Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Nicholas Evans, novelist

'Teachers liked beating us'
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The Independent Online

Nicholas Evans, 55, is the author of The Horse Whisperer, which has sold 15 million copies worldwide and was turned into a film directed by and starring Robert Redford. His other novels are The Smoke Jumper, The Loop and, just out, The Divide.

I was an Indian for the first 10 years of my life; everybody played Cowboys and Indians. I went to a riding school from when I was six until 11, the age when boys get the notion that it's a girly thing. When Robert Redford was filming The Horse Whisperer, he invited me to go riding at Sundance, his ranch, but I was appalled: on a horse, I look like the Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

I gave the hero of The Horse Whisperer the name of Tom Booker, and the headmistress of Whitford Hall, a wonderful private school near Bromsgrove, was Miss Booker, a very gentle, kind and clever person (but strong: you didn't want to upset her). The second half of double-English on Friday mornings consisted of going to her book-lined study; she would read The Jungle Book, The Pilgrim's Progress and The Wind in the Willows. I was transfixed.

At the age of eight, I went to boarding school. This was absurd: Oakley, a crumbling, red-brick Victorian mansion, was only two miles away from home. It was a pretty brutal place. You got beaten for trivial reasons, such as if your shoes weren't clean enough. Some of the teachers really enjoyed beating us. I often wondered if the lovely headmaster, John Webber, knew about the dark things being done at the school. There were some good teachers, in particular a French teacher called David Coop; again, he would read stories, especially Maupassant short stories, which I later read to my own children when they were young.

Oakley was the prep school to Bromsgrove School, where I went when I passed the common entrance exam at 13. While I was there, Bromsgrove became a nicer place. The gates were firmly locked against the Sixties, but the good parts of Sixties liberalism would finally seep under them. At the beginning, though, the monitors were allowed to beat us. The terror of those footsteps after lights-out in the dormitory... You'd see the silhouette in the doorway: "Evans, go into the changing-room!" The languid seniors would be leaning against the wall. You got a lecture and a good thrashing on your pyjama-ed bottom. Also, there was "dowling", or fagging. You were a "dowl", or slave, for your first two years. You had to warm the toilet seat for your seniors. Surprising as it may seem, I really enjoyed my time there. I sometimes think I would have enjoyed a concentration camp! I was a sporty kid and it was a sporting school.

Eventually, I became head boy, although I still get embarrassed by all that this entailed: it would have been more fun to be a rock'n'roll person. There were some fine teachers there, in particular an English teacher who was very inspiring and navigated us through the classics. I got English and French A-levels. We all failed German, although we got As and Bs in everything else; looking back, it must have been some catastrophic failure of teaching. Maybe it was the wrong syllabus. I stayed on and got my German A-level.

The headmaster was Lionel Carey, a wonderful man who would ask you round for coffee and talk to you with great wisdom and compassion. Since I had won The Observer's debating cup, he said, "You shouldn't read English at university, you should read law."

I didn't enjoy law much to begin with at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. All I did was theatre, a production every term in my first two years. In my last year I did some serious work. After finals, I was called back and thought, "I'm being viva-ed for a Third." They gave me a First. No one was more surprised than me.

I had a wonderful law tutor named Jeffrey Hackney, from Stoke.

He looked at my CV, which was all about playing sport at public school, and said, "Another bloody gladiator!". I never played any sport at Oxford.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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