In 1955, my ‘grammar’ school was staffed entirely by superannuated spinsters, who lived cosily together in twosomes, taught their subjects in a lacklustre way,and had virtually no interest whatsoever in their pupils.
The misses Arrowsmith, Vashon-Baker, Seymour (‘Legs’), Giller ( ‘the Killer’), and numerous others were all: unmarried, in their late 50s and 60s; Oxbridge-educated; way past retirement age,and bored to distraction. They seemed to regard us girls as, at worst ,’marriage fodder’, or at best ‘only fit for’ Redbrick universities, at that. Career advice was non-existent; and, to my knowledge, none of the girls ( and I managed to crawl my way up in to the ‘A’ stream) were put up for Oxbridge entrance. Latin wasn’t encouraged; although we were all required to pass two foreign languages in order to be eligible for university entrance
Luckily, the headmistress, also unmarried, was slightly younger and more enthusiastic and caring towards us Sixth Formers; but, in the end, we were left to the mercy of the Curriculum to stimulate any interest in us. Everything was badly taught. No encouragement was ever given.
Yet, I remember the epiphany of reading Keats for the first time in class; and looking round in wonder and amazement to see if anybody else was as thrilled as I was by To Autumn, Ode on Melancholy, or The Eve of St. Agnes. I wanted to jump out of my seat, and scream with joy and astonishment at these glorious poems. But, as I looked around me, desperate for someone to acknowledge my sense of wonderment, I saw only bowed heads reading silently. Nobody engaged my wide- eyed joy, and desire to shout :’This is incredible, amazing work’, out loud. I had never read anything as spectacular as this before.
By now, I was writing poems daily, and bits of fiction; and I had a short story and a poem published in Sixth Form Opinion. This poem was then published in a book called ‘Sprouts on Helicon’, edited by Judith Earnshaw, and published by the far-sighted Andre Deutsch. We poets were all sixth formers; and Deutsch signed us all up with proper contracts. We were all invited to an ‘At Home’ by the Directors of Andre Deutsch at their publishing house at 105, Great Russell Street, W.C.1. It was here that I met the redoubtable Diana Athill, now 97, with whom I have kept in touch over the years. She still addresses me, touchingly, as ‘Dear Sprout’ in any correspondence we have had.
Between us,we girls, lacking any kind of direction or inspiration, had to decide on which university subjects we should study. Firstly, we had to pass a Proficiency in English test, as well as our ‘A’ and ‘S’ Levels. No support or direction was given to us at all regarding university selection. We just had to read prospectuses and choose our subjects. For some strange reason English Literature, as a subject, was never discussed, though it was evident, in my case, that this was the obvious choice.