Writing his way out of the working class

16th February 1996 at 00:00
Alan Coren talks to Harvey McGavin. I suppose I had the standard post-1945 education for a bright suburban kid. I went to a good primary school - with enormous classes of more than 40 people - sat my 11-plus, and went on to grammar school at East Barnet.

There was a tremendous sense of excitement after the Second World War. We were the first grammar-school generation and there was a revivalist feeling in the air.

Men and women had gone through a singularly unpleasant war and were hoping things would change, that the old patterns and the old class system would break down. And the most important thingto anybody with children was education.

For the first time, men who were working class - like my father, who was a plumber - recognised that their children were no longer bound to the wheel of fire that was the old, bad education system. Ours was a generation of children that would stop being blue-collar and start being white-collar.

Many of the grammar schools were parodies of the public schools. It shocked me when I went from primary school to grammar school to find that the prefects and the schoolteachers were wearing gowns. But they were very enthusiastic teachers, fired up with the idea that they were creating a new Britain.

They wanted to get the best out of the children in their charge. Although the classes were large and resources were quite short, they nevertheless gave tremendous individual attention.

My father didn't think in terms of university. He thought that what I ought to be was an accountant or a solicitor or a surveyor because that was respectable, regular employment, pensionable and well paid.

When my father asked me what I wanted to be, I said I didn't really want to be any of those thing but that I had always wanted to write.

I had a marvellously attentive English teacher called Annie Brooks - a large, kind woman of about 50. The first time she met my parents was at a parents' meeting to decide whether the children went on to do A-levels or left school.

She said to my father: "Here's a bright kid who's a very promising writer and you want to stick him in some council surveyor's office or article him to a firm of family solicitors. That's no good at all!

"If the worst comes to the worst he can go to university and then he can be a solicitor or an accountant. But you must give him a chance." She was absolutely horrified.

This shook my parents a bit because they thought writers were louche and bohemian and, worst of all, wouldn't be in regular employment.

My father, who wasn't an educated man, remembered that TS Eliot had worked in a bank. His view was, "if he wants to be a writer he can be an accountant first and when he's about 30 he can write novels."

He had this vision of plumbing away to the age of 90 keeping a poet alive in a garret.

But Annie Brooks persisted and eventually persuaded my parents. Because she was middle class and they were working class, she more or less bullied them into accepting it. Until I became reasonably successful at writing, my father thought I might still see the light and end up a solicitor or accountant.

So I went on and did my A-levels in English, French and German and went to Oxford. My tutor at Wadham College was a chap called John Banborough. He was a wonderful English tutor. He encouraged selective reading - if you didn't like something, you didn't have to read it. In those days that wasn't always the case.

I owe a debt to Annie Brooks. She was a very understanding teacher. At that time, there weren't many books being produced because of paper shortages, so the public libraries tended not to have fiction. She lent me her own books. She insisted that I joined Boots' lending library because Boots had novels, which was how I came to read a lot of modern English fiction.

She encouraged me to read newspapers, magazines like Punch and New Statesman, and American novelists and humorists. Here was a rather dowdy, rather ungainly, very charming 50-year-old Yorkshire woman giving someone of 16 a copy of Norman Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, which was rather a risque novel in those days.

Her generation of teachers were very much in favour of selection because they saw it as the only way for children from poorer backgrounds to advance.

We now know it isn't the only way but, at that time, it was the best possible way. Teachers wanted to select the best kids and get the best from those kids.

The only thing that was wrong with the grammar school was that it was part of the class system. Children who went to grammar school left the working class behind. "Thank God!" they said to themselves.

Those who went to a secondary modern were committed to a life of drudgery and poverty because the class system said so. It was a reject system and that was very bad.

My son went to Westminster and my daughter went to St Paul's. I don't really approve of public schools - I tell myself I was trying to replicate my grammar school education but I just did what Tony Blair and Harriet Harman have done. Fortunately, I'm not a socialist so I don't have a conscience about it. But it cost me a fortune.

Writer, broadcaster and Times columnist, Alan Coren's latest book is A bit on the side (Robson Pounds 12.95).

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