Passed/Failed: 'I wore a trilby to school'

An education in the life of Philip Pullman, author

Philip Pullman is the author of the His Dark Materials novels, currently being staged at the National Theatre. His latest book is Lyra's Oxford. He is a patron of the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival (24-28 March), and will be speaking about the art of writing for children.

We all wore shorts at Drayton Primary, a little village school near Norwich, and a boy called Dennis had big red knees, which he used to great effect when we had a fight. He wanted my yellow Dinky toy, and won, but I triumphed later.

We moved, briefly, to what was then Southern Rhodesia. (My father - and, when he died, my stepfather - were both in the RAF.) At the Cecil John Rhodes school in Gwelo, the school uniform included a little trilby hat. When we came home to Norwich, my mother made me wear this hat to Drayton Primary; it survived five minutes. The other memory I have of Drayton Primary is a drawing lesson in which we were told that you start at the top left-hand corner of the paper and work across the page to the right, so you don't smudge the picture.

The next school was Taverham Hall, a prep school near Norwich. There was a very kind and interesting English teacher called Mr Glegg, who read us The Rime of the Ancient Mariner right the way through. He didn't stop to explain, and it was mesmerising; we sat there open-mouthed. Poetry does a lot of explaining for itself. (This doesn't work with quadratic equations.) I wasn't there for very long, about a year. My stepfather was posted to Australia, and at nine I went to a school in Adelaide. I remember a little ceremony when you were made to swear allegiance to the flag, marching to the beat of a drum. Australian history seemed to begin in the late 18th century; there was nothing before the white man came.

After about 18 months, we returned to London and I went to Eaton House, a prep school in Belgravia. I enjoyed my time at both of my prep schools. I had the day off from this smart prep school to take the 11-plus at a primary school in Battersea, where we lived.

I passed and went to the local secondary school when we moved to North Wales. Ysgol (it means "school") Ardudwy in Harlech is now a comprehensive, but then it was in effect two schools - a grammar and a secondary modern - in one. If you had passed the 11-plus, you went into the A stream; if you had failed, you could work your way up from the D stream. I enjoyed it very much. It was a very good school with excellent teachers.

Welsh was the first language of almost everybody there, but they were all bilingual. Those of us who didn't speak it were taught Welsh for the first two years. On my first day, somebody heard me speak and twigged that I was from "somewhere else". He asked where I came from and I foolishly said, "London". Thump. Those were the days before knives and guns in schools; I was all right at fists.

My A-levels were English, history and French. I just liked the idea of Oxford, and got into Exeter College. I enjoyed my time there - it was the mid-Sixties, and it was a nice place to be. I didn't do very well: I didn't work in the right way to get a good degree. I had a problem with the tutorial system, and the weekly essay didn't suit me; I would have done better at a university with seminars. I got a third-class degree; they had stopped giving Fourths!

I wrote a lot of poetry and had one poem published in a rather silly anthology. There was never the slightest sign that I was going to do anything except fail at everything I tried - but I was full of conceit. I had planned to write a novel in six weeks after I had finished at Oxford; it was going to be a bestseller. Things didn't work out like that.

Jontysale@aol.com

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