III. High School

The School Uniform

Great preparations for my move to the High School took place over the summer of 1973. The school had a strict uniform policy and provided parents with a comprehensive list of requirements, including a huge drawstring bag for sports equipment. Everything had to be marked with the owner's name using Cash's labels, which took my mother a considerable amount of time to sew on. According to the regulations, she also embroidered my name on the front of my aertex sports shirt and on the aforesaid bag with the school colours (red, blue and gold).

The uniform policy continued to be strict throughout my years at the High School. We wore navy blue skirts with cardigans or V-neck jumpers, which had to be absolutely plain to the extent that "fancy" knitting stitches were banned. With these we wore pale blue shirts, which had to be fully buttoned up, and the school tie of red, blue and gold stripes. In the summer this uniform could be replaced by a short-sleeved dress of a peculiar pattern and material which could only be obtained through the school. With both uniforms we wore navy blue blazers bearing the school motto, "Wisdom Giveth Life" (later we considered that the wise used contraception), and/or plain navy blue or black coats.

Shoes had to be black or brown and with heels less than two inches high, and these caused my greatest dissatisfaction with the uniform. Unlike today, flat shoes were almost impossible to find in the 1970s - the fashion was for high heels or "platforms" - and so they invariably had to be purchased from Clarks, who specialised in very plain, "sensible" shoes. As my parents could only afford to buy us one pair of shoes at a time, I was saddled with wearing these ugly shoes from the ages of 11 to 16. (I was highly envious of my sister, who went later to a nearby comprehensive school which had a much more relaxed policy.) Together with my glasses - which I now avoided wearing wherever possible outside of lessons, despite my being very short-sighted - the shoes did nothing for my self-confidence.

Looking back, the school's reinforcement of the policy was almost military (perhaps reflecting the fact that the town had housed a garrison since Roman times) and was anachronistic for the 1970s. Our hair had to be tied up if it reached our collars, with any ribbons matching our uniform. Occasionally staff would wait with rulers as we marched into the morning assembly, checking that heels were not too high nor skirts too short. When the fashion came in for wearing woolly hats and a request was made to incorporate them into the uniform (before then we had no uniform hat, meaning that, however cold the weather was, we wore none), a major debate took place. Eventually we were allowed to wear them, on the condition that they were black or navy blue and of a plain or ribbed knit.

Perhaps surprisingly, we all conformed, with the result that any breach was easily and always noticed. On one occasion I discovered on the way to school that I had forgotten to put on my tie, and on arrival therefore went straight to the headmistress to report myself, since I knew that I would otherwise be sent there by the first member of staff who saw me. On another occasion I sprained my ankle and was unable to get the aforesaid Clarks' shoe over the bandage; I was disciplined for wearing the uniform plimsolls instead.

(However, at some point in the recent past the uniform had been abolished for the Sixth Form, who were allowed to wear anything they liked so long as it was not jeans. In fact, though, jeans were not very fashionable, and students applied the definition of "anything but" very broadly. The resulting contrast between the Sixth Formers and the rest of the school was startling. When I entered the Sixth Form myself it did bring me new difficulties in terms of needing an extended wardrobe, but by this time I was earning money variously from babysitting, waitressing and shopwork in the evenings, weekends and holidays, and I greatly enjoyed leaving the uniform behind. The more so since I was still wearing my original blazer, games skirt etc which were now almost indecently small - many of us could only afford to buy these expensive items once in our school career. The appearance of the St Trinian's Sixth Form, bulging out of their uniforms, had a great deal in common with that of our fifth year girls.)


In the weeks before I started at the High School, though, the uniform signified a move into a new world, where I could leave my primary school problems behind me and which I would leave as a "grown up". I knew one member of the Sixth Form, the daughter of a friend of my mother's, and she and her friends seemed glamourous in the extreme to me (they never formed the role models of girls' school stories, perhaps because the prefect system had been abolished, but I developed intense crushes on several of them). I was also to be accompanied to school by one member of my primary school class and by two girls from the primary school in the next town, whom I knew vaguely. The journey was to be a long one: I had to catch a train at 7.45am (luckily I lived very close to the station); then to walk from the train station to the bus station where I would catch a bus to the school; finally arriving shortly before 9am.

Later, the only variety in my day was provided by the train being delayed, meaning that we were late for school - no other excuse for lateness was accepted. The train journey quickly became boringly long and familiar, and we younger girls - boys and girls boarded the train at every rural stop to go to different schools in the market town - reacted by becoming loud and boisterous. (All of the school trains had a bad reputation: the behaviour of the pupils taking the train to the local comprehensive school was rumoured to be far worse than ours, with stories of dismantled carriages and children urinating on seats. I still find it hard to believe in retrospect, though, that by the fourth year some girls from my own school were having sex with their boyfriends between the stations.)

At one point in my schooldays the journey was to become even more difficult, when the County Council withdrew our train passes and introduced a new rural bus service. This bus took more than an hour and a half to travel twenty miles, and was frequently late. Luckily it was withdrawn the following year (there must have been numerous complaints from the schools about late arrivals) and we returned to the train. Later, following a period of unemployment, my father found a job as an Assistant Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the same town where my sister and I went to school. He commuted by car and gave my sister a lift, but as he was unable to get both of us to school on time I continued to go by train. It did, however, give me an alternative means of getting home - even if it was no quicker, since my father did not finish work until 5pm.


