Passed/Failed: Jasper Fforde

An education in the life of the author
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The Independent Online

Jasper Fforde is the cult author of The Eyre Affair and other best-selling novels starring literary detective Ms Thursday Next. The series is set in Swindon, which in September hosts the first Jasper Fforde Ffestival. The Big Over Easy is just out; the first of a new series set in Reading, it investigates the murder of Humpty Dumpty.

As a failed pupil, I've always been very suspicious and frightened of academics. I am one of four children and all of my family have doctorates - except me. Both my brothers went to Westminster School and Oxford or Cambridge.

At Arnold House, a pre-prep-school in St John's Wood, London, I was seen as disruptive. That is, I was trying to be popular by entertaining fellow pupils during algebra. I was good at reading but bottom in most classes.

At the age of 10, I was taken to a child psychologist "to see what would suit Jasper best". I was given Rorschach inkblot and word association tests; I remember trying to manipulate the results by giving bizarre answers to throw them off the scent - but they knew what I was doing. The report said: "Jasper is an intelligent little boy who ought to be in a more progressive school."

I was sent to Dartington Hall, in Devon. It was fearful and horrible being away from my parents, but within a couple of weeks it was like having your friends round for tea - for ever. You all had your own bedrooms and there were none of those dormitories or communal showers. It was a mixed school and, socially, it was a fantastic education; academically, perhaps less so.

Freedom has its own constraints. If you give children the freedom to do very little, quite a lot will do very little. Not that I was lazy; I had the freedom to do things that interested me. I greatly enjoyed English language and literature.

With mathematics, it was always the quirky side that struck me, parlour tricks such as "perfect" numbers (in which the sum of the divisors equals the number itself: 6=3+2+1) but workaday quadratic equations passed me by. I liked working with my hands. I did woodwork. I restored a motorcycle in my room; I kept the frame and wheels under my bed. You were allowed to do that sort of thing. I enjoyed photography.

I think I got maybe two or three O-levels. Also, there were CSEs, at which slightly stupid people could get a Grade 1 and feel good about themselves, although it was only the equivalent of an O-level pass. I got about five. I stayed on for A-levels and got a D in art and an unclassified in geography, and I was so bad in physics (physics! perhaps I was trying to impress my family) that they wouldn't even let me take the exam.

When I was about 10 or 11, I realised that people made movies; until then, I had thought they just happened. I loved the magical idea that on a film set there would be something with a rock painted on one side but there would be wood and plaster on the other side.

I worked as a chippie, or carpenter, for 18 months. I was lucky: I was doing repairs in a producer's house and said: "Gosh, I'd like to be a 'runner'!" (A runner does the photocopying, makes the tea and runs around with bits of paper.) He said: "No problem - I'm making The Pirates of Penzance."

In my late twenties, I was a camera technician, a completely uncreative grade, and felt I could do better. I suddenly realised that writing was not necessarily something only clever people could do. I started writing short stories. One of them got longer and longer, and when I was 32 I had written my first novel, but I didn't have anything published until I was 39 - and it wasn't that novel. I'm 44 and - at last - The Big Over Easy has just come out.

I still feel threatened by academics but my books have a lot of academic in-jokes and everybody assumes I went to university and studied English.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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