Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Martha Kearney, broadcaster
'I got caught in my boyfriend's room'
Thursday 15 February 2007
Martha Kearney, 49, is the political editor of Newsnight and presenter of Woman's Hour. She has previously worked on Panorama, On the Record and A Week in Politics.
I remember my first day at St Joseph's Roman Catholic Primary vividly because there were so many small children crying for their mothers. I wasn't one of them, although I was four years old, newly arrived at Burgess Hill in Sussex from Dublin, with an Irish accent and without the brown uniform, so had to wear a brown dress instead. The worst part of the day was having to drink the school milk at break, which was horribly warm. But Sister Finbar, our form teacher, was a very kind nun. In our second year, Sister Stanislaus was much stricter; she used to pull down your socks and slap your calves with a ruler.
I don't remember learning very much; I could already read and found "A is for apple" very frustrating. I remember being terrified by arithmetic and fractions. My father, who was a reader in history at the University of Sussex, had a sabbatical at Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania and I went into the third grade at a private girls school there, Ellis Academy. It was a lovely school with imaginative teaching. On my last day there, I was sent on an errand and when I came back there was large cake, and presents, on my desk.
While I was away, St Joseph's became a state primary called St Wilfred's on different, modern premises instead of the rather gloomy, Gothic building with gory pictures of the Crucifixion. There was a brilliant teacher who taught maths so well that it became everybody's favourite subject. Almost everybody in her class passed the 11-plus.
Brighton & Hove Girls was a direct grant school in a big, Victorian building. I loved that school, apart from a really nasty woman who taught us needlework in a dark basement, but was there for just one year because my father was made professor of history at Edinburgh University. I went to George Watson's Ladies' College; it was very hard making the move to Scotland; being English was not very popular but I settled down eventually and made some friends. In my O Grades [O-levels], I got all As- including 90 per cent in maths - apart from a C in arithmetic. I do resent that I was forced to specialise too early and give up science in my second year; this is a huge grey area in my general knowledge, even though I hated it and was physically sick in biology when we dissected a rat.
In "Highers", I did Latin, Greek, English, history and French. I got As. I didn't work very hard at school; I'm very good at exams and last-minute effort. It helps in journalism: I can focus on a deadline.
I did Latin and Greek in the Oxford entrance and took "greats", a gruelling four-year course. I think the course was too academic for me; the enthusiasm was rather crushed out of us. I did love Homer - but having to read all of the Odyssey and Iliad... I found lectures on Greek metre and Roman inscriptions especially tedious.
Although I was quite interested in American politics and spent a summer holiday with my family in the US watching the Watergate hearings, I had little interest in British politics. I remember people talking about various weighty issues in the JCR but all this passed me by.
When I first arrived, you weren't allowed men in your room overnight; later, when they were allowed to stay, we thought it unfair that you had to pay an overnight fee for any hot water they might use.
I did get caught in my boyfriend's room in Balliol one morning. He had been very ill with appendicitis and the master came round to see how he was. Since my boyfriend had gone to see the bursar, I told the master that he had gone to the college authorities. The master said: "I am the college authorities!"
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