…My secondary school tutors enjoyed a far greater degree of autonomy than their modern counterparts are allowed. For the first two years at the school we were taught English by Mr Newby. Far younger than most, he had, I recall, a prodigious set of sideburns. If class had gone well, Mr Newby would often say, ‘Homework tonight class, read the Echo’. The Echo was the local newspaper. As far as I was concerned, I would sooner have read Chekov, but nobody ever checked, so I did neither. He would also, on occasion, conduct his lesson by the swimming pool. We were in it, doing what we pleased, as he sat on the poolside reading aloud from Shakespeare or Hardy, in case, he said, the Headmaster happened to wander past. I loved Mr Newby. He stirred an interest in language and books that I have never lost. He left at the end of the second year and I was then taught by a Mr Wells-Cole who was a dead-eye with the lobbed blackboard rubber and had a personal crusade to persuade me never again to use the phrase ‘all of a sudden’. I am grateful to him for that.
I remember the names of a few teachers: Mr Baker (Chemistry and being far too nice to ever be a teacher), Mr Sexton (Biology and fear), Mr Burleigh – almost certainly misspelled, I’m sorry (Art and being the kind of teacher that let me into the art class when I had been thrown out of others so that I didn’t spend hours aimlessly wandering the corridors, hiding from the headmaster), Mr Wilson (History and telling the ‘A’ level class to hand in essays only when they thought they had something to say, which led to me not handing in a single essay over the full two years). I remember others, but I do not want this to become a list of names and foibles (either theirs or mine) so I’ll stop there. If you have not been mentioned, but you taught me (in which case you surely must have something much better to do with your time) I’m sorry: please be assured, if I could possibly have been somebody else, I would have been.
At the end of my second year I was awarded the prize for ‘Industry and Progress’ (Thick – but tries hard). It was all downhill from there. I remained thick, but I stopped trying hard. I fell from mid-table mediocrity to relegation contender very quickly. I never hid my school reports; I always took them home. My parents dutifully read through twelve different versions of ‘Must try harder’, sighed, and solemnly told me that I must try harder. Then we had tea.
Come the pivotal ‘O’ level year, our all boys school was amalgamated with an all girls school and sixteen-year old hormones exploded with a megaton force matched only by the power of a thousand spots erupting across the forehead. I would like to blame my subsequent examination results on this moment of Education Authority insanity, but in reality, it was more likely a combination of my own laziness and stupidity.
The girls were much more pleasant to be around than the boys, they were softer and they smelled better. I only have to think back to their arrival and I can scent Aquamanda on the breeze. I am eternally grateful to those who put up with me. The arrival of the girls heralded the dawn of the Christian name and the sudden awareness that I wasn’t too keen on that either. I thought that I might become an actor, not because I could act, but because I thought it might give me the opportunity to assume a more exciting moniker.
Despite a set of exam results that could, only charitably, be described as mediocre, I stayed on into the sixth form to sit some ‘A’ levels, to resit some ‘O’ levels, but principally, to postpone my entry into the real world. To my recollection, the ‘O’ levels fared little better the second time around. I took only two ‘A’ levels, one of which I failed miserably whilst in the other I achieved the kind of skin-of-the-teeth pass which spelled ‘failure’ to everyone else. The world of academia did not beckon me to continue my studies. I was not head-hunted by assembled masses of Greystone Dons and so work became my only viable option. I have done as I am told ever since.
In the interests of vanity, I must add here that having watched both my children pass through Uni, I did, forty years too late, apply myself sufficiently to totter through a degree of my own. I got a First and consequently receive regular missives from the august institution from which I graduated enquiring whether it has changed my life yet. I’m not sure that they like the answer, but they keep asking the question anyway.
I took the first proper job I was offered and I have worked without break since, occasionally being fortunate enough to supplement my income by writing, but aware of the fact that if I ever needed to rely on it, I would starve. My successes have been fleeting and governed largely by the fact that I would do it cheaper than anybody else would do it properly.
Old school friends have seen you at your best and worst, but forty years on, they may find it hard to believe that you have changed in any way and that any desire you may once have had to be the centre of attention has now, four decades on, mutated into the uncanny skill of effortlessly blending into the background. Whilst my own memory has seriously diminished over time – so that the rain now quite routinely gets in through the cracks – other’s have not. So, should they read this, they will know instantly where my memory has failed and will, hopefully, be able to put me right and, who knows, if we remain locked away, there might, in time, be yet another blog in it…
When I was 5 years old, my mother always told me that happiness was the key to life. When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life. – John Lennon