On my first day, though, the journey was new and fascinating. What depressed me most was when an older girl jumped out at me in the cloakrooms - I was obviously already identifiable as a bully's victim. (In later life, after a couple of unfortunate experiences in the workplace, I have come to the conclusion that, once you have been bullied, further bullies can always recognise your vulnerability.)

After a few weeks grace, I was also unfortunate in attracting the same attention from the girls of my own age with whom I travelled. We all found the commuting a great chore, particularly as we had 45 minutes to wait between the end of school and the departure of the train. Even after queueing for the bus - crowds rushed for each one, often leaving the smallest girls crushed underneath - and travelling into town, we had plenty of time to spare. We spent this by hanging around the shops, but as the stock rarely changed, this was simply a way of wasting time. Perhaps fuelled by this frustration, the girls whom I travelled with began kicking me on the shins during the train journey, leaving me continually bruised. Fortunately, however, for no apparent reason they repented of this shortly before my twelfth birthday, whereupon they bought me presents of makeup, apologised and stopped completely - even if they never really became friends.

They did, though, go on to deprive me of one pleasure, that of reading girls' comics. Initially I spent all of my pocket money on buying these to read on the train - Bunty, Judy, Mandy, Tammy, to name but a few - as choosing them also occupied some of my time before arriving at the station. This habit was viewed as extremely "babyish" by the girls I travelled with, and on my thirteenth birthday I promised them that I would renounce reading comics forever. (It was only in my twenties that I rediscovered the comics world, going on to study at the London Cartoon Centre and becoming a member of the Comics Creators Guild.) In retrospect, perhaps they (rightly) regarded me as being queer, and felt that if I stopped reading comics and started wearing makeup, this would change - an attitude which my mother continues to possess at the time of writing.

Fortunately, the only other serious bullying which I encountered while at the school ended in a similar way. During my third year our original classes were rearranged for some reason, linked to the fact that we were now streamed for English, French, Maths and Latin (none of which, however, corresponded to our new classes). On our first morning, the bully, whom I had not previously encountered, tormented our form teacher by opening the lid of her desk, sitting in it and pretending that she was going to urinate. I believe the teacher was new both to the school and to the profession; certainly she was very upset.

Later the same bully physically intimidated me, although this was mainly through threats rather than actual violence. She had rather a grotesque sense of humour, at one point obtaining a pig's eye from the Biology laboratory and placing it in a toilet, where she left it to float about and upset the unwary. Another time she tried to get me to look at what purported to be a used tampon, although I had my doubts. Without any more reason than the girls I travelled with, though, she gave it up of her own accord after about a year. She then apologised by proposing me as the term's form captain, and used her own means to ensure that I won the election. I actually look back on her with affection, as she was essentially harmless. She was one of a minority of working-class girls at the school, and like most of them left at the end of the fifth year.

The School Regime

The school itself was one of the old Girls' High Schools frequently mentioned in girls' school stories (although few books were actually set in them, since they provided education to a lower class of girl than was represented in most of the stories). At some point in the recent past the school had been relocated from the centre of town to a modern, three-storey building constructed of glass, brick and concrete on the outskirts. This was already a little dilapidated - on the top floor, buckets were placed permanently to catch the rain which poured through the roof - and, like my primary school, it had been augmented by "temporary" classrooms in Portakabins.

At the time when I arrived at the school, the form names still followed the pre-war standard High School pattern, meaning that I was placed in the Lower Fourth. This was succeeded by the Upper Fourth, Lower Fifth, Middle Fifth, Upper Fifth, Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth; at some point in the past a preparatory section would have provided the missing three years. (A new head mistress later scrapped the system, identifying our years as First-Fifth, Lower Sixth and Upper Sixth.) There were approximately 100 girls in each year, divided into four classes named after the letter identifying our form room, putting me into L4E.

Like the uniform policy, the school regime was rigid and old-fashioned. We began with the attendance register at 9am, called by our class teacher. Then we filed into the morning assembly in the main hall, where we were addressed by the headmistress and sang hymns (occasionally it was decided that our singing was so bad that the following lessons were cancelled in favour of hymn practice). We then had two 35-minute lessons, after which we had a 15 minute break. Three more lessons followed, then lunch. After lunch we had four more lessons, finishing at 3.35pm.

Whenever a member of staff entered the room, we were all expected to stand up, chorus "Good Morning Miss/Mrs/Mr . . . " or "Good Afternoon . . . " and wait to be told to sit down. Discipline was strict, and we worked in silence. We were taught by teachers who stood in front of us and lectured; we were allowed to ask questions if strictly necessary, but group work or other types of teaching were unknown. My initial reaction to this regime was to remain completely silent in class, although I was unaware that I was doing this. However, my headmistress spoke to my parents about it at the beginning of my second year, when they came to the school for "Parents' Evening". I was then summoned to her office to explain why I did not speak: unsurprisingly, I could not answer. After this I did try to speak in class, but tended to fulfil the role of the clown.

Later I continued to have great difficulty with the conservative ethos of the school, particularly during my last year or so following the death of my father. For example, I was asked to leave a lecture on the Cold War being given to us by a member of the army, after expressing the view that I would rather live in a Communist country with my family alive than in a Capitalist one where they were dead. (The army representative was promoting the "better dead than Red" policy.) Another time I had enormous difficulty in explaining my fascination with the differences between our lives and the lives of girls in developing countries. I saw the relationship as analogous to science fiction, with our lifestyles appearing more fascinating and unavailable to them than any fictional beings' to us. (These inequalities are, of course, even more exaggerated today.)

