Award-winning author Elizabeth Laird talks about her school days at Croydon High, her passion for teaching and the VSO work that first inspired her love of travel

Where did you go to school and when?

I went to Croydon High School for Girls – way back in the 1950s!

What was your school like?

Croydon High was (is) an academically ambitious school for girls, with clear rules and aims. But it’s hard to exaggerate how different life was in the 1950s. We had far fewer distractions and were less stressed than modern children. I think we were rather earnest about our work and the world in general!

Did you love school, or hate it?

Bit of both, really. I was often off sick with various problems. I still have the diary I wrote. It’s full of anxieties over friendships and excitement over special school events.

What were your favourite subjects at school?

I decided to study languages after being charmed by a border guard on my first visit to France. English and French became my favourite subjects.

Who were your favourite or most memorable teachers and how did they influence you?

Oh, Miss Duncan! Miss Duncan… She once caught me reading Beau Geste under my desk during an English lesson. She just winked at me and told me to carry on reading. She taught me that reading was the best thing you could do and introduced me to a wide diet of literature.

Where was your favourite place at school and what did you do there?

When I became a prefect, I could use the prefect’s common room. This felt terrifically grand, though in retrospect I don’t think it was healthy to create such an elite among the girls.

What beliefs do you think your time at school taught you?

There was a strong emphasis on service to the community, leadership and taking responsibility. We were encouraged to think beyond ourselves.

What was your proudest school moment?

Acting in Richard 11. Every year the school performed an entire Shakespeare play. I only had a small part, but boy, did I love it!  I can still quote reams from the play.

What was the most trouble you ever got into at school?

I’m afraid I was a goody-goody swot. I don’t remember any more than a mild ticking off.

Were you ever ‘too cool for school’?

Was anyone cool in the 1950s? It didn’t seem so then. But I passed my driving test when I was 17, and my mother let me drive the family car to school on my birthday. I parked ostentatiously outside the main door.

What is your most vivid memory, looking back now?

Was it the time when my knicker elastic broke during gym, and my bloomers fell down? Or perhaps it was when Jacqueline du Pré, an old girl of the school, came back to play her cello for us.

When and how did your interest in writing and travel begin?

When I left school, my father urged me to apply to VSO to spend a year teaching abroad before I went to university. I was posted to Malaysia and it was a life-changing year for me. I nearly died of a snake bite, went trekking in the jungle, and found that I loved teaching. And I wrote long letters home to my family, trying to distil my new experiences into words. I think it was way back then that I became fascinated in the lives and peoples of countries far from my own. Perhaps that year laid the groundwork for The Garbage King, set in Ethiopia, Kiss the Dust, set in Iraqi Kurdistan, and Welcome to Nowhere, the story of a Syrian refugee boy.

Liz Laird

“Was anyone cool in the 1950s? It didn’t seem so then. But I passed my driving test when I was 17, and my mother let me drive the family car to school on my birthday”

What other key influences/passions shaped you when you were growing up?

My family belonged to the Brethren, a strict and close-knit Protestant sect. We learned long passages from the old King James Bible, which left my mind furnished with a lasting store of wonderful words and poetry. As I grew up, my outlook slowly broadened into an open, liberal view of religion and the world, but I never had to make a break with my close and loving family. It’s the beginning of that process that’s the subject of my new novel, The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown.

What projects and challenges are coming up next for you?

I’ve got no idea, and that’s the joy of being a writer. I’m still in the after-glow of having finished The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown, but any day now a new idea for a great new project will, I’m sure, just burst into my head.

How would you sum up your school days in three phrases?

Hard work, friendship, and the opening of my mind.

The Misunderstandings of Charity Brown is published by Macmillan, £12.99.

Further reading: Dwayne Fields on schooldays in Jamaica and London