Fast times at Dulwich College

Aged 10, when interest rates hit 15% and the economy tanked, my parents decided to take me away from my beloved prep school and send me to the local state school. After going on a tour of the school and discovering the computer room was full of ancient RM Nimbuses, which weren’t even proper PC compatibles and certainly weren’t up to doing graphic design, the headmaster was murdered, with a rumour that it was by ex-pupils. This freaked my parents out and somehow they found the money to keep me where I was.

Shortly afterwards, I went for an interview at Westminster, which they would do a few years before you were ready to actually go there at 13. The upshot was that they offered me a “guaranteed place”, which just meant that if you did reasonably well in the Common Entrance exam, you’d get in. Of course, I didn’t want to go to Westminster, as my brother had been there and I thought it too small. It was fine if you wanted to be a diplomat or civil servant, but Dulwich seemed a lot more creative, leafy and full of opportunities. The Dulwich entrance exam was over a couple of days in the wood-panelled Great Hall, which appears at the end of the movie Legally Blonde as the venue for graduation at Harvard Law School.

A new beginning in Year 9

Dulwich was something of a change in culture. Whereas I’d lived in walking distance of school, I now got a school coach every morning from near where I lived, and which would take 50 minutes to drive there. If I stayed late, I’d need to get a train into Victoria, then a train back out to Surrey, and by the time I’d walked, it could take a couple of hours. Moreover, the diversity was different. My prep school had been diverse in terms of skin colour, but Dulwich was diverse in social background, too, with friends living in council estates and no one finding this at all surprising. And it was also a much bigger place: 1,400 pupils instead of less than 200.

In the first term, R. came up behind me and thumped me on the back. It would have worried me had a rugby type done this, but R. had the nickname The Runt, or something that rhymed with that, and he was too small to take seriously and quite out of the mould for people at Dulwich. Hitting people has never been in my nature – I prefer deploying a thesaurus – so I did not retaliate. Later that year, a major controversy erupted when he changed the combination code to another form-member’s bag, and then to rectify this broke open the lock. He proceeded to blame half the class for this rather than himself, and he gave a long list to the head of year of all his supposed accomplices, including me. Fortunately, my witness statement was more convincing than his. He eventually got his comeuppance when he decided to dismantle a CCTV camera, with his face in front of the lens.

Among the things that make me cringe the most about my time at school was a little disagreement I had with L.T., also in the third year, in the middle of a morning assembly in the Great Hall. He wanted to swap places, I didn’t see why I should, though frankly why I cared I don’t know. I was just being a t***. Anyway, as this whispered but heated discussion went on, on the stage Mr Sprague turned to us to in front of hundreds of people and announced we were getting a detention, and if we spoke again he’d double it. However, so far, he hasn’t got round to filling in the paperwork to make that happen.

I spent a couple of years doing rowing twice a week on the Thames, including in a school team. These days, Dulwich is really good at rowing and has its own clubhouse. Then the Dulwich College Boat Club was more of a startup, and we borrowed space at the Thames Rowing Club. In one prestigious schools race, our boat came second. However, there were only two boats competing, and part of ours fell off. It did keep me physically fit. Later, in the sixth form, I switched my games option to Voluntary Service, which involved visiting elderly people and doing their gardens, along with someone who is now, as I see it, the top academic on the works of Henry James, and with a humorous writer who wrote a famous diary as a junior doctor. Obviously, our sportier peers said we’d been sentenced to Community Service.

Getting started in journalism

In those days I was a geek, and had been reading computer magazines cover to cover since my 10th birthday. During third year (year 9 in new money), I pitched myself to one of them as a columnist. The editor replied and said that he was interested but I needed to prove that I was up to it. So I poured a week into designing a mock-up of the column, in exactly the same design as the magazine, wrote a sample column of news and opinion, and then included a plan for what future columns might contain. The editor wrote back to say that I had convinced him, and from that point on I was on sale every month in WHSmith, in a title from the world’s largest IT publisher, and within two years I had written for the biggest circulation title in the sector, Personal Computer World.

My initial pitch had included the sentence: “Although I am still at school …” I am guessing that they interpreted that as suggesting that I was a bright sixth-former, but when a few months later I met the editor and his deputy, they showed no visible surprise to find themselves talking to someone who had turned 15 just days earlier and exhibited teenage acne. Indeed, the editor, Mark, would send encouraging notes, which has probably influenced my management style.

For Dulwich pupils, all this was less out of the ordinary than you might think. The affable James W., in the upper sixth when I was a third year, had written games reviews for the same magazine, and went on to be high up at Sky News and the Telegraph. The Nurse brothers in my year wrote a computer game called (if I remember correctly) Bang, which was cover-mounted on a high-circulation PC magazine, and Al.K. in the year above ran a Bulletin Board System, basically a precursor to an internet service provider. Al.K. also had a habit of going round the IT rooms changing one teacher’s initials at the bottom of notices from PMM to PMT, but the staff could never prove it was him. And then there was J.R., in my year, a celebrated pianist, who was exempt from games – something to do with the insurance premiums on his fingers. I still go for lunch occasionally with Simon HJ, now as then an incredible violinist, and whose work is played on Radio 3.

