The television presenter launched into a furious rant when she went back to her old school to address the pupils
Oh to have been a bluebottle on the wall when the television presenter Fiona Phillips went back to her old school in Southampton to give a rousing speech to the pupils. The headmistress was no doubt beaming with pride as this successful Old Girl made her way to the podium and tapped the microphone. And how her jaw must have dropped when, instead of reminiscing fondly about her alma mater, Miss Phillips launched into a furious rant – which is much the worst kind of rant – decrying her “appalling education” as well as her teachers, who, she said, had crushed her aspirations and turned her into a “vile teenager”. There was “no discipline” at the place, she added. She left with one O-level and an arrest for shoplifting on her record.
Way to go, Fiona. I gave her a call to check what she had in the diary for this week. On Tuesday she will be giving an address to the General Synod about the delicate matter of allowing women to become bishops. And on Thursday she will be over in New York conducting sensitive negotiations on behalf of the UN as to what measures to take against Iran to prevent it developing its nuclear programme.
I imagine she has been preparing her revenge dish since the day she walked out of the school gates for the last time. “Let me just take it out of the fridge to see if it’s ready. Brrr! Perfect.” But now that she has got it out of her system, I think she ought to reflect for a moment on where her appalling education actually got her. Would she have presented GMTV for 11 years, a pretty impressive job, had her childhood not been a little difficult?
I am often struck when interviewing successful people how frequently they have been driven by the rottenness of their childhoods. I’m not talking about sexual abuse, of course, but a little bit of grit, some discomfort to give their life texture. Elton John, he was one. Had a miserable childhood because his parents argued all the time. Jane Fonda, she was another. Her mother killed herself and her father was so cold to her she became bulimic. Jack Dee, meanwhile, attended a school he hated, where the teachers hated him, and he never looked back. Well, he did. Looked back in anger, and in the process gave himself a scowling comedy persona that made his fortune. Stephen Fry was expelled twice. As was Woody Allen. And Dr David Starkey’s childhood was made difficult by a clubfoot, which in turn made him the successful firebrand he is today.
I’ve just been over in America interviewing Paula Fox, an 89-year-old novelist whose mother was a monster to her. The result of her childhood misery was a series of powerful autobiographical novels which Jonathan Franzen, no less, has declared some of the most beautiful ever written.
Lousy childhoods, it seems, equal what is known as “psychological resistance”. Though I never got the chance to interview him, John Lennon was an archetypal example of this. He had an especially troubled childhood — father abandoned him, mother died — which left him bitter and twisted, but outrageously creative.
Perhaps the best example, though, was Winston Churchill, whose parents showed little interest in him. In later life he reflected: “Famous men are usually the product of unhappy childhood. The stern compression of circumstances, the twinge of adversity, the spur of slights and taunts in early years are needed to evoke that ruthless fixity of purpose…” I’ll stop the quote there because it goes on for a bit.
I sometimes worry that I am giving my children a childhood that is far too happy and carefree. They seem to smile and laugh a worrying amount; one of them is even prone to bursting into song. What they will need if they are to succeed in life is a little neglect.
Perhaps I should drive them off to some remote spot and abandon them. As they make their own way home, foraging on berries and roadkill, they will acquire fire in their bellies, a little anger in their eyes, and who knows, 20 years after leaving school they might be invited back to give a speech to inspire the pupils.