Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Lucy Kellaway, agony aunt of the 'Financial Times'

'I wouldn't shut up in class'
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The Independent Online

Lucy Kellaway, 47, writes three columns for the Financial Times on life and jargon in the management jungle, one of which was the basis of her novel Martin Lukes: Who Moved my BlackBerry™?. She joined the FT in 1985 and has been its energy and Brussels correspondent.

At Gospel Oak Primary in north London, I was fantastically good with those little sticks in different colours, each representing a number. Yet I always felt quite dim because I was in the same class as Sean French, who now writes novels (with his wife Nicci Gerrard, under the name of Nicci French). The teacher used to read out his essays on Communism; I didn't even know what that was.

It was a very happy school where we never had any homework and had classes of 40 but all learnt - with no stress - a lot more than my children do now.

I was defined by my primary school more than by my secondary school and Oxford. There was something about those families - a north London, lefty, middle-class intelligentsia who stayed put both geographically and intellectually. The school reunion was organised by Fiona Millar, Alastair Campbell's partner.

My sister was at Camden School for Girls, which was then a grammar, and my mother taught there. It was even more famous for an attitude - freedom and confidence - than for its teaching. I can recognise a Camden girl: she has a sort of north London grooviness, confidence and vivacity. It was quite scary: we were outrageously trendy, so there was a grotesque amount of alcohol and drugs from a very young age and I participated up to a point.

I was always proud of my mother, who was a beloved English teacher - "Oh, your mother's wonderful!" - but in the staffroom she had to listen to teachers say about me: "God! Lucy Kellaway! She won't shut up."

For the first two years I was a real swot, but by about 14 I had abandoned work completely. I passed all my O-levels but not well. I had a pathetic set of A-level results in maths, English and French: B and C, and I failed French. The reason was that I was hopeless at French and didn't pay attention, but my excuse was that I missed half of my first year of sixth form because I was in hospital after a car crash. It was a hopeless set of A-levels if you fancied you were in the running for Oxford. (I later married somebody - David Goodhart, editor of Prospect magazine - who did the same thing at Eton: he failed French and got similarly ropy results.)

I did "seventh term" Oxford entry. This was the only time I was taught by my mother. I was in the same Oxbridge class as Emma Thompson; she was universally liked but ludicrously unconfident about herself and her appearance.

In those days, Oxford didn't care about A-levels because it had its own exams. I did a maths paper, an English paper and a logic paper. My exam papers were quite feeble but I was quite good at interviews: confident despite having no reason to be so, which was something Camden taught me.

I went to Lady Margaret Hall. After the free and groovy north London thing I found LMH very staid and straight, but I loved PPE - politics, philosophy and economics. I was an insufferable swot: nine-to-five in the library every weekday. I was fantastically orderly and never had an essay crisis. This didn't mean I didn't have a social life. All I did was read and talk to friends. Some of the teaching was hilarious, dotty, so bad it was funny but if you were motivated, you did the reading and sort of taught yourself. And some of the teaching was truly inspired.

I got a second. I felt disappointed - briefly - as I so nearly got a first. I went to work for an American bank. It should have been evident that I wasn't going to be a good banker - and I wasn't.

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