We Don’t Need No Education

As a matter of fact we do, but the ‘education’ we receive is anything but.

At 11-years old I was not all that interested in learning about what day good King Harold got married on, and what his second son’s name was, if indeed he had a second son. Neither was I all that interested in learning about my English teacher’s personal opinion of Richard Nixon.

So I quit what is rightfully called ‘skool’ at about age 13. Home or self-schooling in the UK isn’t allowed, unless mummy and daddy are rich and or have the right connections. For everybody else, you must go to skool. If you don’t, they will come looking for you. In the form of Truant Officers.

The “beak” we called them. Usually these beaks were angry disaffected authoritarian men who didn’t make the grade to become policemen or Army NCOs. So they took their frustrations out on their neighbours’ children instead, hunting them down in amusement arcades and playgrounds to yell at and threaten them, and for this service beaks got compensated with a small wage paid by the taxman.

Secret Hide Out

Tracking down and shouting at traunts was a role almost made for such men, on the assumption that even they would be smarter than traunt children. Which in most cases they were. Not in my case. In three years of actively seeking my whereabouts during skool hours they never once found me. Because I “hid out” in a place where a traunt officer will never in a million years think of looking – the public library.

It was full of books. Over the course of the two-to-three years that I spent six-to-eight hours a day five days a week there, I think I must have read most of them. Books about physics, chemistry, laboratory animal management, biology, the law, engineering, urban planning, naval warfare, business management, metallurgy, philosophy, politics, economics, and having been born in a city heavily damaged during the Second World War sporting childrens’ playgrounds colloquially known as ‘bomb sites’, I read books about that as well.

bomb site

The former home of H.G. Wells reduced to a bombsite-cum-childrens-playground.


It wasn’t all work and study though. At times I would go down to the children’s section to relax with Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl – a child needs to have some escapism after all, even a hard-working traunt. The soon-to-become contemporary classic Stig of the Dump was a personal favourite capturing as it did the essence of time and place – Der Zeitgeist as German-speakers say.

That’s not to say I neglected the established classics. Coming from a town that had once been home to Charles Dickens, Arthur Conan Doyle, H. G. Wells, and Rudyard Kipling among others, the fiction section of the library simply had to be visited. Mostly though I spent my early teens searching out reference material in the non-fiction section, with the occasional field-trip to a local botanical garden or museum when the coast was clear.

Only one time did I think I had been busted. The librarian came over and asked me to leave. I was certain I’d find the beak waiting outside, but she was asking everyone else to leave as well. When we were all safely outside I overheard some grown-ups saying it was a bomb-scare, and we were soon allowed back in to read our books.

Much To Learn

Some of the books, concerning subjects such as nucleo-synthesis, the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram of main sequence stars, quantum superposition, specific pathogen free laboratories, jury nullification, machine-language programming, the rise and fall of the Third Reich, evolution by natural selection, bomb-damage effects, and other advanced topics that engaged my interest often required some little background reading.

Fortunately our library was a fairly modern one since the Germans had bombed the old one while reducing the entire city center to rubble when my parents were children and the newly-built library had installed microfiche – the high technology of the day. There were no public computers in those days, but I soon became an expert in the use of searching microfiche indexes to locate the shelving of the particular book I needed to reference.

Navigating the Dewey Decimal System was something else that was soon to become second nature, and post-graduate researchers in the library would often ask for my help to locate books for them, in exchange for some pennies that I could spend on cigarettes.


There was no avoiding the end-of-skool exams that a UK child is required to sit at age 16, so I had to turn up at skool for those. Before the examination it was requried to practice, by spending a few days sitting the exams as a dry-run, or “mocks” as they were called.

Of the nine mocks I sat I scored eight A’s and a B – more than enough for me to sail into the University of my choice had they been the real deal. I completed each of those mock exams in half the time allocated or less, then had to sit in the examination room for another hour or more each time with nothing to do – not even allowed a book to read.