In later life, I realised that I found all institutional life difficult to cope with, perhaps exacerbated by my early experiences in hospital. My father had left school at fourteen to work on a farm, and for most of my childhood both of my parents were self-employed and worked from home, so I had no role models for coping with the limitations and obligations imposed by institutional life. Unsurprisingly, I have been happiest in my adult life when working from home on my own projects.

The Teaching Staff

My first headmistress was known to us all as "Hitler". This was partly a corruption of her name, partly due to her appearance - she was short and had closely cropped grey hair - and partly because of her personality. While she exhibited none of the signs of mental instability shown by her namesake, she ruled the school with a rod of iron, commanding universal fear and respect. She was believed to know every girl in the school by name (there were about 650 of us) and was an excellent teacher of both History and Latin. She was unmarried, and kept a small black poodle who accompanied her to school each day. At some point a daring pupil had made her a "Cave Canis" sign which she kept on her door, but if we were required to enter her study, the dog was the least of our worries. "Hitler" would certainly have been recognisable to the girls in girls' school stories, as well as to generations of girls who attended real British girls' schools in the first half of the century. Probably she was an anachronism by the 1970s, in any case she left at the end of my third year at the school. (The reason was rumoured to be because the school had remained selective; if this was true, she actually supported moves to abolish the old educational system.)

The new headmistress was very different, in every way. She was a married woman with a daughter, taught science, and appeared to despise arts subjects. (In retrospect her attitude could be seen as feminist, since girls are generally discouraged from pursuing scientific careers.) For most of the day she wore a pink nylon overall over her clothing, leading us to nickname her "the cleaner". "Hitler" was a hard act to follow, and the new headmistress attracted a great deal of hostility from both pupils and staff (in the years after she arrived, there was a considerable turnover of staff). Some of the staff were happy to share their views of her with the older pupils, and this started a habit which continued for the rest of my schooldays, with staff and pupils gossiping together about the headmistress and other less-than-popular teachers.

One of the two deputy headmistresses could also have stepped from the pages of a school story, although the type would have been more familiar from boys' school stories than girls'. She was unmarried, very fat, wore little round glasses and taught Geography (extremely well). She and her office stank of cigarettes, although we never actually saw any member of staff smoking. (In fact,we saw very little of the teaching staff outside lesson periods.)

She provided a stark contrast with my first English teacher, who was young, blonde-haired, blue-eyed and had a fondness for fluffy pink cardigans (unsurprisingly, she soon married, although, unlike the married staff in girls' school stories, she carried on teaching). Later another young English teacher joined the staff; she was the one who was "bullied" by a fellow pupil on her first day and who later taught me to appreciate Coronation Street. She had graduated from the nearby University which had been completed less than a decade beforehand, and we were occasionally treated to stories of student protests, including tipping dustbins full of water from the balconies of the infamous tower-block residences on to visiting dignitaries.

My French teacher was very different from the "Mademoiselle" of girls' school stories. A red-haired, young, married English woman, she suffered badly from migraines which I am afraid we did not quite believe in as reasons for her continual absences. She initially introduced her subject by telling us that there were only two crucial phrases which we needed to know: "How much?" and "Too much!". This reflected and reinforced a typical British attitude to foreign languages as well as an attitude to women's lives which did not encourage us to take a deep interest in the subject, although I don't believe that she was entirely serious. In any case, she did not prove to be right.

I remember my Art teachers with most affection. The head of the department was an old girl of the school, who had lived in Uganda with her husband before fleeing from Idi Amin. She refused to gossip a great deal, but we knew that she was opposed to much of the school regime. On one occasion she attempted to make the staff mix more by rearranging the chairs in the staffroom - this was regarded by the majority of them as verging on the anarchic. One of her deputies, who taught me for the first year of the Sixth Form, was young and bubbly and laughed infectiously all the time. We were told that she had been appointed because she seemed so appreciative of the head of department's wit during the interview; only later was it realised that she never stopped laughing. In any event, she was a very good teacher who was greatly missed when she left before my second year in the Sixth Form, particularly since her replacement taught art at a "scissors and glue" level and had no sense of humour either.

Like the fictional girls' schools, the staff included only a few male teachers. The two younger men were the subject of an enormous amount of sexual interest which they bore with patience; they must have been terrified of being compromised. I remember little about the older ones; unlike the Chalet School's sole master, Tristan Denny, there was nothing unusual about them aside from their gender.

In general, the teaching was not of a particularly high standard. A minority of the teachers were excellent, but others were strict but incompetent. There was a residue of older mistresses, some of whom did not possess degrees but who had risen to be heads of their departments by reason of their seniority. (There was great mirth when a photograph of a school pantomime revealed the long red knickers of a particularly unpopular and poor English teacher.) Bad teaching could be and was overlooked, since the pupils had been carefully selected for their academic ability and still achieved high enough results in the public exams to ensure that the school was regarded as one of the best in the county. However, it is also true that it cannot then have been easy to find teachers willing to work within the old selective system, let alone to deal with pupils who were potentially much brighter than the staff. (Today, with the increasing pressures facing comprehensive schools, the reverse is likely to be true.)

