Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Phill Jupitus

'I got detention every Saturday'


Phill Jupitus, 47, is a regular on BBC2 pop quiz Never Mind the Buzzcocks. He played the first record on BBC 6Music and is a frequent guest on BBC1's QI and The News Quiz on Radio 4. This week he joined the cast of the musical Hairspray at Shaftesbury Theatre, London.

I vividly remember walking from the pub (it wasn't a pre-school drink – we lived above it) on the first day at Northbury Infants and Juniors in Barking, Essex. When I went into the classroom I remember running my finger along the dado rail, a row of tiling three feet off the ground. This was still there when I went back recently to open a new wing; I got emotional.

I got my first award, a badge for reading, which my mum still has; she deserves it, as she taught me to read. School felt like playtime with an informational element. History was my favourite subject. Being told about Romans and Saxons was a new concept: things had happened before the Second World War. Now I buy old coins: tactile history. I like beat-up ones. Billy Bragg gave me a coin (he got two for the price of three) from 800BC, with a crude eagle on the back.

We moved to Stanford-le-Hope and I went to the junior school. I assume I didn't pass the 11-plus, as I went on to the local comprehensive, Hassenbrook. I floundered. If a teacher flattered me, I'd do anything for them, but otherwise it was discipline and detention. I abhorred the whole concept of doing homework for these people.

After a year I went to Woolverstone Hall, an Inner London Education Authority boarding school near Ipswich. Called "the poor man's Eton", it was for the sons of well-to-do businessmen – grocers or garage owners – and the sons of the military. It was four miserable years. There was corporal punishment and not a year when I wasn't in detention every Saturday morning. The guy who taught history destroyed my enthusiasm. I fell behind in French.

Phil Taylor was the reason I got English language O-level a year early. He used to make us write and perform poetry and I wouldn't have become a performance poet without Phil. He was wrong in one way; when he saw I was incredibly unhappy, he said I would look back fondly at the school.

I got O-level physics, maths, biology and art, all Cs; I failed history, French, geography – and English literature, even though I had been in one of the exam's set plays. (I think I had someone marking on a Friday afternoon.) At Palmer's sixth-form college in Grays, I thought, "What A-levels will be useful in getting ahead?" It was a stupid idea. Had I played to my strengths and done art and English literature, I would have gone to university; I have a great sense of loss. I have no idea where I would have ended up – but I wouldn't be about to go on in Hairspray! My university was when I quit my day job in the civil service and went on the road with Billy Bragg.

I dropped out of the maths A-level. In geography I swapped the A-level course for an O-level and got my only B. In economics, too, I just did it at O-level. My friend and I were slackers but borrowed the exercise books of our girlfriends who had done the course in the previous year. (I only stayed at the sixth-form college because of my girlfriend.) We were the only two people to pass.

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