Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, writer

'We were snobbish little boys'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 26 January 2006 01:00

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, 72, is the author of Alfred C Kinsey, the biography of the sexologist on which the film Kinsey, starring Liam Neeson, was based. His other non-fiction includes The Rise and Fall of the British Nanny, and The Public School Phenomenon. Half an Arch, Gathorne-Hardy's memoir, won last year's JR Ackerley autobiography prize. Children's books include the Cyril Bonhamy series and, to be republished in January, the Jane's Adventures stories.

I was very frightened at my first school, which was in Ladbroke Grove, west London. I remember that swimming-pool noise from the playground; I've disliked the sound of swimming pools ever since, though I do like swimming in them. Two bullies took me into a cupboard and said, "Tomorrow we're going to saw off your arms". I believed them, and ran away. That was the end of that school.

We moved to Snape in Suffolk when war broke out. When I was 10, I went to Port Regis, a little prep school in Dorset that had just been moved to a wing of Bryanston, the public school near Blandford. I was absolutely miserable at being taken from home, but I enjoyed tennis and games in the woods. I also enjoyed English and history.

We all got into each other's beds, but we were quite snobbish little boys. The wealthy ones were snobbish about money. With the zeitgeist turning towards egalitarianism, I was rather ashamed of the earl in my family, but I do remember explaining in a weary voice that "a viscount is the son of an earl".

My father had been to Eton and been buggered and beaten; he didn't want that to happen to us. Bryanston was, in a mild way, progressive. It had good teachers and the head let them get on with it. He saw himself as a director/producer and was obsessed by the school plays. For a while, I wanted to be an actor. I was the Winslow Boy, and had parts in numerous plays, including The Lady's Not for Burning. But I had a friend called Mullins who acted, too, and when I realised that I couldn't compete with him, I edited Saga, the school magazine, instead.

I did A-levels in history and English. Bryanston used a system called the Dalton Plan, which taught people to work on their own, and when I got to Cambridge University, the lectures, supervisions and reading in libraries seemed completely familiar.

I enjoyed Cambridge, although I was very lonely in my first year, as I didn't live in the very beautiful Trinity College but in a room miles away. It was Nick Tomalin (the Sunday Times journalist killed during the 1973 Yom Kippur war) who altered my life. He had been at Bryanston and had also edited Saga. At Cambridge, he edited Granta and asked Wilf Cowley, one of the teachers at Bryanston, whether I had been any good on Saga. Being told - mistakenly - that I had been, he made me editor of Granta after him.

Editing Granta, with my friend Julian Jebb, was great fun. I published everything I wrote, which was the whole point as far as I was concerned. We didn't have to sell a single copy, as the advertising revenue covered everything and left the equivalent of £3,000 for parties. I began an affair with a person I call Eliza in my autobiography, and went up to London almost every weekend.

In my first year, I worked very hard and got a First in my history Prelims. Then Granta and sex and social life took over. I worked as hard as I could but at the end of my final year, when I had switched to English, I got a 2:2. I was lucky to get a degree at all. I read English as a way of reading a lot of writers, although I rather wish I'd stuck to history, as it has proved very useful for my books.

A fellow-student, now a distinguished journalist, began - inappropriately - to hero-worship me. He hung on my words until, one day, he said, "I have crabs, what should I do?". I thought he was talking about some culinary venture.

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