Primary school: My father was an Army heavyweight boxing champion, a commando, a very tough alpha male. When he was based in Aldershot, I went to a little private school in Basingstoke called Quidhampton. I was the naughtiest boy they had ever had, and was asked to leave. If you got three "black marks" a term you were beaten: I contrived to get eight in my first term.
I went next to a prep school with the utterly improbable name of Bigshotte School, in Berkshire. I had a very good English teacher who was totally untypical of the philistine ethos of the school. Ian McWhinnie would play us Beatles music and ask us to write poems. I won a national poetry competition for the Daily Mirror worth pounds 10 - it would be pounds 100 now .
One day my father turned up as a science teacher (one of a series of jobs he did, never managing to settle after the Army). I was embarrassed: he was a hopeless teacher, slow and pedantic.
Secondary school: I hated Malvern College from the first five minutes. I was very unpopular, mainly because, after I keeled over with hepatitis, it was on my account that the whole school had to have a very painful hepatitis injection. I was teased a lot about my name: Monty (short for Montague).
I was there for seven terms. For the second time, I was in the situation that, though I was not being expelled, they made it quite clear that they were not going to have me back. My parents were furious.
They sent me to The Vyne, the local comprehensive, that they thought was still the grammar school. I was really frightened; I'd been in private schools all my life and thought I'd immediately be beaten up. In fact, I found everybody in the state school infinitely nicer and kinder than anybody at Malvern. Academically it wasn't very good and the aspirations were not high.
I took one A-level at the end of the first year, and then the local authority decided to switch to a sixth-form college system, so I changed to my third school in three years. This was co-educational, and I don't remember doing any work at all. I totally failed my A-levels: I was genuinely bemused that I did not even manage an O-level grade in my English A-level.
Gap years: I re-took English A-level at night school while working on a building site, and got an A with S-level. I went to France and worked as a gardener.
In France, I decided that I wanted a space to be able to read and write before earning my living as a thatcher, so thought it would be nice to go to Cambridge. I asked a woman at Farnborough Tech to tutor me and had a happy six months working on a farm during the day and studying in the evening. I took the Cambridge exam and they offered me a place.
University: I was 21 when I went to Magdalene. I had a supervisor called Arthur Sale who was a huge influence on my life. He would say: "You have worked on a farm and read Hardy; have you read Richard Jefferies and Edward Thomas?" He realised that there were veins you could mine which were detrimental to your Tripos results, but were good for you.
I lived round the corner from college and had a dog: at the weekends I used to garden for a cousin of mine who lived in Cambridge.
I boxed to impress my father: I once boxed for the university against the Army and made sure my father came to see me knock my opponent out. I remember getting knocked out myself, and being concussed, before going to a supervision at which I heard the words without any meaning, as if they were in Arabic; two seconds later the meaning would arrive. That's when I decided to give up boxing.
I got a 2(i) in Part One - and a 2(ii) in Part Two, which I thought was a disaster. In fact, you're the first person in all my 44 years who has asked me what degree I got!
Interview by Jonathan SaleReuse content