Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Lucy Hawking, science writer

'Home was always full of physicists'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 30 April 2009 00:00 BST

Lucy Hawking, 38, is a journalist and novelist, and the daughter of theoretical physicist Professor Stephen Hawking. They are the co-authors of a children's book, 'George's Cosmic Treasure Hunt', out this month.

The three "George" books are based on my father's 40-year career in science. It was my idea in the first place – the characters and the plot lines – and he is my scientific adviser. I always knew he was a scientist, not least because our house was always full of physicists, who seemed to be incredibly numerous, although in fact theoretical physics is a very small world.

I started school in Pasadena, California, when he had a year's research fellowship at CalTech. I went at four, a year early, with my older brother to the Town and Country school. It had an outdoor swimming pool and ice cream for lunch: my best educational experience! To go home, we had to stand in line and your parents would drive up; they had to be identified, although in our case we were the children of a poor cosmologist and no one was going to kidnap us.

We came back to Cambridge and I went to Newnham Croft primary school. I remember at six or seven, when we were drawing a picture of our families, everyone else drew their fathers in a standing position but I drew mine sitting down. They said, "What's that blue square?" It was the blue plastic headrest of his wheelchair.

Most of the education took place in prefabs but it was an excellent school. When I was 11 we had an amazing teacher called Penny Johnson who opened up our imaginations. She took us to see our first Shakespeare, The Taming of the Shrew: we were all gripped. Thanks to her I still have beautiful italic handwriting,

I passed the exam to the Perse Girls, an independent school in Cambridge. It is an excellent school but was, I'm afraid, a bit of a rude shock: a uniform, a timetable and formal education instead of informal education. They didn't want you to express yourself except through good exam results. Suddenly, I was playing netball in a pleated skirt and being shouted at.

I took 10 O-levels and got eight As and two Bs, far better than I was expected to get. I did French, Russian and theatre studies at A-level. I was in local music and drama groups and was in a lot of school plays. At 17 I was in a local drama group play at Edinburgh and we won The Independent's Best of the Fringe award but I got a C in theatre studies; I had hoped for better. I got As for the other A-levels.

I went to University College, Oxford, to read Russian and French. I think that Oxford and Cambridge are amazing institutions and my Russian tutor was a fantastic man but I had the nagging feeling that I might have been better somewhere else. The syllabus was unexpectedly restrictive and the academic approach felt very inert; you got very bogged down with linguistics.

In my third year, I got seven months abroad, the best part of my Oxford degree. I arrived in Moscow in January 1992, a time of transition, the end of the Soviet Union and the beginning of the new disorder. I lived with a Russian family who didn't speak any English and I became fluent in Russian; I've got quite a good ear for languages and I knew I'd cracked it when I started dreaming in Russian. At the end of the four-year course I got a 2:2.

One of my tutors said that he didn't think my essays were particularly good but they were very well written and I should become a writer. I went to City University in London to do international journalism; I realised that hard news was never going to be my forté but I saw journalism as a practical way of getting into writing. For one exercise, you were given a small section of the A-Z and told to come back two hours later with three news stories. I got quite good marks but I don't know that I could do it now.

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