Biography: Billingshurst

My first primary school.

The convent school took boys to the age of 9, and girls to 18. There were thus relatively few boys. I remember that in summer, at lunchtimes after eating lunch, a group of boys would gather and be taken on a walk through the grounds and on to a neighbouring farm by a man who was essentially a gardener and handyman at the school, with no teaching qualification or anything like that.

Another memory I have is of performing with a school band. And I remember spelling sessions, where a teacher (a nun) would read out words and we would have to write them down. I remember polysyllabic words such as “amphitheatre” being the norm, and always coming top with no errors. I cannot say why a detail like that word has stuck in my memory for half a century, but I just know that that was one of the words we had to spell in one such test. Orthography was always a strong point of mine and I can still generally spot a spelling error quickly, which is sueful when working as an editor.

A subject that was not usually offered to children at the age of 6 in England then, as now (mostly), was French. We began to learn French in my second year at the convent (September 1956). When I finally got to grammar school at the age of 11 (September 1961) and began to learn French all over again, I was able to recall something of the flavour of the language, and I always did pretty well at French. In my 20s, I would take the subject still further, and even emigrate to Paris for some years. I reckon that having learnt the beginnings of a foreign language so young made all the difference. I found language learning easier and more natural than many others of my age at that time (in my school — and we did better than the average secondary school because all the boys there were pre-selected from the academically ablest 10 per cent).

I attended that Convent school at Billinghurst for two years. A little before my 7th birthday (in July 1957), I caught the measles; and I was confined to bed at home in a darkened room for some weeks, as that was required by the treatment regime for measles. Meanwhile, my parents had decided that Orchard Cottage was no longer big enough for the five of us, and that summer we moved to another house at Leatherhead, in Surrey. This meant that my father, who had caught a train daily from Horsham to London Bridge station to work in the City, would thereafter catch his train four stations nearer to the metropolis than before. It meant that I never returned to the convent school at Billingshurst except once at some point in the years that followed, when my parents took me in during the school holidays, and we were able to speak to one nun and I refreshed my memory a little about what the interior of that vast old country house looked like.