I went to boarding school (Christ's Hospital, near Horsham, Sussex) when I was eleven. This involved taking various exams and interviews to qualify; I understand that my teachers had a problem with me being too bored at school, so this was an attempt to relieve the pressure on themselves.
If you haven't tried it, boarding school is a weird experience; a single sex school even more so. In a funny way, I felt that I liked it at the time, experiencing the elitism of special privation. With the benefit of hindsight, I now feel that those years were ones of emotional torture, from the neglect of school to the empty wastelands of the holidays, away from my house mates in the desolation of Hayes, Middlesex.
Christ's Hospital, if you don't know it, was one of the grand public schools. Founded in 1553, it moved to Horsham in 1901. The years left a tradition of wearing a navy blue coat, to the ground; knee breeches, yellow knee socks and white bands. This somewhat distinctive uniform was worn around the local area, and on the long bus, tube and train journey to school every term.
We lived in houses of 50 or so boys, sleeping in two open dormitories. Older boys, from about 15, were allocated studies, but younger boys had to work in dayrooms.
Just two years before I left, the school appointed a Head of Drama, Duncan Noel-Paton, to coincide with the completion of an Arts Centre including theatre. One of the optional subjects for Grecians (as the sixth form was known) was drama. I signed up, and fell into the liberating experiences of improvisation and modern drama classes. The exploration of my emotional limits fascinated me. I can't say that I could act, exactly, but I loved the experience, good or no. I also took dance classes, a kind of modern stage dance, with great enthusiasm. This was something that I was much closer to being good at. As a new department, there was a degree of resentment from the other masters, and it seemed as if we had built our own dangerous counter-culture in the school. As one of the few older pupils who wasn't a school monitor (a special distinction in its own right, given the thugs who were), I had a rebel cause of my own.
One minor rebellion was staging Arnold Wesker's 'Chips with Everything' with my house. The full politics of a small group and enclosed society came into play. Despite internal revolts and a reluctant house master, we delivered our public performances. I discovered that the producer can throw up on the first night as well as the cast.
That was it. The next term, a Michaelmas term, was my last at Christ's Hospital. I took Cambridge entrance exams and failed, leaving at Christmas with a Bible and Concordance to show for it, together with six A levels, seven O levels, and one S level. All of them universally a grade lower than my teachers had hoped for.
That gave me nine months living with my parents before starting a Biology degree at York. I found a job at Avis, as a clerk in their central billing department. For no very good reason, after a few months I was running the monthly trial balance for the department; each month it took five weeks to complete with green paper printouts and big, noisy accounting machines to stamp figures on large ledger sheets.
I spent everything that I earned on two things: enrolling at the London School of Contemporary Dance, and going to every rock gig that I had the slightest interest in.
In 1975, at the age of eighteen, I started University at York. It was a near thing; I had been asked if I was interested in a full time studentship in dance, but passed. The two clubs that I signed up for were Dance and Fencing. Fencing was another interest I had taken up at school; there was no formal support for it, which was a shame, as a few competitions would have given me a place at Cambridge, judging from the way ears perked up at my interview at Queens.
I learned a few things in my first term; it was easy to offend people by being in too much of a burning hurry to get somewhere, and that I wasn't interested in my course (Biology, as if that matters). I was teamed up for lab work with a mature student who was deeply committed to studying biology; and I wanted to complete the experiments as quickly as possible. The foundations of a deep seated incompatibility lay there. I can't remember what grades Harry got, but he deserved good ones. I found that I could concentrate on one subject, and go deeply into it; my initial choice was theoretical ecology and population dynamics. I spent a couple of terms concentrated on that, and was out of the curriculum after the first week. It culminated on out second year field course doing a principal components analysis to find the phenotypic distance between two populations of some wild flower, and presenting the results in a couple of matrices that I worked out on the blackboard in my head. An object lesson in how to lose the rest of my class in under two minutes.
A quick calculation showed that I spent about 40% of my available time running Gumbo (I'll get to that), 10% fencing, 20% dancing/acting and 30% on course work. I was in two plays, one Yeats dance-drama, and one dance presentation; enough, and yet not.
Gumbo was great; a hippy hangover into the early seventies, it was a vegetarian wholefood snack bar run in the Vanbrugh college snack bar on weekend evenings. The last of the real hippies were drifting away as we came in. It was the only place with real atmosphere, despite the setting, and a natural gathering place from 10pm, when it opened, through to 2 or even 4 am closing. Salads and wholefood cakes were cheap, and I slipped into the ethos by helping out. By the end of my first year, I was there working every night it was open. Specialities were catering at student sit-ins and gigs for local bands (not many, and not good).
Friday afternoons we did the shopping in the local fruit and veg wholesalers, wholefood shop (Alligator, it was called), and wholefood bakers. We would be back to start preparations at 8pm, with a few willing helpers drifting in until we opened at 10pm. There would always be a great coloured dustbin of cheese salad, another of green salad, one of fruit salad, muesli and a special vegetable soup.
For background colour we played the Doors, Grateful Dead, Curved Air, Hawkwind, Van Morrison, Fairport Convention and anything that fitted the smoky atmosphere of the college evenings.
Back in those days, we had an introductory computer science course at the end of the first year, which mean learning BASIC on a DEC-10; from the ridiculous to the sublime. For some reason this caught my attention (no mean feat, as you can see), and I spent much of my remaining time investigating the delights of ADVENT on an LA-36 (I think that was it; anyway, a teletype equivalent!).
Somehow, at the end of three years I emerged with a well-earned 2-II, six job interviews to go to, having sent off twelve applications, and three job offers, all programming. And on...