Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Reginald Hill, author of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels

'Most of my writing was scurrilous'
Click to follow

Reginald Hill, 72, has written 23 Dalziel and Pasco novels, which have been adapted in 11 BBC series. A Cure for All Diseases is just out. The Roar of the Butterflies, the sixth in the Joe Sixsmith series, will be published in June.

Stanwix primary school in the posh part of Carlisle had – so they alleged – a bit of Hadrian's Wall running through it. Certainly the boys' latrine looked as if it went back to Roman times. In my experience, it was a nice school and I met my wife there. I achieved the dizzying status of "yard monitor" and my task during break was to be adamant in preventing her and the other kids from getting out of the howling gales and back into the warmth.

I was always scribbling. The headmaster read out to the class my story about a boy travelling faster and faster downhill on a "bogey" – a soapbox. He hits a queue at a bus stop, resulting in broken limbs. My friends laughed and the headmaster talked of "the long tradition, found in Shakespeare, of mingling tragedy and comedy." You could say that at an early stage I was being compared to Shakespeare (for the last time).

In Carlisle we called the 11-plus "The Merit", which would make us the earliest examples of meritocracy. I enjoyed Carlisle Grammar and my memories are generally happy. I think I passed everything except biology. At A-levels I did English, French and German. I learnt the languages well enough to read but could never get my tongue round them properly. English was my subject, although it didn't seem like an actual subject: you just read books.

I'd always known I was going to be a writer. The official school magazine, The Carliol, was a bit staid, with boys writing essays on "Duty". There was another magazine, which was more demotic. Most of my writing for it was utterly scurrilous and I wonder how I managed to get away with it. The only career advice I had came from Adrian Barnes, the head of English. He said I should get a job as a lorry-driver and write my first novel in transport caffs on the Great North Road. But I didn't have a driving licence and I'd had the idea of going to Oxford because that's where people in schoolboy stories ended up.

I was at St Catherine's before it became the splendid modern building it now is; it hadn't got much past the foundation stones. We had college premises but not college accommodation. We were near the police station and people wandered in asking for the morgue; we sent them up to the Senior Common Room.

Oxford suited me. You were left to your own devices. You went along to a couple of tutorials a week and read out your essay. I went to lectures enthusiastically at first and then in search of entertainment. I got a second.

I did amazingly little writing, scribbling only the odd poem. I played rugby; in the first term I was in the second row with a man whose name was pronounced "Dee-ell". It took me a little time to realise this chap, who I was putting my arms round in the scrum, was the same as the person listed on the team-sheet as "Dalziel". Later, when I was looking for a gross Northern copper, I thought how amusing it would be to call him after my rather smooth middleclass friend. Forty years later, we're still friends but he threatens to sue.

I have memories of three years without any thoughts of any after-life. I went up to London for an interview at the Financial Times. I bought a copy on the train and discovered it was an odd colour. The editor kept me talking for hours; I realised later he was baffled by me. He asked if I had any questions and I said: "How do you claim your expenses?" I got the expenses but I didn't get the job.