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Unhappy schooldays and frustration with the education system


Struggling to fit in at school
Brian Sewell Writer
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[Q] Were you conscious, when you were a child, I mean, eight, nine, whatever, of being at all special?

No. Absolutely not. I had no comparison, so there was no question. It was made abundantly clear to me the moment I got to Haberdashers' that I was a bit odd. I remember a boy saying to me, 'You’ve had elocution lessons'. And I said, 'What’s elocution?' And so, you know… it started then.

We… in 1942, just 11, just through the exam, put into Form 2B at Haberdashers', which had a form mistress called Irenie Johnson. We had mistresses because there were no young men to come in. There were lots of old men at the school, beastly old men. But the first form had a mistress called Miss Woods, and 2B had Irenie Johnson. And Irenie Johnson said, 'Now, we don’t know each other and you must call me Miss Johnson and I’ve got to learn all your names, but I want to learn other things about you, and so I need to ask you what… to tell me which books you’ve most recently read'. And when she got to me, in alphabetical order, I ran off a series of titles by people like Warwick Deeping and Dornford Yates and Sydney Horler and Francis Brett Young and Eleanor Farjeon and… and all the other boys had been reading William books. So that didn’t endear me to them.

And then... very soon afterward, she said, 'Now, I’m going to ask you all to give a little lecture. It need only last two or three minutes, but your homework is to go home and think about what you will deliver your lecture on'.

So we couldn’t all do this on the same day, so over a period of a week or so, in English lessons, we were delivering our lectures. And as an 'S', I was again right at the end of the line. And I had decided to lecture on Wagner. And there was a piano in the room, and there was a boy called Kingston who could play the piano. So I had said to Kingston, 'I’m going to need your help, because I want you to play some themes for me'. So I talked about Wagner, and then produced a miniature score, one of my mother’s concert-going scores, and plonked it on the piano thing, well... rest. Kingston had been sitting for the last few minutes. And then said, 'Play that'. And of course, the poor thing, he’d got a complete score in front of him, and he didn’t know what to do with it, and the whole lecture fell to pieces, and I got very cross, and that didn’t endear me to my peers, either.

The one thing I learned very quickly was not to show off, as they put it. And it wasn’t showing off, that’s the point... it wasn’t showing off. It was just things that seemed to me to be perfectly natural, I had to shut up about.

[Q] And were you bullied?

Yes. Quite a lot. And as I never fought anybody, I didn’t know how to deal with it. I didn’t know how to fight back, to begin with.

Born in England, Brian Sewell (1931-2015) was considered to be one of Britain’s most prominent and outspoken art critics. He was educated at the Courtauld Institute of Art and subsequently became an art critic for the London Evening Standard; he received numerous awards for his work in journalism. Sewell also presented several television documentaries, including an arts travelogue called The Naked Pilgrim in 2003. He talked candidly about the prejudice he endured because of his sexuality.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Haberdashers' Aske's Boys' School, Just William, Irene Johnson George Warwick Deeping, Dornford Yates, Cecil William Mercer, Sydney Horler, Francis Brett Young, Eleanor Farjeon, Wilhelm Richard Wagner

Duration: 5 minutes, 16 seconds

Date story recorded: 2008

Date story went live: 28 June 2012