Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Saul David, historian and broadcaster

'At my school, 20 of us were cousins'


Professor Saul David, 42, is the author of, among other books, Zulu and Mutiny at Salerno, which were turned into BBC2 documentaries. He presented The Greatest Knight for Timewatch in January, and is now filming Secrets of Elizabeth's Armada for the autumn. He will discuss Victoria's Wars, his latest book out in paperback, at this weekend's Althorp Literary Festival in Northampton

To get to Welsh Newton Primary School, which was (just) in England, my cousins and I would walk over the fields in a straggling line, across the border into Wales, and back again into England. We lived near Monmouth in lots of different buildings on my grandparents' big farm. At school there were more Davids than any other name: more than 20 of us cousins out of 40 pupils. When my older cousins moved on, the school had to close.

It was very old-fashioned. My brother was dyslexic and the headmaster was pretty tough on him: "He's not really trying." When I was six or seven, we went to the nearest English primary school, St Weonards, about seven miles away. The teaching was good and this was the start of my beginning to shine as a student. I can trace my love of history to that school thanks to the fascinating classes of Mrs Tabor – history was her favourite subject. I think I also got the telly bug at that time when two series of The Survivors [a cult TV sci-fi] were filmed at my house and we all appeared as extras. I felt I was a star!

I passed the 11-plus but it was decided that I should take the Common Entrance exam to Monmouth School, the nearest independent. I was never entirely comfortable there as they didn't have girls and they played rugby instead of football. After two years, I made a deal with my dad that if I went to the local comprehensive for three years, I would then go to his old boarding school, Ampleforth, for my sixth form.

My aunt was deputy head of John Kyrle High School, and she has always been slightly miffed that I don't mention it in my CV. I had a great time but it was the early days of it going comprehensive and, in retrospect, I realise that the education was pretty poor. It has improved hugely, I gather. I left with only seven O-levels, yet had the second- best results. I got an A in English language, but failed literature: a D. I asked for it to be re-marked and the report said: "We think we marked you too highly."

I died my hair blond in the summer, and at Ampleforth they said, "You look like the guy in Bucks Fizz", so that became my nickname. Once I'd adapted to being away from home, I loved Ampleforth. I thought then that the best history master was the one who spoon-fed us, but in fact the other master was the clever one: he made us think for ourselves. I got ABC in my A-levels and distinction in my history S-level.

I got in to Trinity College, Dublin, but my LEA changed its policy of paying fees at "foreign" universities, so I chose Edinburgh instead, another Celtic capital. I was slightly disappointed with the quality of the teaching, although it had some fabulous historians. I worked hard at my four-year MA, but got a 2.1. That was a big disappointment as I wanted to write about history and thought I needed a First.

But I did it anyway, and at 31 I got fantastic reviews for my fourth book, The Homicidal Earl: I was a "rising star". On the same day I was offered a scholarship for a doctorate at Glasgow University. My best book came out of the research I did there, The Indian Mutiny. Now that I'm Visiting Professor in Military History at Hull University, I'll be telling my PhD students, "Choose an original subject – but one that you can also sell as a book."

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: HR Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £350 - £400 per ...

HR Manager - HR Generalist / Sole in HR

£30000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Manager - HR Generalis...

Business Analyst - Banking - London - £350-£400

£350 - £400 per day: Orgtel: Business Analyst - Banking - People Change - Lond...

HR Manager - Milton Keynes - £50,000 + package

£48000 - £50000 per annum + car allowance + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Shared...

Day In a Page

Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

A descent into madness in America's heartlands

David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home
Lauded therapist Harley Mille still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Lauded therapist still in limbo as battle to stay in Britain drags on

Australian Harley Miller is as frustrated by court delays as she is with the idiosyncrasies of immigration law
Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world. But could his predictions of war do the same?

Lewis Fry Richardson's weather forecasts changed the world...

But could his predictions of war do the same?
Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs: 'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

'I want to have contact with the audience, not iPhones'

Kate Bush asks fans not to take photos at her London gigs
Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities, but why?

Young at hort

Under-35s have rated gardening in their top five favourite leisure activities. But why are so many people are swapping sweaty clubs for leafy shrubs?
Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award: 'making a quip as funny as possible is an art'

Beyond a joke

Tim Vine, winner of the Funniest Joke of the Fringe award, has nigh-on 200 in his act. So how are they conceived?
The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

The late Peter O'Toole shines in 'Katherine of Alexandria' despite illness

Sadly though, the Lawrence of Arabia star is not around to lend his own critique
Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire: The joy of camping in a wetland nature reserve and sleeping under the stars

A wild night out

Wicken Fen in Cambridgeshire offers a rare chance to camp in a wetland nature reserve
Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition: It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans

Comic Sans for Cancer exhibition

It’s the font that’s openly ridiculed for its jaunty style, but figures of fun have their fans
Besiktas vs Arsenal: Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie

Besiktas vs Arsenal

Five things we learnt from the Champions League first-leg tie
Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

Rory McIlroy a smash hit on the US talk show circuit

As the Northern Irishman prepares for the Barclays, he finds time to appear on TV in the States, where he’s now such a global superstar that he needs no introduction
Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to Formula One

Boy racer Max Verstappen stays relaxed over step up to F1

The 16-year-old will become the sport’s youngest-ever driver when he makes his debut for Toro Rosso next season
Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

Fear brings the enemies of Isis together at last

But belated attempts to unite will be to no avail if the Sunni caliphate remains strong in Syria, says Patrick Cockburn
Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I would end up killing myself in jail'

Charlie Gilmour: 'I wondered if I'd end up killing myself in jail'

Following last week's report on prison suicides, the former inmate asks how much progress we have made in the 50 years since the abolition of capital punishment