Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Johnnie Walker, Radio 2 DJ
'Rock'n'roll fuelled my school rebellion'
Thursday 19 June 2008
Johnnie Walker MBE, 63, presents a two-hour Sunday afternoon show on BBC Radio 2. He joined the pirate station Radio Caroline in 1966, then moved to Radio 1. An Evening with Johnnie Walker is the title of his one-man touring show. Johnnie Walker: the autobiography is out in paperback (Penguin, £8.99).
At Ruckleigh School, Solihull, I remember putting a drawing-pin on Miss Atwell's seat. The next day she said: "I have a message for the boy who left the drawing-pin on my chair: I had a very thick tweed skirt on and I didn't feel it."
At eight, I went to the prep school of Solihull School. I was good at English and reading and I was probably the only boy there selected to read the lesson to the main public school at assembly. There was a really posh lectern but I couldn't see over it, so had to stand beside it and hold the Bible. My brother told my mother: "He was crap."
At 11, I really didn't want to go to the main school, which was a separate building 400 yards away. I thought Tudor Grange, which was then a grammar, was cool. Girls went there and the uniform was much better than the one at Solihull. I think I'd have been much more grounded, less neurotic, if I'd gone there.
Solihull main school was much more intimidating than the prep school. The assistant headmaster definitely got off on beating. Also, the head boy was allowed to cane boys for the slightest misdemeanour, like loitering in the town – you had to go straight home – and talking to girls. We had a horrendous music teacher who (although the masters didn't have permission to beat us) used to hit our hands with a violin bow. My parents spotted the dark bruises on my hand and my mother complained. He left to seek employment elsewhere.
I don't want to go on about how violent it was – but there was the school chaplain with a terrible temper who had this trick of throwing the board duster; and you've never heard such language! There was also a German master obsessed with German war songs and marching songs.
The pupils were inordinately cruel to some of the masters. One maths teacher was reduced to sitting in front of the class in tears with his head in his hands.
If you could flourish in an academic way or on the games field, you had a very smooth ride but I just rebelled against the whole thing. The geography master said that former pupils were constantly returning to the school and saying: "If only I'd worked harder!" I saw that as almost a challenge: there must be another way. Thank God for pirate radio! I guess that fuelling the rebellion was rock'n'roll; anybody who liked Elvis and Little Richard was deemed to be a subversive rebel.
My O-level failures were eight in number. For some exams, I didn't turn up. For some, I turned up late. Some I wrote in pencil – an instant fail. Dad told me that I'd have to go back and retake the exams but the headmaster wrote to suggest that my father might consider it unwise to incur further fees; he ended his letter by saying that he hoped I had benefited from the school in terms of character development. There is no question in my mind that I did; it gave you independence, it toughened you up and you had to stand up for yourself.
I started work in a company with three garages in the West Country and went to college once a week to study City and Guilds, which were useful. Most of my fellow pupils weren't interested; compared to them, I was a model pupil.
A few years ago I rode a Harley-Davidson motorcycle through the school. I was riding from Land's End to John O'Groats and doing a Five Live show on the way. I noticed that we were about to pass the school, so I roared through and everyone came out of the classrooms to see us. I got a great sense of satisfaction from this.
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