Passed/Failed: Carlo Gébler

An education in the life of the author and prison writer-in-residence
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The Independent Online

Both my parents [Edna O'Brien and Ernest Gébler] were writers. The most important thing I learnt was that you can type out words on bits of paper, post them off and they send back money. My mother was more widely regarded as an author than my father, but her presence in her children's life was maternal rather than literary: she was the woman who made the dinner and washed our hair.

On 6 November, 1958, my mother took me to Hillcross Primary school in Morden, Surrey, which had been created in the Thirties for a brave new world: you could feel a trace of idealism in the air and in the brickwork. Our teacher read us The Borrowers. I was ecstatic. I rushed home; our wainscot had come free and I peered at it, expecting to see little people.

Then we moved to Cornwall and I went to a school in Mousehole very like the one in Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie: a single room, rural children, very cold. After a term we came back to Morden and I went back to Hillcross. The tyranny of the 11-plus loomed large. I sat it - disastrously. I was bookish but not a natural academic. I failed miserably and went to Wimbledon Boys Secondary Modern, which was very violent. Its ethos was that you joined the armed services or you got a trade such as a boilermaker. I hated it.

I did one year, then was sent to Ibstock Place School, attached to the Froebel Institute in Roehampton. This was child-centred and very genial. I remember lying under the piano in the music room and reading The Lord of the Rings. At Wimbledon I had been in the D set (for Dunces) but after a year at Ibstock Place, they put me in the A stream when I went to Holland Park Comprehensive.

Holland Park was a classic example of the old adage: The road to hell is paved with good intentions. It was far too big. The teachers were overwhelmed by the social problems. I remember two boys grabbing me and throwing me into a plate-glass window. I spent my breaks hiding in the music department; if you were caught reading a book, you were duffed up.

At 14 I went to Bedales, the private boarding school. The teachers were, some of them, extraordinarily good. I passed my O-levels, but not very well. I did well enough in my A-levels - English, history and economics, with S-levels in English and history - to get into the University of York.

I had a miserable time at York, probably because I wasn't a natural academic. It was the Seventies, when awful things were happening in English literary criticism. I directed plays for the drama society and wrote a musical based on Byron's "Don Juan".

After I had finished at York with a 2.1, I had the immense good fortune to go to the National Film and Television School at Beaconsfield, Bucks. That's where I began, seriously and regularly, to write. Bill Douglas, the director [My Childhood] would go through my script, I would re-write it and we would meet the next morning and he would go through it ... A narrative is like a line of dominoes: the first word knocks the second and so on.

I am writer-in-residence at Maghaberry Prison in County Antrim. The quality doesn't matter to me, initially - I must not stamp on tender green shoots - but then I try to talk to the prisoner with the same rigour that a publisher would talk to me about my work.

For two years before that, I was the creative writing tutor (part-time) at Her Majesty's Prison Maze, informally known as Long Kesh. I was very even-handed: if I did Republicans in the morning, I would teach Loyalists in the afternoon.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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