A "Snob" School

Class distinctions were very clearly reflected in academic achievements at the school, despite the fact that we had originally been selected on the basis of IQ tests and in theory had an equal chance of doing well. Working-class girls usually left before the Sixth Form; lower-middle-class girls like myself remained but received little attention from the staff. The girls who went on to Oxford or Cambridge and who gained the most attention were the daughters of the intellectual middle-classes. They had parents who read the "quality" newspapers (for example The Times or the Guardian), who watched current affairs television programmes, who took an interest in politics, who travelled, and who shared these benefits with their children. As a result, while the school appeared to have an excellent academic record since the majority of us went on to University, in reality many of us achieved far less than our potential, while those who did succeed owed as much to parental interest as good teaching.

The school was also overwhelmingly white and, in contrast to my primary school, I remember no disabled pupils. I remember there being one Afro-Caribbean girl in our year who left at the age of 16; two Asian sisters joined half-way through my O Level course but later moved to Scotland. And the year after I left, a girl who used a wheelchair was refused entry to the school despite gaining a place with the excuse that the building was unsuitable, despite protests from parents and pupils. Clearly the school did not encourage "non-uniform" pupils.

As a result of the school's reputation, my former primary school friends and classmates had little more to do with me outside of activities like the Girl Guides. My school was viewed widely as a "snob school", and I was told this in no uncertain terms. Since the school was seen as highly desirable by many parents, no doubt there was a great deal of jealousy involved (my sister confessed later that jealousy of my school place caused her to be extremely hostile towards me in adolescence). However, the changes in the education system also meant that many people genuinely disapproved of the continuing existence of selective schools. In particular, it was felt that selective schools prevented comprehensive schools from being truly "comprehensive", since the brightest pupils were "creamed off".

In fact, I would have much preferred to attend the local comprehensive school. I disliked the rigid, old-fashioned regime and uniform of the High School, and my lack of confidence was increased because I was surrounded by other bright girls. If I had been in a mixed-ability class with pupils who were already known to me, at a school closer to my home, I think that I would been both happier and achieved more. I would certainly have made more friends.

Later the school was to cost me an undergraduate place at Sussex University, when the interviewer asked me disapprovingly what I thought of it. I began my reply with "I suppose I've had a better education but . . ." whereupon he leapt in with "What do you mean, better?" before I could state my reservations. I tried to point out that what I meant was that I had studied a wider curriculum, and indeed that the local comprehensive school's restricted curriculum did not fulfil Sussex's entry requirements. However, he did not listen; he was already convinced that I was reflecting outdated educational values. I still find it ironic that an obviously public school- and university-educated man should take this attitude to a lower-middle-class state school pupil.

It is a fact that I would have found it far more difficult to obtain a university place from another local school, particularly given my undistinguished social background. When my sister later came to take GCE A Levels she had to attend two separate schools, in a town twenty miles away from home, walking between them for different subjects. Even then, my mother had to pay all of her fares; the County Council would only cover her costs if she attended two rural schools some ten miles apart, neither of which was any quicker to get to than the market town. Despite this and the fact that she had glandular fever during the exams, she still achieved better results than I did at the age of eighteen. But no-one was prepared to make the same allowances for a comprehensive pupil that they did for a High School girl and she never did get to University, settling eventually for a Higher National Diploma in Business Studies from an Arts and Technology College.

It is also true that the school was not so well-run or resourced as its reputation suggested. The Conservative-run County Council was more interested in keeping the costs to ratepayers as low as possible than in paying for modern books and equipment, and the Labour Government was opposed to selective schools and therefore was not prepared to make central funding available. Consequently we had few text books, and many of those were out of date. (For my History A Level course I had two ancient text books, one British and one European. I do not recall being given a single theoretical text for the English Literature A Level course.)

Instead, most of the teachers taught from the same notes they had used for years, often from their original university or teacher training courses. It was only when I arrived at University that I realised the paucity of our curriculum; the head of the history department (now a member of the House of Lords and a leading member of the Government) took about five minutes to ascertain exactly what I and a fellow student from the same school had studied during our A Level course, after which she expressed her surprise that we had passed the exam at all. In addition, the lack of resources exaggerated class and income distinctions among pupils. Middle-class parents bought their children additional books and equipment, other parents, like my own, could not afford to and did not even realise that it was necessary.

The lack of resources also affected my Art studies very badly. If we were not the only A Level class in the country to work exclusively with the powder paints more commonly found in primary schools, we were one of only a few. No doubt this also reflected the attitude of the headmistress, who viewed Art as a subject which was only taken by those unable to pass anything else, and who preferred to divert as many resources as possible to science subjects. In fact I did fail the A Level, which destroyed a great deal of my pleasure and confidence in my drawing and painting. However, my Art studies have been of greater use to me in my subsequent academic and professional careers than any other school subject, assisting me in television and film study and work, photography, magazine production, graphic design and now hypermedia.

Academic Achievement

For most of the time at school, I was simply bored. My primary school experiences had not disposed me to find lessons interesting and I lacked confidence in my academic abilities, a fact that was compounded by my being in a school full of very bright girls. In addition, the criticism which I had suffered from my primary school friends for going to a "snob" school had not encouraged me to work. This meant that I spent a lot of the lesson time watching the clock, and even more in reading novels under the desk. There were no consequences to this latter activity, except for once when our regular French teacher was off sick and a colleague was covering for her. Engrossed in my book, I was only dimly aware that the teacher was screaming at someone. Finally I looked up to find her mouth a few inches away from my face, shouting "And you don't even know that I'm talking to you, do you?!" However, even then she did not spot the book.

