Andrew Neil: ‘I wasn’t intimidated by the Oxbridge public schoolboys’

Andrew Neil photographed for The Telegraph on June 12 2023
'I think about my school a lot because I know what I owe it' says Neil - Jeff Gilbert

When I was five years old, we moved from a tenement building to a rather nice house in the middle of a new council estate called Glenburn on the south side of Paisley, which had a large garden at the front and a decent one at the back. We were the first settlers there – indeed it was so new the school wasn’t ready for my first year of primary school, so we used a Nissen hut, although that quickly got upgraded.

My parents had no academic background; my father had been an electrician but joined the Army when war broke out, and then spent most of that time in Africa as a Desert Rat where he rose to the rank of Captain. My mother worked in the Paisley textile mills during the Second World War, she was a mill girl. There were very few books in the house, just a Pears’ Cyclopaedia – not encyclopaedia, curiously – and a Bible as my father was an elder in the Kirk. In fact, I was rather religious as a child,  although I grew out of that – I just wasn’t a believer.

Anyway, I did my 11-plus and went from my little state primary school to Paisley Grammar School, or to give it its full title, The Paisley Grammar School and William B Barbour Academy – God knows who he was. And my parents then had an expectation I would get the kind of education they hadn’t.

Certainly the school was more professional and middle-class than my background, just a few rapscallions like myself thrown into the mix, but we all slid in, there was no issue – and the uniform was a great equaliser. And there was a real esprit de corps about the school, we were always very proud of its heritage and quality.

I was a pretty good pupil, I worked hard because I knew I’d been given a huge opportunity: I was getting a world-class education. There was a real culture of learning and hard work, and a great deal of homework, but it was fun too, there were lots of sports. I played rugby in the 3rd XV and was in the 1st X1 at cricket – I was wicket keeper and opening batsman.

We had superb teachers, they were always encouraging and often stated that with hard work and a semblance of ability there was nothing that was out of our grasp. We used to have great arguments about public affairs, and I started debating in school and learnt confidence through speaking in public, which I think equipped me in a way a lot of state schools don’t these days. The English teachers in particular were influential because they encouraged me to read what you would call the “quality newspapers”, so from quite an early age I was reading those kinds of papers and I enjoyed them.

All through school I played in a rock band called The Kyst, I was the drummer. We actually played at our final school dance, what would now be called the prom since we imported that word from the United States. Most of the evening was confined to Scottish country dancing, but the teachers allowed our group to perform five songs, which were all Motown, which was our specialty. I particularly remember the Four Tops’ Reach Out, (I’ll be There). There’s the piccolo flute intro before the drums kick in, and I then gave it my all and had my few seconds in the limelight. Anyway, our set was a huge success, there were cries of “more”, but the teachers went back and put on the Dashing White Sergeant to shouts of indignation and boos.

Andrew Neil at The Paisley Grammar School and William B Barbour Academy
Andrew Neil at The Paisley Grammar School

I think about my school a lot because I know what I owe it: I wouldn’t be here today but for a combination of the grammar school and the University of Glasgow where I went afterwards. For someone from my background to have gone to a 16th-century school and a 15th-century university, both of huge stature, was a pretty good leg up. And it meant that, when I went to make my way in London, I was not intimidated by the Oxbridge public schoolboys because I felt my school and university education had been just as good as theirs.

Also, one of the great things you learn if you have been in co-educational backgrounds is that you grow up knowing what it is to have girls who are friends and not just girlfriends. When I went up to university, you could tell immediately who had gone to co-ed schools and who had gone to single-sex schools because the young men from the single-sex schools did not know how to behave around women. The idea that men could be friends with women and not just view them as sex objects hadn’t entered their mindset.

Unfortunately, my most vivid memory of school is a rather sad one which has stayed in my mind and probably always will do. In sixth form we challenged the teachers to a football match, although we didn’t usually play football as we were a rugby school. Anyway, the teachers agreed. I was the goalkeeper. At one point in the second half, one of our backs passed the ball back to me in the goal and, as I bent down to pick it up, the gym teacher, Mr Scott, who was a great rugby coach, and subsequently a bit of a legend in the school, came hurtling towards me. I think he thought I was a bit soft, which may not have been wrong, and if he came at me fast enough I would panic and fumble and he would then get the ball. Instead what happened was just as he reached me he collapsed, and died of a heart attack right in front of me. It took us all a few minutes to realise what had just happened; we initially thought he had fainted or hurt his leg or something, because he had been coming at quite a speed. But he wasn’t moving. The other teachers and the rest of my team came running over, but nothing could be done, he was gone. You grow up quite quickly when something like that happens.

The next day we all gathered for morning assembly. Normally with nine hundred of us in the school there was massive chatter, but when the ringing of the bell occurred, which meant the rector was arriving, you could have heard a pin drop, everyone was subdued and upright, there was no need for the bell that morning. We subsequently all paid our respects to Mr Scott, but I’ve often thought that since I was not his favourite, nor an outstanding sportsman, I was not only the last person he saw, but the last person he would have wanted to see, on this Earth.

As told to Danny Danziger

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