Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Minette Walters, crime novelist

Bad starts, happy endings
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The Independent Online

When my elder brother was five and I was three, my mother would put us on the bus to Hill Side, some sort of kindergarten in Scarborough. We wore labels with our names and address in case we got lost. I'm sure we were well taught: I learnt to read at three - not War And Peace, of course.

When I was seven, we moved to Reading and I used to bicycle two miles to Highlands, a private school in Tilehurst. Mrs Peach ran the school and her mother was the cook; Mr Peach ran St Edward's, a boys prep school in Reading where my brothers went. When I was 10, my father died and it all became rather difficult; he left my mother with a £400 overdraft. The Peaches were wonderful and let us stay on. My mother worked at Highlands for two terms and then, I think, my godparents helped out with fees.

My brothers won "foundation scholarships" - a free place if your father had been in the Army and was dead - to Wellington College, in Crowthorne, Berkshire. I passed the 11-plus and got into The Abbey, a local grammar school, but I was an early latchkey kid and, after a year, I sat the "foundation scholarship" to Godolphin, the girls' boarding school in Salisbury. My mother moved to Crowthorne to be near the boys but this was 60 miles from me. She rarely came to see me, and I don't think our relationship recovered.

I had a miserable first year, but you either commit suicide or make friends very assiduously. I think the education was brilliant, but I didn't like it at the time. Now I'm suspicious of children who say they enjoy their schools.

I was one of the pupils who did what they were expected to, but I infinitely preferred reading and would take my own books into lessons. We wore "pinnies", blue smocks like an Orphan Annie dress, with a yoke gathered from the nipples downwards; you could hide anything under them, because we looked pregnant.

I wanted to leave after O-levels to become a secretary, or anything, but my mother persuaded me to stay. If you left the school premises, you were expelled, but in the sixth form you were allowed to go into town for an hour to buy essentials such as toothpaste. My last year was by far the best. I was head girl and had some control of my life for the first time ever.

I did pretty well at A-levels: an A in French and Bs in German and Latin, with two S-levels. I won a place to read French at Durham, delayed for a year so that I could go on a scheme that sent non-Jews to Israel. I worked in a home in Jerusalem for delinquent boys: 10- to 14-year-olds, some of them murderers.

I loathed my first year at Durham University. On the first night I went into my room in my all-girl college: it was like being back at school. I picked up my suitcase, which I hadn't unpacked, and asked Mr Appleyard, the marvellous night porter, to get me a taxi to the station. He said that there were no trains to London so I might as well stay until morning. He talked to me all night, saying: "I've got two daughters who would give their right arms for your advantages."

I was shamed into staying and the next day I met Alec on a coach to a football match; he became a good friend and, seven years after we graduated, my husband.

My other friends were mostly in the theatre. I designed sets and helped with productions; I'm a shocking actress and only played one part (a prostitute, with one line). Again, my last year was the best. I won back my freedom by moving out of college, into the attic of the house of a fantastic couple who helped me keep my nose to the grindstone before finals. I got a drinking degree - a 2.2 - but no one's ever asked me to prove it.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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