Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Saul David, historian and broadcaster
'At my school, 20 of us were cousins'
Thursday 12 June 2008
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."
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