Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Tim Waterstone, bookseller

'I don't think my parents read at all'
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The Independent Online

Tim Waterstone, 67, founded the Waterstone's chain of 200 bookshops, which he later sold. He recently withdrew a £280m bid to buy back the business. He is chairman of the Early Learning Centre and the Daisy & Tom children's department stores. Swimming Against the Stream, his guide to business, was published earlier this year.

The teacher's hand was seldom out of our pockets or his own. It was a disgraceful example of sexual harassment. Inspectors used to come round to find out what was happening and we all lied through our teeth: an odd sort of loyalty.

I went to Warden House School in Crowborough, East Sussex, a preparatory boarding school, at the age of six. It was a simply terrible place, though not all that unusual in those days (immediately after the war). I've never met anyone from that school since; I wonder what happened to them all? We were barely educated and barely fed; the food was totally repellent. The teaching was pretty dreadful but the English teacher, a retired army officer, was rather good. He did a semi-staged performance with us of The Pickwick Papers.

The English was brilliant at Tonbridge School, although in those days it was a not very distinguished public school. The wife of the school chaplain, who ran extra English classes, gave me a copy of "Odour of Chrysanthemums", a short story by DH Lawrence, and said, "Tell me about the story." I said, "It's about a family of miners." She said, "I know that - but what is it about? What does it mean?" This was an epiphany: a story having a meaning beyond its narrative. From that moment, I read and read and read. I have consumed books all my life, more than anyone I know. I used to spend my school holidays sitting on the floor of the very good bookshop in our village, reading their books but never buying any.

I didn't come from a bookish family; I don't think my parents - who I should say were delightful people - read at all. I was a moderately bright child. My brother and sister, who are older, were very clever indeed and my parents were transfixed by their cleverness, and such a lot of expectations were put on their shoulders. I was quite relieved to escape that. When I was born, my mother took one look at me and decided I was quite sweet but dim.

I got my O-levels and A-levels in English, history and economics. I applied to Cambridge and a letter arrived from the university. I went downstairs in my pyjamas to get the post. I rushed to tell my parents, "I've got in!" My mother asked, "You've got in where?" She looked as if she was mildly disappointed with Cambridge for dropping their standards. I was rather irritated.

I was quite shy and immature. I found the leap from school to St Catharine's a bit difficult. As an 18-going-on-15-year-old, I was surrounded by brigadiers aged 20 who had done their National Service. I was taught English by Tom Henn, a Yeats man whom I found quite a bully; he had been teaching my brother, whom he found brighter. At first I was paired up for supervisions with Ian McKellen, a delightful 18-year-old, and then they moved him to more distinguished company. When he played Richard II, Harold Hobson wrote in The Sunday Times, "I have seen the future of English theatre and his name is Ian McKellen."

I did some acting in the Footlights. Peter Cook came over the road from Pembroke to rehearse a sketch in my room with, I think, David Frost, who was awfully nice. Peter was a very, very good-looking 19-year-old, quite a fop, and I remember him striding across my room, dropping cigarette ash on the carpet.

I was pretty shocked when I got a Third but it was exactly in line with my mother's expectations and she didn't mind at all.

The bookshop chain was a fantastic success and I'd have loved my parents to have seen that. It is a source of minor sadness to me that they both died before Waterstone's itself was born.