I was always a bolshie

26th January 1996 at 00:00

I started school in Darjeeling because my parents lived in India - my father was a director of various companies, including the Darjeeling Himalayan Railway.

Because the war was on, we couldn't be sent back to England. Instead, the British set up the New School in Darjeeling. I was there from when I was four to nine. It was a lovely school. We had a very English education. All the staff were eccentric - they were all pacifists and into healthy living. Mr Lowkes was the headmaster. He was a Quaker, a very kindly man who went on to hold a distinguished post in education in Oxford. There was a marked absence of rules at the New School.

Then in 1945 me, my brother, two sisters, mother and grandmother, came back to Britain and I was sent to Twyford School in Hampshire. It was very much the reverse of Darjeeling. You couldn't have any food of your own. You'd stand in a queue and get two sweets after lunch. In Darjeeling, although it was a more ordinary school, you could go shopping and get anything you wanted. At Twyford, we were allowed out once a week and taken for a walk in single file along the Downs.

I got used to it in time, but I didn't take to school at all after Darjeeling. I felt I'd rather not try than try and be seen to fail. So I did very little work, just enough to get by. I'm convinced I survived by having a talent for passing exams with the minimum amount of knowledge. I lived my school life that way. I didn't try at games or work or to be a prefect.

At 13, I went to Marlborough. Every public school has two classes - bolshies and good boys. The bolshies reflect a refusal to fail. You couldn't fail as a bolshie and I was always on the side of the bolshies.

As a scholar, I did classics. I had a master I intensely disliked. He put me off classics for life. Then I had Hugh Weldon. He had a lovely chuckle and smiling eyes, and tremendous sense of humour. He was very anti-establishment. A naughty man in many ways, a delightful man.

He was a bachelor, and he'd been a wine merchant before. We had a very unorthodox education under him. He had no truck with 60 lines of Latin and Greek a week. The master I disliked would say, "Tully, stand up with the next five lines." And he'd beat you with a gym shoe if you stammered. Weldon would say, "I'm sure you've all done your prep. I don't want a boring translation. " And he'd talk, he'd encourage discussion. He just wanted to interest you in things. He was very charismatic and good. He woke my interest in reading and learning. Unfortunately the man who taught me in the 5th form got promoted to teach the lower 6th so I lost all that influence again.

I always say my education didn't teach me to learn. In the lower sixth, we learnt our history notes by heart. Any thought that we would read anything else didn't enter into it. I'd translate Euripedes or Socrates without any idea about why I was doing it. It was just, "Why did you make this mistake?"

I was so over-specialised at this stupid school. The only O-levels I was allowed to enter for were English language, Latin, Greek and elementary maths. It was just a pro forma exercise. We were put on a tramline meant to take you to a university scholarship. So I had a hatred of learning at Cambridge. I didn't know how to do it.

If I'm slightly mad it's because I was institutionalised from the age of four to when I did my National Service. At Cambridge we had to be in at ten at night. When I left, I still expected someone to ring a bell and I'd go and get my meal.

The only thing I got out of Marlborough was a deep love of the Anglican church and liturgy. I was bolshie about everything but chapel. I went to voluntary evensong. The chaplain, John Miller, was the most influential person there. He left in the middle of my schooling, which was a great sadness to me. He made Christianity matter.

The staff on the whole were very impersonal. I had an authoritarian housemaster who was famous for beating people so I had no relationship with him. But the chaplain would ask you for tea and talk to you and ask you about things. He taught us the kindness of good Christians. And he encouraged us about faith. I was actually a candidate for ordination. I went to Cambridge to read theology but I ended up doing two years in history and one in theology. I got bolshie there, too. There was a dichotomy. I felt called to Christianity, but unable to lead anything like a Christian life.

I was a very drunken undergraduate. My tutor was Bob Runcie whom I admired very much and he was a tower of strength to me. Then I did two terms at Lincoln Theological College, until I realised I couldn't lead the life a priest should live. It was a sadness, because it was a vocation. But it was also a relief. Someone else had taken a decision for me. I still have great admiration for the best of the clergy, and for Anglican rituals and I've never lost that love.

Mark Tully was the BBC's Delhi correspondent for more than 20 years. He still lives there, where he works as a freelance journalist. His latest book is The Heart of India (Viking).

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