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Passed/Failed: An education in the life of John Julius Norwich, author, historian, television personality – and viscount

'My father was on Hitler's blacklist'

Lord Norwich, 79, is author of 'A History Of Venice', and presenter of BBC documentaries. He has edited the diaries of his father, Duff Cooper; his mother was the actress Lady Diana Cooper. His anthology, 'A Christmas Cracker', has been published annually since 1970. His autobiography, 'Trying to Please', was published last year. 'The Great Cities in History', which he edited, comes out on 12 October.

I learnt to read in my mother's bed when I was four. She taught me from Reading Without Tears [a Victorian nursery book]; it came out in 1861 and I include extracts from it in my Christmas Cracker series.

My first school was a kindergarten called Miss Betty's in Regent's Park, run by the wife of a concert violinist. On my seventh birthday – I spent my life going back to school on my birthday, 15 September – I went to Egerton House, a little school in Dorset Square, near Marylebone Station. Every morning we went off to Regent's Park, whistling "British Grenadiers" and "Men of Harlech". I was on the bright side, but not dazzling: in the top four or five.

War broke out after three years and we were evacuated. Egerton House joined Westbury Manor, a rather seedy boarding school in Northamptonshire. It was on its last legs but the food was better: treacle suet pudding on Tuesdays.

I was there under a year. In June 1940, when France was falling and Dunkirk was being evacuated, my mother came down and said that I was being evacuated to America. My father was a cabinet minister and on Hitler's "blacklist", and my mother was terrified that the Germans would invade and I would be held as a hostage for my father. I found it absolutely thrilling: America – cowboys and Indians!

I went with my nanny. I spent my holidays in Long Island but went to school in Canada as the Canadian curriculum was much closer to the English curriculum. I was in the prep school of Upper Canada College in Toronto for 20 months. In April 1942 the senior housemaster called for me and said, "Pack up: you're going home". He put me on the train for New York, and then I went to Norfolk, Virginia, where a cruiser gave me a lift home.

I took the Common Entrance to Eton and went to Mr Herbert's House. There was rationing; a 1lb pot of jam had to last you a month. It was bitterly cold and you had a fire every other night. The teaching was, on the whole, pretty good, but there was too much emphasis on the Classics and sport. I never played the Eton Wall Game but we played the Field Game, a horrible sort of football.

Languages were a pleasure – a hobby as much as anything – and after School Certificate [O-levels], I specialised in French and Russian. In 1944, my father was sent to Paris as the ambassador and I went with him as the first Etonian to go abroad since the start of the war.

After my National Service in the navy I went to New College, Oxford to read modern languages. The teaching was all right but I wish I'd done something less demanding academically and spent more time doing extracurricular things like OUDS [the drama society]. I spent too long reading Dostoe-bloody-evsky. I would be told: "Next week, read five Dostoevsky novels and write the following essay..." I'm a slow reader. I got an undistinguished Second. I've barely read a Russian novel since.