Why I am only a part-time geek

One of the most helpful things that happened from the point of view of making me more rounded was something most definitely unfair. But first I will digress. By the start of fourth year (year 10), I was Secretary of the Computing Society, and had a key to, and was system administrator of, one of the school fileservers (not the main one). Indeed, in the suite of rooms in the IT Centre, we had what was nominally the electronics room, which trusted members of the society could use, with a few pieces of special computer kit, along with a video player and TV. One lunchtime, someone came to this room with a videotape described as being of Sharon Stone taking her kit off. This created massive interest, attracting lots of normal teenage boys from adjoining rooms. Indeed, the room consisted of everyone glued to the TV set, except me who was glued to a word processor.

Anyway, one morning, in the first term of fourth year, Adam, now a famous author of a book you’ve probably read, came up to me and informed me that PMM, whose initials were introduced a couple of paragraphs ago, had given me a detention. The reason for it involved my improving the security on a computer, with no malice, but sufficiently so that she couldn’t save anything. Anyway, I didn’t challenge it because the detention was just an unofficial one – I was made to sit in an IT room for an hour after school and told to “do nothing”. Probably I was too occupied with other things that week to bother objecting, and also I didn’t want the relationship to go sour. In possibly some confusion as to how these things work, she also filled in an official school detention slip in triplicate, which I didn’t realise until the following week when “SINGLETON, A.  4T” appeared under the headline “Dulwich College Detention” on the noticeboard list of shame of those who would be required to stay late that Friday.

This was undoubtedly good for my nerdy reputation among my peers, but the unfairness sufficiently irritated me that I quit hanging around the IT centre, handed back my fileserver key, and relocated myself to the school library, where I had the use of the librarians’ common room with its free hot chocolate, and hung out with people who read books. Around this time, I also took out a subscription to The Independent, which was then a broadsheet, intelligent and gave a hefty student discount, to read on the school coach. As you can imagine, I was the coolest kid in the school.

The library – named after P.G. Wodehouse – was an institution with a big budget, including a periodicals room with leather armchairs, and a librarian with a magnetic personality who was the spitting image of Rowan Atkinson.

Staying dry on the Year 10 history trip

At the end of fourth year, we went on a history trip to France and Belgium to see First World War battlefields, and stayed two per room in a youth hostel. A few from my year were proudly announcing plans to raid bedrooms and chuck water over people in the middle of the night, so R.C. and I repositioned the beds and furniture in our room so it was impossible to barge in. Alas, our plans were foiled when a teacher knocked on the door, and found his inability to get in to be suspicious. We explained there were rumours of night-time raids, but didn’t name any names. He told us something about fire regulations, and then the staff contingent hid at the end of the corridor to catch anyone exiting their rooms with jugs of water.

Dressing as if for a regatta

I can’t remember why they gave me Jonson house colours (a tie) at the end of fourth year (year 10) but I do remember a Herculean effort one athletics day for the house where I ran the 3,000 metres surprisingly quickly, and then got terrible cramp. Someone in the upper sixth picked me up and carried me to the school sanatorium, which was quite a distance and involved crossing a road.

More exciting than ties were the blazers during the lower and upper sixth. When you start at Dulwich, you wear either a plain black blazer or a black blazer with the letters DC on the top pocket. The really cool kids in third year (year 9) got fluffy black blazers, but obviously I was not one of them. However, in my lower sixth I was allowed to wear half colours, a blue sports jacket with an intricate crest on the pocket, which was great. For my final year I had full colours – a black blazer with blue vertical stripes, the sort of amazing thing that you see at Henley and which is very striking when you walk through Victoria station with it in rush hour.

Driven as a writer

Being the youngest journalist on a newsstand magazine probably means that you have to spend more time working on it to hit the quality level, and I poured huge amounts of time into it. After a couple of months column writing, I was given an extra £30 a month for telephone calls, and I would hit the phone most days to speak to software and hardware companies, including sometimes on the school payphone.

I would also sometimes send articles to national newspapers “on spec” and get postcards by return saying that they didn’t have space (a euphemism for “this is shit”). Aged 15 I spent £350 on a fax and answering machine to help with the admin. The late Jack Schofield of The Guardian helpfully wrote to me to rip to shreds a pitch I had sent him, taking particular offense to the opening phrase “I gather that …”. (He was right.) Around this time, I also designed some of the user interface for a large piece of software, and still occasionally see screenshots online of my windows and dialogue boxes being used even today (although quite why, I don’t know).

Emulating a 1980s teen movie

The result of spending so much time working as a writer was, as you might imagine, that I did as little homework as I thought I could get away with during years 10 and 11. I was really bored with the GCSE syllabuses and zoned out of academic work. Lack of prep was my most usual reason for being a regular in detention after school and, by year 11, I was also getting longer ones on some Saturdays.

