My schooldays - Neil Oliver

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Where did you go to school?

Forehill Primary, which was a lovely modern school with a grass playground in Ayr, then Noblehill Primary in Dumfries, Dumfries High School followed by Dumfries Academy. You sat a qualifying exam in your second year at High School, getting a place at the academy if you did well enough in the exam, like the old grammar-school set-up.

Did you like it?

Noblehill Primary had a red sandstone ruin from a building that had burned down around the Second World War. The family house was right over the wall from the school. Myself and others would climb over the wall at night and play in the ruin in those days when it wasn’t such a dangerous world.

I’ve got nothing but good memories of Dumfries Academy, an old-fashioned red sandstone building, with wood-panelled corridors and high-up windows operated by ropes. A lot of the teachers wore gowns.

Did you get into trouble?

I’d like to say that I was a rebel but, disappointingly, I was a good boy and respectful of my teachers.

What subjects were you good at?

English and history by a mile, predictably enough. I remember Changing Life in Scotland 1760-1820, a title that sounded as dull as ditchwater but which took in the agricultural and industrial revolutions. I also remember the First World War lessons, with the horror of the trenches, subjects that I’m still working on with Tony (Pollard) in Two Men In A Trench.

I’d been brought up in a family of readers, and my mum taught me to read and write before I went to primary school. One of my earliest pre-school memories in Ayr is cycling ahead of my mum on a tricycle down a road lined with cherry trees as she went back to the library a couple of times a week to get new books out.

Did you have a favourite teacher?

My history teacher, Ivor Waddell, was inspirational and had a major effect on me. I found him a genuinely excellent teacher who inspired an interest in history.

What did you want to do?

I did want to do something involving history and writing, the things that I felt naturally drawn to.

College or university?

I applied to some universities to do English literature, and to others for history and archaeology. Then I got taken on a field trip to Glasgow University, and remember a natural affinity because Glasgow is where my parents’ families are from. These were before the days of Indiana Jones films. There was just something atmospheric about the word ‘archaeology’ that caught the imagination. I also studied medieval history in the first and second years. I remember reading The Fall of Byzantium about the fall of Constantinople and the Seljuk Turks, with the last emperor jumping off the battlements into the Turkish hordes, and how his body was never recovered.

It’s that kind of heroic drama that has always caught my imagination which is why I keep to military history and archaeology. It was while we were at university that Tony and I discovered that we both loved the film Zulu, an old-fashioned tale of bravery and Boys’ Own derring-do.

A major battle might only have lasted an hour. Then it’s a case of finding the dropped button or coin from a purse 500 years afterwards, or a fragment of armour that someone dropped at the Battle of Flodden ... Edgehill and Flodden are great sweeping places, whereas places like Sedgemoor are claustrophobic - almost like a pressure cooker - with a trapped sense of nowhere to go.

What do you wish you had learned at school but were not taught?

Philosophy, maybe. At the moment, I’m very interested in the study of comparative religions, although we did have religious education which was almost like a refined Sunday school. I wish I knew the Bible - one of the foundations of English literature - and the Koran better.

What is the single most important lesson you have learned outside formal education?

I learned very recently that although my work is important to me, it isn’t as important as my ten-month old daughter, Evie, growing up happy and well.

• Archaeologist and writer Neil Oliver co-presents the Two Men In A Trench documentary series on BBC2 and is co-writer of Two Men In A Trench II, published by Penguin Books. He has also worked as a journalist and publicist, and lives in London.

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