When I was not reading, we studied a curriculum which did not differ significantly from that described in many of the girls' school stories. From the first year we studied English (divided into Language and Literature for the purpose of examinations, but taught together), French, History, Geography, Classical Civilisation, Music, Art, Maths, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Scripture, Needlework and Cookery. Classical Civilisation was replaced by Latin in our third year, when we could also take German as an alternative to Scripture (I therefore studied it briefly). During our third year we chose our GCE O Level subjects, generally taking nine. English Language and Literature, French and Maths were all compulsory, as was one science subject (I chose Physical Science); in addition to these I chose Biology, History, Geography and Art.

The subject with which I had genuine difficulty was Maths. By the third year, when we were streamed, I found myself in the fourth and bottom division for the subject (I was in the top division for Latin - I later gave the subject up in favour of Geography - and the second division for English and French). However, my Maths teacher was plodding but thorough (although the constant clicking of her false teeth was somewhat distracting), and while I also read in her classes, I was later put up into the second division. This caused me other problems: the work was more advanced, and I never did catch up with the rest of the class. Luckily, to my surprise I gained a B in the GCE O Level, after which I thankfully dropped the subject.

The sciences were also subjects with which I had some difficulty. Every week we had two lessons each of Chemistry, Physics and Biology. Our first Chemistry teacher was male - one of only a handful of men in the school - and Polish, with a thick accent. While he was undoubtedly brilliant, to eleven year olds he was incomprehensible; as I recall, the laboratory assistant generally tried to translate, with varying degrees of success. Discipline was poor, and we spent much of our time heating our own "experiments" over the bunsen burners - surprisingly, unlike the girls in girls' school stories, there were never any serious consequences to these) - or in throwing bits of paper at each other. However, the teacher could always attract our attention by mixing chemicals together and dropping them on the floor to cause an explosion, so some balance was maintained. I did not enjoy Physics either, and although I was fortunate in having a very good, comprehensible Chemistry teacher for two years later on, I ended up taking a combined Physical Science GCE O Level and achieved only a C, the lowest pass grade.

Sex and health education was taught to us as part of our Biology lessons. Unlike the mid-1990s, when controversy continues over sex education in the UK, the course content was taken for granted. We were taught very thoroughly - though clinically - about the body, sexual intercourse, human reproduction, menstruation, sexually transmitted diseases and the different methods of contraception. We also received information about smoking, although not about drugs. Biology was the exception to my dislike of science; I enjoyed it and was good at it. However, mid-way through the fifth year, when we came to choose our GCE A Level subjects, we were told to choose either all science or all "arts" subjects. I would have liked to combine Human Biology with English Literature and History, but was pressurised into agreeing to replace Biology with Sociology. (This course was later cancelled, so I ended up by studying Art instead.) As I knew that I would not be allowed to continue with Biology, I did not prioritise my revision, and finished with an undistinguished B at GCE O Level.

(When we reached the Sixth Form, the sciences/arts division was such that we sat on opposite sides of our common room according to which subjects we studied. The scientists played Bridge, the artists lounged around and listened to rock music. Today this divisive academic approach seems increasingly outdated, although the requirements of many university admissions departments mean that it continues. Computer Science in particular is a subject which can and should be combined with arts subjects for anyone wishing to enter hyper- and multimedia; equally, more and more people with an all-science background who are working in hyper- and multimedia say they wish that they had studied Art and Graphic Design.)

Perhaps my dislike of the school finally became overt in the Sixth Form, shortly before my father died. My Easter report was uncharacteristically bad, for the first time criticising my attitude - though it was a wonder that no one had noticed before. Perhaps I merely sensed my father's ill health, since my sister's report was no better; either way, we took little notice. My father had often talked proudly of his own less-than-good school reports, with comments such: as "If he applied as much thought to his work as Brylcreem to his hair, he would be a genius." When I once asked him if he was disappointed by any of our reports, he replied that, as he had not succeeded at school himself, he felt that he had no right to comment unfavourably on our progress. Probably his problems with educational institutions communicated themselves to us and were reflected in our own difficulties in assimilating into the school communities.

In fact, the greatest influence the school had on my future academic life was an appreciation of popular culture, although this was not part of the curriculum (Media Studies as an academic subject was unthought of at the time.) Once we reached the fifth year, we had an English teacher who was a keen fan of the ITV soap opera Coronation Street and who led a detailed discussion of the previous night's episode at the beginning of each lesson. Later, when we reached the Sixth Form and could decorate our own classrooms, fans of the US soap opera Dallas produced a chart for the wall showing the different characters, linked by differently coloured lines for affairs, adultery, incest, illegitimacy etc. There was also some rivalry between the Dallas fans and the Trekkers My mother had been a soap opera fan when I was younger - as I grew up, bedtimes were variously set before Crossroads (6.30pm), after Crossroads (7pm), before Coronation Street (7.30pm) and after Coronation Street (8pm) - but she now believed that watching the television was "bad for you". At school, I learned that popular culture could both be enjoyed and, at the same time, be taken seriously.


Along with the academic classes, Needlework and Cookery lessons were compulsory for the first three years. Although my mother was an adequate cook and excellent needlewoman - her mother and grandmother had been seamstresses - she had not passed these skills on to me. She really had no time to do so, and in the case of cookery, she had only learned her skills as an adult from my father's mother, an experience which must have been less than enjoyable. (My maternal grandmother had died when my mother was about twelve years old, apparently after teaching her to sew but not to cook). Anyway, I soon developed a complete mental block about both subjects.

