In a different class

John Humphrys talks to Pamela Coleman

I was a semi-detached pupil. School was something I went through but had very little interest in. I got eight or nine O-levels from Cardiff High, which probably helped me to get my first job on the Penarth Times, but otherwise the school did absolutely nothing for me and I never felt I really belonged.

I was a working-class kid brought up in what nowadays I suppose would be considered a slum area - Splott in Cardiff - and I was the first in the family to pass the 11-plus to go to what was considered the best grammar school in the city. Cardiff High was absurdly conscious of its status. It had a terrific academic record, an awful lot of the boys won scholarships and went on to the best universities, and it excelled at sport. It was rather snobbish. You had to wear your uniform properly, touch your cap when you passed a woman in the street, all that sort of stuff. And we had lessons on Saturday morning.

When I arrived I remember an enormous feeling of isolation and inhibition. I didn't know a soul. At primary school I was one of the brighter children, and a gang leader and confident, and all of us came from the same sort of background. When I got to grammar school I felt I was near the bottom of the pile, and was very conscious that most of the boys there had parents who by my standards were pretty well off.

It hadn't occurred to me before I went to Cardiff High that my family was any worse off than anyone else's because I'd lived in the same area all my life. It took a bit of getting used to, being aware that I was slightly different. Most of the other boys' fathers did white-collar jobs and were relatively well heeled. My father was a French polisher, and I was the third of five children (one of whom died) so it was quite a struggle for my parents to pay for my uniform.

One of the few teachers I remember was a chap called Salter, who was my form teacher and French master. He was youngish and I got on well with him because, for reasons I can't quite understand, I found French very easy and was the best in the class. He was a small, slight, bespectacled man, timid compared with some of the teachers.

I was pretty good at English, too, but average at everything else and absolutely hopeless at all games. I made an effort at cross-country running but was useless at team sports, and the school attached huge importance to games. It was a grammar school that thought it was a public school and saw itself as a cut above the normal state school.

The headmaster, George Diamond, was an autocrat and a strict disciplinarian who took himself and the school very seriously. He caned routinely. I remember being sent to him for being late. I had three paper rounds: one in the morning, one in the evening and one on Sundays. The paper round was important to me because we needed the money, but I don't think the school approved. One morning, I think it was snowing, and the papers were delivered late to the shop so I was late beginning my round and late for school. George Diamond clearly had no understanding of why one of his boys should be doing something so grubby as delivering papers. He said I had to realise that it was no kind of excuse for being late for school. He was probably right, but a good head should recognise that children have other concerns outside school. I also worked as a delivery boy for the local chemist two afternoons a week.

George Diamond was regarded in Cardiff as a great headmaster, and he did run a highly successful school, but looked at from my perspective as a working-class kid, my time at Cardiff High was unmemorable. I wish I had enjoyed what are possibly the five most formative years of one's life. Maybe I'm blaming the school for my own deficiencies, but it seems to me that the whole point of a good school is that it should be able to get hold of boys like me and get them involved and make them feel they belong.

Cardiff High had a very active old boys' association but I never felt the slightest inclination to join it. Some time ago I was asked to go back to present prizes, but I said I thought they wouldn't want to hear what I would say in my speech and they should probably withdraw the invitation.

I did go back to the school. I was working in television and went to film the school's production of Noye's Fludde. I was treated as though I was an old boy who had made good. The only other contact I had with the school was when I bumped into Salter in a park long after I'd left and we exchanged a few words.

I left school at 15 and started work the next week. In fairness to George Diamond, he did say I should do A-levels and go to university, but because of the financial situation at home and because I was obsessed with the idea of being a journalist and was convinced I had to start on a local paper as soon as possible, there was never any question of staying on. For years I've regretted that I didn't go to university, but I certainly can't blame the school.

George Diamond retired soon after I left Cardiff High and I went to interview him at his home for the local paper. It was strange to see the man who had been such a remote, magisterial figure in a gown, sitting in his armchair, wearing slippers and with a glass of whisky at his side.

John Humphrys, 53, was the BBC's youngest television foreign correspondent at 28. He has presented Radio 4's Today programme since 1987 and BBC TV's political programme, On the Record, since 1993. He was born in Cardiff and lives in west London

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