot, I now - among very clever people on a good course in a good university - turned into a complete slacker. I just didn't work. I couldn't be arsed; I was too busy falling in love. Finally, in the February before my Finals, I unplugged the phone, spent loads of money on books - and was amazed to get a high 2:1.

During all this time, I'd been trying to write but I'd been scarred by the rejections of the children's novels I'd written at school. I wanted to be a writer without actually writing a book.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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