If called upon to use a sewing machine, therefore, the thread would wrap itself around the moving parts and jam, causing several of the school's machines to be sent away for repair. I would usually forget to bring my ingredients for the Cookery classes (the combination of an early start and an unpopular class did little for my memory) and had to obtain these from the school kitchen, making me late for every class. When I did begin, ingredients would refuse to mix, knives would slip, handles would fall off ovens . . . until I was the despair of my teacher and more able classmates. Like various Chalet School girls, I would often forget to add a vital ingredient, or get it wrong, with the same disgusting consequences but without the humour which always followed their exploits. On other occasions I would become very interested but start to experiment, with equally horrible results. When I finally made something successfully - a Swiss jam roll - I was sent to show it to the headmistress, such was the surprise.

(In adult life, while I learned to thread a sewing machine quite satisfactorily and have made numerous simple items for my home, it was only with the advent of the microwave that I learned how to heat up a ready-prepared meal satisfactorily. Cooking proper I have never attempted, although I still retain my cake-making "skills", and I am often told that I am not a "real woman" as a result. In retrospect, I see my behaviour at school as a form of resistance, both to the school and to the limitations and expectations of the "feminine" role. Although I have generally had a good appetite for other people's cookery - so long as it does not contain eggs or cows' dairy products, to which I am allergic - I wonder whether eating disorders wholly result from distorted body imagery, or whether they also result from resistance to the requirement that all girls must cook, not just for themselves but for others.)

In terms of other non-academic lessons, unlike the countless heroines of girls' school stories, with the exception of tennis I hated the school sports with a passion (although I liked the majority of the teachers). The uniform policy was equally strict here, meaning that we wore white, short-sleeved aertex shirts, navy-blue knickers (generally over our own) and navy-blue wrap-around short felt skirts. We had long navy-blue socks for hockey, with ankle socks for tennis and netball. If it was particularly cold in the winter we were allowed to wear our school cardigans over our aertex shirts for outdoor games, but thick jumpers and tracksuits were banned. I continued to suffer badly from the cold, and also had problems as a result of my poor sight, since I hated wearing my glasses in any case and daren't wear them for sports for fear of breaking them. This meant that I had difficulty in seeing a tennis ball, and rarely saw the hockey ball (in retrospect it is a shame that I didn't take to netball).

Unsurprisingly, I was not considered an asset to any team and so took little interest in the intricacies of the sports, leading to one bad experience on the netball court. To my relief, at the beginning of the fourth year I was forbidden to play sports by my doctor as I had fractured my elbow during the summer. This infuriated my games teacher, who made me umpire the practice netball match she had organised while refusing to allow me to wear my coat. I was soon freezing cold, and, unsure of the rules in any case, left the teams to run the game themselves while I tried to warm up. Nemesis then struck in the form of my teacher, who was furious to discover that I did not even know the score. She had a truly frightening personality, and the confrontation left me shaking for days.

Later I was to have my revenge when I returned to school after two weeks' absence due to chicken pox. By then my elbow had healed and I was playing sports again, but on this occasion my mother had sent a note forbidding me to play as I was still unwell. Furious but unable to over-rule my mother, the teacher made me go outside to watch the others, again without wearing a coat. Two days later I was in bed with pneumonia, where I remained for another three weeks. My mother, already at breaking point after nursing three children in succession through chicken pox while running a playgroup over the past six weeks, screamed down the phone at the school in a fury which even penetrated my delirium. The teacher never looked me in the eye again, and she left me strictly alone for the rest of my school career. I was particularly pleased about this since she lived in the same town as me, and had the potential to haunt me out of school.

I was no more enthusiastic when it came to the school swimming lessons. The school was the proud possessor of a tiny, heavily chlorinated pool, which however I disliked intensely. Having been brought up by the sea, I found the smell and taste of the water offputting, while my eyes were irritated by the chlorine. In addition, my poor sight meant that I found the crowded pool frightening. For years, therefore, I pretended that I couldn't swim, in order to be allowed to stay in the shallow end with the handful of beginners. (Since so little interest was taken in us as individuals, no-one ever questioned the fact that I lived by the sea but had never learnt.) I was eventually caught out when I joined in the diving after we were left unsupervised; luckily the teacher who returned and saw me was not the one with whom I had clashed before, and she possessed a sense of humour.

In fact, I couldn't see the point of being made to play sports, since I attended a dancing school for three evenings a week after school and for most of the day on Saturdays, and was as fit, if not as strong, as any girl in my class. One day I was able to prove this when we had a fitness test. We were asked to step up and down on to a chair for as long as we could and I carried on long after the rest had stopped - in my triumph, I felt that I could have continued forever. In retrospect it is quite possible that the school sports contributed to my later spinal impairment, since I was clearly over-exercising during adolescence when it developed.

If the sports inculcated team spirit I was not aware of it; unlike the fictional schools we had no inter-form or inter-class matches, and played very few other schools. Rather, I saw my resistance to joining in wholeheartedly as a form of resistance to the school regime in general; only much later did I realise that this was hardly fair on my classmates. Ironically, I only began to enjoy sport after I became disabled, receiving my first and only sports prize at the age of 32 and later becoming involved in the organisation of the Women in Sailing Network.

Extra-Curricular Activities

Unusually for the period, we were not offered many extra-curricular activities at the school. In our second and third years we could attend "Junior Drama" after school one night each week, leading to a production at the end of each year. I was an enthusiastic member, although I was too shy to be given a large part. However, we dropped drama once we began our GCE O Level courses, since it was felt to be an unnecessary distraction. Later, in the Sixth Form, we put on the occasional production, by which time I was working on the costumes, make-up and scenery with the other members of the Art department.