My last detention of the academic year was immediately before GCSE exams and given by my exasperated maths teacher, who was fed up that I had not done any past papers. Like others, he took a leaf out of the movie Breakfast Club and gave me a Saturday detention so I would at least have some focussed time to practice. (Saturday detention was seen at Dulwich, like many schools in the UK, America and Ireland, as more serious punishment than an ordinary after-school detention, but where suspension would be much too severe.) At 9am on Saturday I turned up, in school uniform, to share the morning with half a dozen others, sitting at my usual desk in the unlucky sounding Room 13 of the college’s imposing Grade II-listed south block.

As no one seemed interested in what work we were doing, I spent the morning reading a P.G. Wodehouse novel. I then went straight to lunch at the nearby home of another Dulwich maths teacher, M.B., and his wife, who were both in their early 20s. M.B. had noticed that I was going to be in town that Saturday and had invited me over to lobby me to write favourable things about some software he’d written.

Having done a grand total of 30 minutes’ revision, I sailed through my GCSEs, and then spent the summer hols working for four magazines simultaneously. It occurred to me that I could drop out of education and earn a reasonable living as a writer – but I considered that only for a few minutes.

A refocus for A-Levels

A-Levels were so much more interesting than GCSEs, so for my final two years I hacked back my journalistic commitments, threw myself into schoolwork, and became the chairman of the Debating Society and secretary (I think) of the Political Society. I looked after a class of second formers (year eight) every Friday morning for a term for a form period, and I interpreted my role as being to entertain them, including showing an episode of Men Behaving Badly. I wangled the rest of my prefect duties to being in the school library, where I managed the pupil librarians in my final year.

Someone in my year, who I talked to most days in the library, suddenly killed himself at home by putting his neck in something noose shaped. I have no idea why, as he always seemed so happy, and we all went to the funeral. The coroner concluded it was an accidental death. In my 20s, Rob, who I had worked for and who was massively talented, went on a drinking binge and killed himself, apparently with debts and struggling to find work. It was all so pointless and solvable. Also in my sixth form years, a friend’s older brother, who had famously run the college’s Hindu Society, had died. There was an invitation to go back to his parent’s flat in Peckham after the funeral. This was difficult to get to but a churchgoer who knew the family offered to give me a lift, and in the car said: “In situations like this is, the important thing is always say yes to anything that’s offered. It makes people feel, on a distressing day, they’re doing the right things”. Not a problem, as I’ve always had an appetite, the cheese and tomato sandwiches were just what I needed, and I think the family appreciated the turn out.

For my final two years, my form tutor was Mr Burns and, for some reason, my classmates nicknamed me Smithers. Mr Burns’s straightforward pitch was that if we got the top grade in Economics “you’ll never have to get out of bed on a Saturday morning for less than £40 an hour”, which seemed like a reasonable deal, especially when you consider inflation over the past 22 years. Anyway, I worked hard to make sure I hit it. By then, despite my previous sub to The Independent, I had started to dry out, and had become a paid-up Young Conservative, or young fogey as someone suggested. This had the benefit of getting me invites to lots of events in Westminster with well-known politicians. The BBC sent a film crew to interview a handful of pupils about the current state of politics. Unfortunately, I was just too boring and they mostly used footage of John S instead. Never mind, I was soon to take a job where that was sorted out.

Longer-term interests

Mr Eveleigh, who was in charge of the Wodehouse Library and had been a wine journalist in Italy, established a wine tasting society after school for the upper sixth. Admission was subject to reputation, a consent form from parents and a promise not to get behind the wheels of a car. This was great fun and we learned about a wide range of grape varieties.

I loved debating political economy, especially with my very left-wing, Keynesian teacher, Dr K, who pushed us well beyond the requirements of the A-Level syllabus. He would regularly mention in lessons an outrageous organisation called the Adam Smith Institute: “During the 1990s, Margaret Thatcher went into the Adam Smith Institute with her handbag,” he explained. He told us that some pupils in the upper sixth had gone to the ASI and been told that “Keynes is crap and Galbraith is a shmuck”, both being economist heroes of his (though these days not taken very seriously). It was all good-humoured stuff, and since I was planning to take a gap year, I started going to the ASI’s events and sent my CV early on in the lower sixth, and was told it was too early.

I learned the virtue of persistence, as it took me many months to secure an interview, which took place in a restaurant where our table was surrounded by politicians and political journalists, and where Channel Four broadcast a political show every day. I borrowed my middle brother’s double-breasted suit, which didn’t fit me well and I was self-conscious about. Nonetheless, the institute gave me a job on the spot (doing a mix of comms and growing the online presence), somewhat to my disbelief, and I checked that they had definitely said yes. Later, a friend from my form started his gap year at an investment bank, although all he was doing was photocopying and admin. So I took him out for lunch and poached him.

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