Not a sausage?
At eight, I was sent to Avisford in Sussex, a family-run Catholic prep school where the headmaster had 11 children. It was - for a certain type of outgoing, self-confident boy - a garden of Eden. My chief memories of those years are of hazy summer fields seen from the top of a tree. At the age of 12 I found a half-eaten sausage in the holy-water stoop of the chapel. My fellow prefects and I went about our search for the culprit with a grim determination; we all knew that we were in the presence of evil!
At 12 I was rather large and the headmaster said, "Go to Ampleforth" (the Benedictine monastery and public school in a North Yorkshire valley). I left a term early and got a minor scholarship to Ampleforth.
Scooting along to vespers? I remember looking at my house and thinking it was huge - and that it was the whole school. The emblem of the school was "The Grid". The monastery was the abbey of St Lawrence, who was barbecued and who said: "Turn me over." The Grid was what he was grilled on; we had a bit of his charred arm in the abbey church. The Grid was the school magazine; I was one of the team of editors. Much of the teaching was done by monks. It was religion with a light touch - it was taken seriously but they were not grim about it. You could go to vespers: monks chanting, which now gets to the top of the charts.
Trinity College, Cambridge, gave me a place on the strength of my four A-levels and then I got an exhibition. I had done Mandarin O-level and when I went for the interview, I hadn't decided whether to read Chinese or English. The don who taught Mandarin was incredibly fierce: "You will spend all afternoons with headphones on in the language laboratory! You will do nothing else!" The English don was kind and said, "See you in September". Then I decided: I read English.
After the first-year exams, my director of studies took me for a walk in the Fellows Garden and said, "There is a chance you could get a first but you'd have to do nothing else - and then you might not get it." I became president of the union. I'd done a certain amount of speaking at school, when I was on the Ampleforth debating team that won the Observer mace.
I got a 2.1. The kind English don who had interviewed me may have been connected to the security services because, after going down, several of us taught by him got letters from an illegible signature somewhere in Whitehall - MI5 or MI6, clearly the spies: "It has been suggested that you might be interested in a post in the field of foreign affairs not covered by the usual diplomatic entry procedures." I replied, "Thank you very much but I've got a job at ITN." They wrote back saying, "Let us know if you change your mind before you're 27." Why 27, I don't know.Reuse content