We had a school choir which I originally intended to join, since I had enjoyed music at my primary school and had often taken a leading role in productions. However, after my first Music lesson I was teased by the girls sitting behind me for singing too loudly (my previous headmaster had taught us to project our voices), and the blow to my self-confidence meant that I never auditioned. This was a shame, since the choir regularly put on Gilbert and Sullivan operatic productions (these were considered to be more "suitable" than modern musicals like West Side Story) in which I would have enjoyed taking part. (Later, though, I designed the school production of the Mikado as part of my GCE A Level Art studies.)

I did, however, join the Guitar Club which met one lunchtime each week, although I did not progress beyond the basics; I did not enjoy the "folk" or "classical" options available, and had yet to realise that girls could play rock music. I also took violin lessons at school, since I had taken piano and violin lessons after school during my primary years and my mother wished me to continue with at least one instrument. I disliked both the lessons and the instrument intensely, but once we began the lessons at school we were expected to continue with them. Eventually I was allowed to stop after I began playing while standing on one leg. This was easy for me with my ballet training, but was perceived by my teacher - as intended - as the act of a disturbed mind.

Like the girls in girls' school stories, we were encouraged to organise activities to raise money for charity. However, unlike the fictional schoolgirls we did not hold events to which the general public or even our parents were invited; we had no fetes or no sales of work. (The Parents & Teachers Association held the only evening and weekend activities, and since we lived so far from the school, my family never attended.) Instead, we held sweet and cake sales in our morning breaks, and "sponsored silences" in our lunch hours. In my first years at the school we also held "pop sessions" in one of the art rooms during the lunch hours. With the blinds down and some decorations made of silver tinsel, we paid a small sum to dance away to the current disco hits. I thoroughly enjoyed these sessions, and was very disappointed when the new headmistress put a stop to them.

One feature of the school which was unusual was a "Pet Room". This was a shed at the back of the school, lined with cages of varying sizes, where suitable pets could be housed (mostly rabbits and guinea pigs). Any girl could keep their pet there during the term time, with local girls volunteering to feed them at the weekends. I have no idea of the background or thinking behind this, but in my first years at the school I was pleased to bring my white rabbit, Bunnikins (I had an unusual sense of humour), with me. This provided me with a link to home - we had lots of pets, since this reminded my father of his farming days - as welll as with company outside of classes. I particularly liked to take Bunnikins for walks in the grounds; she was very tame, and I had been used to walking her around my home town on a cat collar and lead. In my second year I also obtained a guinea pig who I named Gemini from another girl. We later mated her and spent weeks puzzling over whether she was actually pregnant before she finally gave birth. The Pet Room was eventually closed under the regime of the new headmistress, but unlike Dorita Fairlie Bruce's fictional school "Jane's, this was not prompted by cases of death by neglect.

Probably one reason why we were encouraged to organise charitable activities in the lunch hour, and initially to have the Pet Room, was to keep us out of mischief. We were largely unsupervised during break periods, and unusually for both real and fictional girls' schools, were allowed to remain in our classrooms if they were not needed for music practice. Catering staff fed us in a canteen next to the assembly hall while the teaching staff disappeared into their own domain, reached by a private staircase.

I actually quite enjoyed the school food, probably because the school was involved in a pilot scheme to improve the take-up of school meals. At mid-morning break we could buy a selection of snacks such as biscuits, potato crisps and apples, with my favourite being chocolate-covered marshmallow "snowballs", then at lunchtime we were offered a wide selection of first and second courses which we could combine as we pleased. These included typical English school "puddings" such as iced sponge cake with custard, and chocolate sponge pudding with hot chocolate sauce, as well as 1970s innovations such as yoghurts. (The yoghurts were always frozen solid, presumably because if they were defrosted and didn't sell they would have been wasted; we pushed them up out of the cartons and licked them.) Outside of the mid-morning and lunch breaks we had access to a machine which provided hot and cold drinks; this was seen as very innovative at the time. Unfortunately, since almost everything contained eggs and/or dairy products - to which I am allergic - the diet did little for my health and concentration.


Throughout my time at the High School we sat exams in every subject during the second half of each summer term. These were based on the GCE (General Certificate of Education) "O" (Ordinary) Level syllabus and were obviously intended to coach us in exam skills, with the results being taken very seriously by the staff. As part of this, the exams were conducted in strict silence and with awful penalties for cheating. (To my horror, I was once questioned during an exam because I kept stretching my right arm out; in fact I had fractured my elbow in the summer holiday following my third year at the school and was suffering from a shortened tendon which made writing difficult.) My results were generally good though patchy - although I spent most of my time in class concentrating on the book which I was reading under the desk, I had a good memory and could retain my notes for at least a few days after revising them. (Unlike the General Certificate of Secondary Education [GCSE] exams which replaced the GCE O levels, the exams were largely based on the ability to memorise and reproduce the information which we had been "taught".)

My mother took very little interest in my day-to-day school career. It was too far removed from her own experiences, and between bringing up three children and running a home and a playgroup, she had no time to spare. However, she always took great pride in my achievements. When the day came for the GCE O Level results to arrive, she stayed up half the night - indeed, I doubt if she slept at all - and raced up the stairs to wake me as soon as the post arrived. After letting me open the envelope in bed (I passed all nine subjects, but with indifferent grades), she grabbed the slip and woke up the rest of the family and my cousins who were staying with us (this of course did not endear me to any of them). By the time that I had finished breakfast, she was "shopping" in the main street, telling everyone she saw of my results.

