Passed/failed: An education in the life of Sam Baker, editor of 'Cosmopolitan' magazine

'Life wasn't easy as a coppertop'

Jonathan Sale
Thursday 18 May 2006 00:00
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Sam Baker, 39, has edited Cosmopolitan magazine for two years, and is a former editor of Company. The paperback edition of her novel Fashion Victim is out now.

My childhood was blighted by being ginger. In a small school - Anton Infants and Juniors, in Andover, Hampshire - I was the only one with ginger hair. At my comprehensive, there were only three of us in my year, which had 300 children. I was called "ginger", "copper-top", "carrot" and finally "Duracell", after the colour of the batteries.

The only real writing I did at school was when I was nine and we had to write a story 40 pages long. I got to 30 pages; most people conked out at 10 pages. At Winton Comprehensive, the careers teacher, with a grizzled grey beard, asked me what I wanted to do. I said: "Be a journalist." He said: "Be a teacher; you're from an ordinary background."

I was unhappy at Winton. I was academic - a terrible swot - and I was in a class that wasn't terribly academic. I was rubbish at sports: I can't throw a ball to save my life. You got kudos by being naughty or sporty - and I was neither.

When you're in journalism, which is absolutely full of misfits, you get the last laugh, but at 14 all that was a long way off. At least it was mixed. Although boys weren't interested in me (ginger, flat-chested) and they sat at the back throwing things, they diluted the girls' potential to be absolute bitches.

I was a terrible mouse and tried to make myself as small as possible - until I was 14 or 15 and felt: "Sod the others!" It was only when I started O-levels - with the split between those doing O-levels and those doing CSEs - that I started to enjoy school. There were others in the class who were more like me. They wouldn't laugh at you if you asked any question other than "Can I go to the loo?"

One good teacher can really influence your path. Mr Hardy was passionate about history and it was because of him that I studied political sciences at university. My only encounter with him had been in the first year; his classroom adjoined ours, linked by a store-cupboard. My class were real horror kids and one day the teacher was crying in the cupboard. Mr Hardy stormed out of the cupboard and threw the blackboard rubber across the room: there was complete silence. I was terrified of him.

I took eight O-levels and I got eight, even geography - and I was rubbish at that. I even passed home economics (on the theory part; I was the only person at our school to fail the practical). I remember opening the oven; my Victoria sponge was like a biscuit.

I went to Cricklade College to do politics, law and English literature A-levels. It was really great, a stepping-stone between school and university, with free time for smoking cigarettes in the common room. You learnt to manage your time. I noticed at university that people who came from a strict environment immediately flew off the rails. We did creative writing and I started learning about journalism. The careers teacher, who was brilliant, encouraged me to apply to the London College of Printing, but they said: "You haven't got what it takes."

I went to Birmingham University and loved it. Being brainy became a good thing. I didn't do much student journalism; I was having too much of a good time and I was more into going to gigs. I loved meeting people with very different life experiences. I got a 2.1 in political sciences; it now feels like a history course: Communism, the Eastern bloc, Nazism, Marxism.

I learnt to type in the holidays. I always say this was the single most important thing I did. After university, I was taken on by a big temping agency and covered for the editor's secretary on Chat magazine. I went for a week, and then the secretary didn't come back. I wasn't actually a very good PA, so they let me start writing.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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