Comp: a Survivor's Tale By John-Paul Flintoff Gollancz #163;10.99
As I made my way to my meeting with John-Paul Flintoff, I had a good idea what to expect. I had formed a firm image of him in my head from reading his memoir of his schooldays at Holland Park Comprehensive, west London.
Comp: a Survivor's Tale is a compendium of teenage delinquency, a distillatio n of Jack Straw's worst nightmares and the kind of account guaranteed to send shivers up the spines of teachers, parents and responsible adults everywhere. There is no corner of anarchic disruption that he and his fellow pupils don't explore in order to reduce their teachers to gibbering wrecks. And when these young Lords of Misrule leave the school at the end of the day (or, as often as not, in the middle of the day), they head not for a homework club but down to W H Smith's for some shoplifting, or to the park to do some drugs.
So I was expecting someone who oozed street-wise attitude, someone seriously cool, probably sporting shades, designer clothes and a drop-dead hairdo. But in the flesh John-Paul Flintoff resembles not a rebel but one of the teachers he so mercilessly tears apart in the book: sensible shoes, a diffident but enthusiastically bookish manner, and a tweedy jacket that screams "schoolmaster".
He calls it his "rumpled writer" look, and admits he has changed in the 12 years since he left Holland Park, in which time he has read English at Bristol University, and worked in marketing and journalism. "I was never happy with my identity at school, " he says. "I got very good at putting on a cockney accent."
The school seems to have changed as well. On a recent visit, Flintoff was impressed by what he saw; it was cleaner and tidier, and the pupils seemed highly motivated.
The author's father, Ian Flintoff, is an actor who has worked with the RSC, and appeared in Coronation Street, The Bill and Casualty. Flintoff Senior is also politically active (he stood for Labour against David Owen in the 1987 general election), and, although the family was not wealthy, going to a comprehensive was, says John-Paul, "an ideological matter".
"I suppose because of what I'd been taught at home, I made a special effort to mix with people from deprived backgrounds."
It is this social mix that has made Holland Park such a focus of media attention since its foundation in 1958. Now the only fully comprehensive school in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, this "Eton of comprehensives" as it was once dubbed, with its roll call of 1,500, embraces a wider diversity of social, cultural and linguistic backgrounds than any other educational institution in the country. Famous people such as Tony Benn have sent their offspring there, but there are children too from the tough estates around Latimer Road. Some of the boys John-Paul Flintoff knew at school are now in prison.
Flintoff says that, when his mother read the manuscript for his book, she was saddened by all the bullying. Indeed, perhaps the most striking aspect of the book (which is written with great honesty and attention to detail) is the relentlessness and ferocity of the victimisation.
Flintoff's ticket to survival was to be the brains behind the brawn, to draw up league tables for playground fights and devise ever more ingenious methods for the strong to humiliate the weak. The great strength of the book - which is often funny in the blackest way imaginable - is its non-judgmental frankness. "I decided that the only way to do it would be to see it from the children's point of view. Originally I wrote some of it from the point of view of someone in their late twenties looking back, but it came across as very arch."
To research the book, Flintoff mined both his own memory and that of his younger brother, Crispin, another Holland Park old boy. He also looked up classmates. One of the most memorable characters in Comp is "Justice" (the name, like most in the book, has been changed), who had a special line in forcing children to throw furniture out of the window.
John-Paul Flintoff's efforts to track down the present-day Justice are revealing of the diverse lines that led in and out of Holland Park. Told by a mutual acquaintance that Justice was now in the crack-cocaine business, and had been seen in nightclubs in Kensal Green surrounded by a posse of large men in trilbies, John-Paul eventually found himself outside a "distinctly dodgy-looking" council flat. Through a heavily armoured door,he was able to confirm a few basic facts with Justice's partner, but that was as much access as he was allowed.
"I deliberately cultivated the 'rumpled writer' look," he adds. "I didn't want them to think I was the police."