Then I was impolitely told that I would not be allowed to sit the final exams because I hadn’t attended enough skool, on the grounds that those who had not attended skool would not be able to pass them, my eight A’s and a B in the mocks be damned.

Job Prospects In Thatcher’s Britain

So I had to leave school at 16 with no more qualifications than a bronze certificate for having swam a 25-yard breaststroke in the local pool (I’d had to teach myself how to swim, as you’d have probably guessed by now). The town was an island, so my guess is that they couldn’t bring themselves to deny me a swimming certificate because that might have reflected on them – the generation on whose watch my city had been destroyed, the island’s waifs left to fend for themselves not even taught how to swim.

There’s not much call for qualified short-distance swimmers third-class on an island, and the certificate was more of a symbolic award. A consolation prize, with no job prospects attached. I told the careers officer that I wanted to be an airline pilot and she said I wouldn’t be able to do that and suggested that if I wanted a job in transportation I should consider driving a van instead.

I went to work ‘on-the-black’ in the aptly-named John Pounds Scrapyard for a short while, which the image featured below shows hasn’t changed much. I dismantled marine engines dumped there by the Royal Navy, whose inner parts I understood the purpose of, for a dollar-a-day, cash-in-hand.

boy in john pounds scrapyard

Then as Now: Unidentified Pompey Boy playing among the detritus of war in the aptly-named ‘John Pounds Scrapyard’ because there is fuck all else for him to do.

I had enough understanding of economics and practical military necessity to appreciate why these multi-million-pound marine engines, still in their original packaging, were being scrapped after having been left to rot for thirty years without ever having been installed in a ship.

Then Thatcher come to power a few months later and I was conscripted for the next ten years into the legions upon her own scrapheap.

Ten Years On

After Thatcher I was able to get into the local University, on the basis of scoring 98% in the University’s own entrance exam that I sat more-or-less on a whim – to keep the dole office happy.

I accepted the University’s offer to take a place on a Computer Science degree course by the end of which I chalked-up, lo and behold, 11 A’s and a B in the final exams – sufficient to get me invited up to Oxford with a research-council grant for to undertake post-graduate research in theoretical computer science.

Which gave me access to the Bodleian, and Oxford Union Libraries.

Oxford Union Library

View of the Oxford Union Library from Gladstone’s desk

Pictured above is the view I had for five days when I decided to sit one of the tougher Oxford exams there. It was during tourist-season when the undergraduates are sent down and many of Oxford’s buildings allow limited public access. As I was sitting a research examination the guide would get my permission before allowing groups of tourists in.

I am not one to deny tourists their right to wonder within an historic library, wherein Presidents, Prime Ministers, and Kings come to read, mayhap it will inspire them. Thus I gave my permission for them to gawk on the condition of “no photographs”. They could look up to me – I was sat at Gladstone’s desk on a raised platform – as an Oxford scholar, and woe betide them should they ever find out this scholarly researcher was an unschooled back-street riff-raff who had taken it upon himself to do the things they only dreamed of doing.

Moving On

I also wrote a book that year, which is now shelved in many local libraries including the one that used to be my own. I live in Switzerland nowadays, a self-employed enterprise and security architect for regulated computerized systems in health care, finance, and communications, but hopefully back in my home town my own book is being read by traunt kids smart enough not to accept the bullshit their underpaid underqualified agenda-of-rage “teachers” are shovelling into them on government orders.

Another of my home-town’s famous natives was John Pounds, the 1999 “Man of the Millenium” no less.

john pounds, cobbler

A load of Cobblers.

Let that sink in.

Kings Road Bomb Damage – University of Portsmouth
Oxford Union Library – The Oxford Union
Scrapyard Boy – unknown, circulated on social media
John Pounds Lithograph – Public Domain

Further Reading

Would you like to know where I hid out during the jobless Thatcher Years? Then why not read about my adventures with King Kurt and the rats and riots of Brixton.

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