I was at prep school (an independent primary school) during the period when home computers were starting to become properly graphical. The Mac had been out for a few years but was still way too expensive for home use – my contemporaries had an Acorn/BBC Micro, ZX Spectrum, Amiga (especially if they were big into games) or an Amstrad, which had launched the first affordable IBM clones in the UK. In 1990, my school installed a couple of the next-generation Acorns, which had a graphical user interface and on them was installed some desktop publishing software. Acorn DTP was terribly primitive, but I learned it quickly and started to learn about design, and I could create documents that the most people couldn’t do because they didn’t have access to the kit. My sister worked at the time as a graphic designer using Pagemaker for Windows at the civil service, so I would compare techniques.
Learning to write creatively
One teacher who was quite an influence on me taught English, Mrs Steel. She was what you might call a liberal environmentalist, and she was responsible for me getting really good at grammar. She was a passionate fan of a campaign called Elefriends, and when that campaign, the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife ran a national poetry competition, she got the whole class to enter. It turned out that I came runner up in my age group, and I was invited to the National History Museum to be presented with a prize by the celebrated actress Virginia McKenna, followed by tea with the judges. I guess the scene was intimidating to the parents as they concluded that the tea wasn’t happening, without checking, though I got a letter with goodies afterwards saying they were sorry I couldn’t stay.
I hated games lessons and was terrible at sport. In later life I quite like watching rugby or cricket, but I had no interest at all at the time. We were put into three groups in games lessons, A, B and C, which was described to us by Mr R as thus: “A is for Ace, B is for Brilliant and C is for Crap.” I was in group C mostly, although I did get moved into group B during a couple of years, including when I became head boy, which was probably done for presentational reasons. I also discovered that, while my eye-ball coordination was terrible, I could actually understand cricket well, so became the Scorer of the 1st XI Cricket Team, a role I also held later when I moved to Dulwich.
Mr R was cut from a different cloth than the other teachers. One particularly boisterous breaktime in summer, someone in another class managed to rip my shirt collar off. Mr R urged me to take action and rip that kid’s shirt, too. I did not take the advice. When the very proper Mrs Kitcatt (wife of a top official in the House of Commons) saw my shirt and asked if I had brought it to the attention of the teacher on duty, I explained the advice I’d been given and she looked shocked. My mum sowed it back together.
As a nine-year old, for some completely unimaginable reason, I founded a fan club. My art teacher used to rhyme with people’s names – I was Singleton Singles – so that was the name of my club, though it wasn’t actually a dating agency. Mr R let me use the science lab unattended, which was a pretty bad idea because Allan set off one of the gas taps and then complained to Mr R about how unsafe the club was. Nonetheless, I was pleased to get 25 people attending, although I think the sheer randomness of the activity was probably the appeal.
Allan was always a people person. Waiting to go into our art class one day, he turned to me and said: “You’re weird, really weird. I don’t like you.” I responded with some humour.
Loyal friends who stuck up for me
Despite not being sporty and therefore never getting involved in the usual five-a-side activities that many people do at breaktimes, and which create friendships, I’ve always been lucky in getting very loyal friends. My art teacher was a very talented illustrator, but – and I think it goes with the subject – sometimes our lessons would get too noisy and he would have to shut everyone up. In one particular lesson when I was eight, he was getting more and more frustrated with the class and, for talking, gave me three minus points. The system was that if you got four in a week, you had to stay after school for a detention. The following day he took us for another subject and gave me another minus, also for talking (you may be able to spot a pattern here). At the end of the lesson, without any encouragement from me, a couple of my contemporaries lobbied the teacher to let me off one of the minuses – with success.
An evolving focus in extra-curricular activities
Similar activities to the fan club involved my friend Stuart launching a student newspaper called The Crucial Times. I can’t remember that it actually produced an issue: the main problem with it was that none of us could spell the word crucial and the computers didn’t have spell checking. Stuart, and actually a whole group of my friends, left in the 10+ exams, whereas I stayed through to the traditional prep school end at 13. I bumped into Stuart quite out of the blue when I was 38 – he is now a bigwig in the world of SEO.
The first proper publication I designed was a 20 or 30 page A4 poetry booklet with contributions from across my year. It was was sold on open day for charity and I ended up getting a reputation as the designer and producing all sort of school materials.
On Wednesday afternoons we had an extra-curricular programme. Some played in school teams and there were some options such as chess, although the main activity was in the school hall – more which I will come to in a moment. One term I opted for chess, which was a classroom of perhaps 15 pupils with an external chess tutor. I don’t think I realised quite how eminent he was at the time – an International Master who everyone who is into chess as an adult would have heard of. I did find it interesting. But whereas the 9-year-old version of me had previously assumed that success was down to luck, I now realised that I was going to have to give an enormous amount of extra time to learning chess strategy if I was to become truly great. There were just other things that interested more.
