Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Jon Sevink of the Levellers

'I hated classical music'


Jon Sevink, 43, is the fiddler of the Levellers, the radical folk-rock band that celebrates its 20th year with a gig at the Albert Hall on 27 September. Their first five albums each sold over 100,000 copies, and they have had 14 Top 20 hits. Their ninth album, Letters from the Underground, is out now

I did have a brief flirtation with the French horn. I never played it, I just took it to bits, then returned it to school still in pieces. For me, the music came from Tany's Dell, my primary school in Harlow, Essex. The deputy head, Mr Miller, was a fantastic violin player, and when he played at assembly, it was one of the few times that there wasn't a single person talking. I was convinced that this was the thing for me, and began having private violin lessons.

But mostly I did sport. I did a lot of athletics and was area under-11 champion at the high jump. I was already reading by the time I went to primary school. I remember being bored, waiting for other people to catch up in class.

I don't think I learnt anything else, apart from fighting. I was the hardest kid in the school – for a day. I had a fight with the real hardest kid, and when it was broken up, he had a bleeding nose. Next day there was outrage that I should have the "title", and a tougher kid gave me a sound kicking. I didn't fight again.

We moved to the South Coast. I went for a year to a middle school in Shoreham that paid no attention to music, then spent three years at Durrington High, a comprehensive I remember nothing about except not enjoying it. When I was 14 we moved to Brighton and I went to Dorothy Stringer, a comprehensive that had the most amazing music teacher, Heather Cowl, who was appointed MBE for her services to music. That's when my music really took off.

The school orchestra made records and we were renowned for our "Dam Busters March". I was leader of the orchestra in my final year. I was also in the Brighton Youth Orchestra and we toured Canada.

At O-level, I did well in English, maths, history and geography; I was ungraded in German. I went on to Varndean Sixth Form College, which had no uniform and you called the teachers Dave. I didn't do music O-level because I was always doing music with the orchestra; I hated classical music but enjoyed playing. I was listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin – and the violin had no place in their music. As soon as I got to the end of my A-levels, I put the violin in its case and didn't play it for six years.

Art was the first subject I put all my effort into. I did art A-level, art history, maths and geography. I got A in art and Es in the rest. I spent another year redoing maths and geography – and got two more Es.

When I discovered that at Manchester University, you only had to do eight hours of lectures a week for history of art, I thought, "That's the one for me!". The first year was an overview of the history of art, which I found interesting.

In the second year, they declared, in their wisdom, that the course was going to stop at 1940 – but I was thinking of journalism and wanted to write about modern art. I didn't go into college for a year. I went back for my third year and decided that I couldn't wait for them to throw me out, so I left after a term.

I must have been about 23 when I picked up the violin again. My sister's boyfriend, Mark [Chadwick, the Levellers' lead vocalist] said to me, "We want a fiddler for our new band and you're the only person I know with a violin."

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