Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Pam Ayres, poet and broadcaster

'I must have looked very twerpish'
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The Independent Online

Pam Ayres, 59, has been writing and performing her humorous verse for more than 30 years, and was in the top 10 of a BBC poll to find the nation's favourite comic poems. Her latest collection, Surgically Enhanced, is just out, and her CD, Pam Ayres: Ancient and Modern, is released in November. She is appearing at Millfield Arts Centre, London N18, on 22 September

Why he picked on me, I don't know. I must have looked particularly twerpish. One of my earliest memories at my C of E primary school in Stanford-in-the-Vale, in the Vale of the White Horse, Berkshire, was of being bullied by Phillip, a big boy at the top of the school. He said, "I'm going to poke fun at you", emphasising each syllable with a jab in my bony chest. I was scared stiff. Eventually, my mother must have been down to the school and he left me alone.

I enjoyed being in school plays, particularly when I had a funny part. I remember having to say, "The Queen!", and flourish a lorgnette. It was made by the boys in the woodwork class who didn't know what a lorgnette was and so made an owly pair of glasses on a stick of balsawood. I was nervous but thrilled.

There was much trumpeting when the school library opened. It was only one shelf, but when I said that I was interested in a book about ponies, Miss Edmonds, the Reception teacher, gave me the first book that I read for pleasure, and that made me look for other books by the same author. It was Wish for a Pony by Monica Edwards, whose books were admittedly a bit snobby and made me look down my nose at our council house.

There were four classes and four teachers. Miss Bedford had the fearsome reputation of being a tartar and very strict. One day I inadvertently tore my exercise book by trapping it in the lid of my desk. I was so terrified that I feigned all sorts of illnesses, and for weeks I was away more than I was at school. My mother thought I had appendicitis and got the doctor out. One day in class, Miss Bedford said, "Pamela, will you bring your exercise book?". I burst into tears but she just said, "Oh, that's what it's all about", and repaired it with sticky tape.

I failed the 11-plus. I'm not saying I would have passed, but I remember being terribly irritated that the headmistress, who was invigilating, was gossiping with the vicar throughout the exam. So I went to Farringdon secondary modern. It overflowed into numerous outposts in town: "The Huts", a displaced-persons camp with corrugated-iron roofs, and an old Marines camp where we used to learn needlework.

The teaching was chequered. There was a madman who taught English and had insane rages. But Bill Reeves, who also taught English, was gorgeous. He encouraged me to write stories and we put together a little book called Ayres and Graces. He started a paper called The Conquest, and I wrote stories for it about ponies and escapades.

We all left school at 15. I passed the Civil Service exams. That qualified me for clerical work in the Civil Service, and they sent me on day release to a further- education college in Oxford, where I took O-levels in English language and literature. I didn't have any trouble in passing. I also got the mayor's award for Best Civil Service Student. All that was a life-saver as it showed that I was capable of more than my 11-plus failure had indicated.

I joined the Women's Royal Air Force, where I did geography, social and economic history, and the general paper, so I got five O-levels - like many girls at grammar schools - while having a full-time job. I've never taken any A-levels.

When I was stationed near Huntington, I used to take the bus to Cambridge and look through the gates at the beautiful colleges and think, "If only I had the chance!". It was like a foreign country.

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