This was not so embarrassing as it might have been, since every mother whose child had done well was doing the same. However, I was embarrassed by my results in general. While my grades were not particularly good, and the majority of girls at my school had as good or better results, I had done markedly better than the average sixteen-year-old. This became painfully clear at my dancing school, when we were all made to announce our results to the rest. I became so unpopular that I left the next term, although this was far from being the only reason.

For the next two years I studied the British and European Reformation and Renaissance period for History "A" (Advanced) Level; Shakespeare (Henry IV Part 2, Macbeth and The Tempest), Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility and Emma) and the Romantic poets for English; and still-life, life-drawing and design for Art. However, the A Level examinations themselves were a very different experience from O Levels. My mother and I were still suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder following the death of my father, while my younger brother and sister were severely depressed. I had far more to do in the house than previously, and also worked at weekends and during the holidays to pay for my clothes, fares and so on. A few days before the exams started, I realised that I could not remember anything which I had revised.

In the event I did manage to complete the papers, but the combination of family circumstances, poor teaching and, it has to be said, my unorthodox academic views meant that I only scraped through English and History, while I failed Art altogether. (The only top grade which I received was for my Shakespeare paper.) The way in which I was given my results - the last contact which I had with the school - was also markedly different to my O Level experience. I was working as an "au pair" for a Parisian family who were staying in the French alps, and phoned the school from a call box halfway down a mountain. With her usual sensitivity, the headmistress tolled: "O for Octopus, D for Donald, E for . . .": not surprisingly, I ended the call in floods of tears.

School Fun

I did, of course, enjoy some of my schooldays. The best time of the school year was the end of the autumn term. We all gave presents and cards to each other, so for weeks beforehand we were able to fill the time between the end of school and the departure of the train in looking around the shops for cheap gifts (generally soaps, bubble baths and so on). Occasionally the staff put on a pantomime for us; these were hilarious and anarchic affairs, full of in-jokes. Lessons slacked off and were replaced by rather more dubiously educational activities: for example, in Maths we played three-dimensional noughts and crosses. The only downside of this was the fierce rivalry between my sister and I as to who would receive the most cards and presents - generally, it has to be said, it was her.

Looking back, were we ever like the girls of St Trinian's?. Sometimes, perhaps. Within school we were generally well-behaved - or at least subdued - with the exception of minor incidents such as dropping eggs from the third floor window on to unsuspecting heads below. But during I think my second year, the hundred girls in the year were taken to a nearby stately home which was open to the public. I found the visit uneventful and rather dull, but the next day, to my astonishment, we were summoned out of lessons into the assembly hall to be addressed by "Hitler". Apoplectic with rage and almost falling off the chair she was standing on, she screamed at us to own up. While the majority of us were still puzzled as to what she meant, a sizeable minority came forward, red-faced and weeping. The rest of us soon discovered that the culprits had each pocketed items from the gift shop which formed the exit to the stately home. The next day they were made to return the items personally, and on future school trips we were the only year to be accompanied by the community policeman assigned to the school's areas.

Like the St Trinian's girls, as we grew older our uniforms were unable to disguise our sexuality. According to a Maths class survey (taken without the knowledge of the teacher, needless to say), at least half the class had lost their virginity before the age of 16. (I myself had no interest in boys, although I generally had a crush on an older girl at school or at dancing.) Make up was banned in school but was applied vigorously before leaving in the afternoon, and some girls went to the lengths of making up in the morning and removing it when they got to school. Jewellery, too, was banned with the exception of crosses (these had to be hidden under clothing) and plain earring studs or sleepers. The school treated us to apocryphal tales of girls who had been strangled by necklaces while taking gym class and girls who had had fingers torn off after getting their rings caught in radiators, but we enjoyed these for their grisly content without believing a word of them; many girls carried jewellery around to wear outside school.

When we arrived in the Sixth Form and could wear what we liked, many chose to exaggerate their sexuality through their clothing and general appearance. And in our final year, a huge row ensued when some girls were found to be sunbathing behind the common room during the lunch hours, stripped down to bra and pants (out of the sight of our school, but in clear view of the Roman Catholic and mixed comprehensives which shared the site).

The funniest St Trinian's-type incident took place during my last week of lessons, immediately before the half term holiday which preceded the GCE A Level examinations. In many countries it is traditional for the form which is leaving to play tricks during the last day of school; we decided to take matters further and to have a "fun week". This was an entirely innocent enterprise, with a different activity planned for each day: my personal favourite was the plan for us all to bring hand towels to school one day to act as prayer mats; each time the bell sounded for the next class, we were going to spread out our towels wherever we happened to be, kneel down in the direction of Cambridge and pray for our exam results (we took the Cambridge Board examinations).

However, we never got further than the Monday, when we came to school in nightclothes carrying teddy bears, intending to hold a teddy bears' picnic during the lunch hour. The night clothes were necessarily subtle - many of us travelled as much as twenty miles to school by public transport - but by the time when the bell rang we had been found out and were physically prevented from attending assembly by a group of teachers. By lunchtime we had been suspended, although this was later rescinded when one girl's brother, a journalist, phoned the headmistress and asked her if she would care to comment for the press. This was my first experience of the power of the media, and it was to affect the rest of my life.

Next: IV. Dancing School
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