Looking back, it is obvious that I was always going to work heavily with words. The school invited a poet in to spend an afternoon with us, and whereas many contemporaries thought the prospect was a downer, I clearly enjoyed it – something the poet fed back to my parents.
For the majority who were not playing chess or sport on a Wednesday afternoon, there was either an external speaker in the school hall, or a film would be played on a big projector screen. Some were exciting – Disney’s Last Flight of Noah’s Ark or Swiss Family Robinson, for example. Occasionally they were deadly dull; I evidently found one black and white film sufficiently boring that Mr R kept me (and a couple of others) afterwards for an impromptu detention cleaning the hall.
Scrapes, avoiding piracy and deploying charm
As I approached my 11th birthday, I moved into the bit of the school where you started preparing properly for 13+ exams, and had a French teacher who was actually French, and also my form tutor for the year. It would be fair to say that it took us most of the academic year to mutually adapt to one another. On her notice board behind her desk, she had pinned an initially menacing wodge of yellow, A5 detention slips, for convenient access. They compelled recipients, like me, to stay for an hour after school on the next Wednesday.
One particular week in the first half of the autumn term, our teacher had put me and R.P. in detention. The next day she announced that, because so many people in the class were getting detentions, we and anyone else from then on earning an after-school detention from then on would also spend every breaktime for a week (morning, lunch and afternoon) in a classroom copying out a French dictionary. (By the following when, when I wasn’t in detention, the policy had been dropped.)
J.C., who had also been given a detention that week but from another teacher, was livid with me and R.P., correctly blaming us (and mostly me) for his lengthy and tedious extra punishment. Fortunately, no one liked J.C., so I think the sentiment of the class was on my side. Allan helpfully dropped in one breaktime to gloat and inform us that our French teacher expected us to complete a sizeable section of the dictionary (about twice what we had time for) and that our teacher would check it, though I suspect he made that all up.
My design skills during that academic year were helped by the school buying some new desktop publishing software, which was actually pretty good, plus a hand scanner, which wasn’t. The software was expensive (for school pupils) and copy protected. So when R.M. in the year below announced that his family were connected with the makers and could get discounted copies for £5, but without the manual or packaging, there was considerable interest and chatter. It turned out that the makers had axed copy protection and he was just trying to flog pirated versions of the school installation.
That particular individual, who ran a surreptitious tuck shop based on stock from his parents’ shop, did me a bad turn. I should explain that at lunchtime, most of us sat on benches down the sides of a table (four a side), with a monitor or prefect at the head. Ours was the head boy, Mike. I was at the bottom of one side, presumably because whoever had allocated the seating thought I was well behaved and didn’t need to be near the prefect. Then at the bottom end of the table was R.M. because he didn’t eat school lunch and brought a packed one. I thought we were friends – and I later went to his birthday party, having forgiven him – but he helpfully informed my detention-giving French teacher that I had described her (in confidence) as a *****. This landed me in hot water, but I had plenty of prep school charm and the ability to move on – and, ultimately, was able to repair the relationship. In my final two years, my French teacher became a strong advocate.
The next year we were in form CE1 – CE standing for common entrance, the most popular exam for public schools, although I never actually sat it, and 1 being the upper stream. However, a group of us were actually a year ahead and so the tradition was that we would stay an extra year in order to get old enough for our next schools. This turned out to be helpful because being at the top of the school gives you lots of opportunities. It meant I could do a GCSE in Computer Studies with my friend D.C. three years early just for the hell of it, and meanwhile my reputation as a designer and IT geek had become legendary.
My maths teacher decided he wanted his group of 8 year olds to learn about computing and maths and so plucked me out of Art and PE lessons to teach his younger class in the computer room – my first teaching experience. This arrangement worked out well until the ever-helpful Allan informed me that he had been talking to our art teacher who was now very unhappy with me cutting his lessons to teach maths.
Towards the end of the CE1 year, we were in a Latin lesson when our teacher asked who in the class might want to be a prefect or head boy. He would have to vote on it in the staff room, or at least give his feedback. Allan was asked and he said that he didn’t want to be head boy. The next day, the deputy head asked me who in our form I thought wanted what jobs, and I mentioned that Allan had said he didn’t want to be head boy. Soon after, a furious Allan approached me demanding to know why I had said he didn’t want the job. I replied that I was merely repeating what he had told the whole class. I don’t think I was sophisticated enough to understand that he had been exhibiting false modesty, but it helped me understand that what people actually say is quite important because it gets broadcast. I don’t know whether my sharing helped, but I did get the role.