My father died when I was 9; he was in a car crash while my sister and I were on holiday with our grandparents. The same day, my mother came to take us back home. But she didn’t tell us then and there what had happened, she just said he’d been called away for business. She then didn’t find a way to tell us for three weeks, although of course we sensed something was going on because my father had never not talked to me for three weeks in my life.
So my poor mother was widowed at 35. It wasn’t an easy time and she was quite unhappy and unpredictable. In fact a lot of those next few years I just remember feeling really sad. When I went back to my prep school after the summer holidays everyone knew my father had died and was terribly nice to me, but I felt being singled out like that was somehow incredibly embarrassing.
So it was very nice to go to another school and start again. St Mary’s Convent Ascot, as it was called at that time – it’s now St Mary’s School, Ascot – is where my mother had gone and her sister, too. It was just a very calm environment, and after the chaos of my dad dying I think in a really visceral way it made everything much better, it calmed me and gave me some sort of peace.
It was a Catholic school and was still run by nuns at that time, who’d had generations of churning out good Catholic wives and mothers. Religion was taken seriously and ran through everything. There was Mass on a Sunday and we had do to retreat days, but it wasn’t rammed down our throats. The chapel was dedicated to Our Lady of Humility and St Cecilia and it was beautiful with an absolutely gorgeous gold altarpiece.
Coming from a little private London school it took a little bit of time to work out where everything was, but actually I took to it like a duck to water. I don’t remember any homesickness until I was much older, when the restrictions of school become more apparent, and then I used to cry my eyes out going back each term. Although it was amazing how once you got there the waters would slowly and steadily close over your head…
St Mary’s was much stricter then than it is now, but I always liked rules, I like order. What a goody-goody I used to be though, I never wanted to get into trouble, I just wasn’t naughty: that came much later. The most rebellious thing I ever did was smoke a cigarette, my first try ever – although I smoked throughout my 20s. I got caught straight away and was suspended and sent home for a few days. That was terrible, I felt so ashamed at being told off. I still hate being told off.
A woman's world
This was a world populated by women. The only man in the school was a physics teacher, a bearded chap with glasses who wore sandals with socks. I always got on very well with the nuns. I absolutely loved Sister Michaela, who was a year mistress, and Sister Gemma who looked after us in the sixth form and used to play the guitar and make us hot cocoa. I really respected Sister Mark, the headmistress, and Mother Bridget who taught us English.
I was – and still am – a complete bookworm. I was obsessed by Samuel Beckett. And I loved the Russian writers. I read War and Peace in three days. I had this mad resolve to learn Russian. Glasnost was ramping up around that period. I had this notion that I was going to be picked up by the secret service and thought Russian would be useful.
At the same time I became a life drawing model because, as it happens, I can stay still for extraordinarily long periods of time: you just need to not be too self-conscious, and I’m not. I figured that being able to stay still for a long time without moving might stand me in good stead for the secret service – although I can’t now imagine why on earth I thought that. Standing up, sitting down, reclining: I could do a whole range of poses, I was famous for it throughout the school. In fact, at one point I modelled for all the O and A level art candidates, and after a few hours when they said I had to take a break I always protested, “No, no, I can keep up this pose.”
I took myself off to Russia in my gap year and spent three months there. I could speak pretty passable Russian after that. But inevitably, over the years my chances to use it have been few and far between and I’ve forgotten almost everything. Actually, I wish I’d learnt Spanish instead.
One day the headmistress called me into her study and told me I was going to be head girl, which I loved because I’m naturally bossy. My sister Charlie, who is two years younger and not such a goody-goody as me, absolutely hated me being head girl; she thought it was embarrassing.
The most onerous thing I had to do was to give a speech at Speech Day, but that wasn’t a problem, I’ve never been shy. I still give speeches to schools as I’m often invited to do so, and I slightly smirk at myself because they’re always along the lines of “Be true to yourself,” “Don’t look at someone else and wish you were them,” “Try and make the best of your best characteristics,” all that rubbish one endlessly says to children.
I’m not terribly clubbable so I didn’t have a gang at school, but I was friendly with lots of people and had a couple of girls I completely loved. What I remember now are those long summer days when a whole gaggle of us would lie about on one of the playing fields chatting and giggling and talking about boys – I mean, what else is there to talk about at that age? – and singing all these soupy romantic songs. I also remember the first song I kissed someone to: Move Closer by Phyllis Nelson.
I went back to St Mary’s just before the pandemic for my 25-year reunion, and I hadn’t seen any of those girls since I’d left. You can imagine: there were cries of “Oh my God!” when we met up and it was such fun seeing everybody, I absolutely loved it. Lots of people looked just like their mothers had, but there were some startling transformations. One girl, Melissa, who’d been head of the hockey team and quite tomboyish and never pulled her socks up, has turned into this incredibly soignée wife of a man who lived in Switzerland, and was wearing an absolutely beautiful dress, “What’s happened to you?” everyone exclaimed.
Annabel was another one who had changed. She had never got married and was just immaculately dressed and blow dried - the kind of look I can never pull off. I’ve been on telly so it wasn’t such a shock for them to see me after all that time.
The school made a mistake however. They got us all together for coffee and then took us straight in for Mass, and sitting in the chapel we all got the giggles really badly; this group of supposedly grown-up women – it was literally like being 15 again, and the headmistress got really cross and told us off for our poor behaviour.
I only keep in touch with a few girls from school now. I put it down to the fact that I’ve moved around so much for work, although really that’s just an excuse, you are where you are. I’ve only got a few really good friends who have come all the way with me.
Read last week's column: Victoria Hislop: ‘I was unashamedly a Swot’