Tag Archives: authenticity

Backstory: The A-levels

I know you were completely hooked on the Audit Commission Crhonicles (*yawn*) but today was A-level results day here. There was a flurry of chat about it on twitter and I said what results I’d managed 23 years ago: Two Ds and an E. And when someone asked me privately “How did that happen? You’re such a clever guy.” I gave my stock answer, which is that I discovered the joys of beer and girls in my sixth form.

But because I’m thinking a lot about extending narratives and backstories, it occurred to me that there was more to the story than that – I mean that is the truth, that’s something that happened then, but it’s not the whole reason that I got two Ds and an E. There’s much more to the truth than that. So I started looking at what it was really about – what I don’t normally want to talk about, what I cover up with the stock answer.

Because lets face it, having a laugh about the joys of beer and girls is much more comfortable than looking at the whole truth.

So here’s some more of the truth.

First off, there’s more to the results – I also got an A in General Studies but I miss that out because it doesn’t fit with the story and because it’s too easy to get into an argument about whether General Studies counts or not and it doesn’t seem to matter whether people did it or not, they’re equally divided about it’s value, mainly on the basis of what grade they or someone they know got. So that gets left out. But it tells you something. It tells you that I do have some natural ability, some curiosity for current affairs and good general knowledge across a range of disciplines. I’m a good generalist. That’s more widely valued these days than it was in 1983 but if you started hiding it back then, it seems a little weak to bring it up now…

What else was going on? I was studying German, French and Latin. Yeah. How did that come about? Well specialisation started earlier then, I think. When you chose your O-level options before the fourth form you narrowed a lot, but also in the school I went to the timetable was less flexible – classes in the third form were based around it. There were 10 classes of about 30 kids each in my year. The “top” two were the ones who did Latin and modern languages. The middle ones were more technical and scientific and the lowest ones completely manual – technical drawing, metal and woodwork for the boys, girlie stuff for the girls. We all did a bit of music and art and RE but clearly being able to do languages was important and Latin was a badge of honour with teachers and disgust with other pupils.

I got a lot more positive attention, far more easily for having a talent for languages than I would have done if I’d had a natural talent for art or making things. So that’s what I chose. I didn’t have to work too hard at all and I got through.

That’s the beginning of the mistake, if you like, trying to take the easy way. But it cut me off from an important bit of me, the space to be creative. My only option was extra-curricular drama (no not knife fights in the park. Hamlet, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Real Inspector Hound.) And I hung on to this, knowing that being creative was something that was really important to me.

So when it came to choosing A-levels, I wasn’t going to do Maths, Physics or Chemistry, I’d jettisoned everything else and because I fell out with the head of English, for the reasons that headstrong and arrogant 16-year-olds fall out with tired, middle-aged men teaching in a Midlands comprehensive, two years of English was a no-no. So I ended up doing a triple-whammy of translation and heavy literature.

Essentially decisions I made at the age of 13 together with the demographics of the time and the inflexibility of the timetable led me to an extremely constrained position five years later.

And I completely lost the will to work at any of it. I didn’t see the point in studying literature and I couldn’t be bothered. And it was a means to an end that I wasn’t interested in either (although I couldn’t admit that either). When it came out that I was applying for drama degrees, I had a long discussion with the headmaster who told me that a career in the arts was a ridiculous waste of the education I’d been given and that I should join an amateur dramatics group while doing a Modern Languages degree. He didn’t know that I already felt I was compromising but didn’t know how to get out of the ridiculous bind I was in.

So I did the only thing I could do to save myself from doing something I didn’t have the heart to do nor had the guts to refuse. I simply didn’t do the work. In particular, I didn’t read very much of the German, French or Latin literature that is (was?) a core part of A-level study in those subjects. So Goethe is still a mystery to me though I remembered “Kennst du das Land wo die Zitronen bluehen” when I went through the Brenner pass last summer. I couldn’t tell you what La Chute was about except a guess that a guy having some existential breakdown in Amsterdam and while Aeneid VI is one of the more engaging books, Pliny and Ovid left me totally cold. And those are the ones that I can remember the titles of. I was never going to get the two Bs and a C that would condemn me to 3 years in Aberystwyth.


So I spent the next year still in Bromsgrove. Laying about on the dole. No! That’s another stock answer, that covers up what I was really doing. What I really did in the 12 months before I left home in September 1984 was that I became a political activist, learning rhetorical speaking and camaraderie and ways of organising people around passions – how pointless is that if you want a real job? And I spent the rest of my time working as a volunteer at the Swan Theatre in Worcester, effectively as an unpaid Acting ASM learning a bit of my trade as an actor, which of course although relevant to me spending three years at the Guildford School of Acting couldn’t possibly prepare me for doing something useful once I was over 40. Yeah, I didn’t do anything in my lazing-about year.

So there you go. More truth. Is there any more in there? I don’t know at the moment, perhaps there is. What other “cover stories” and “stock answers” are there?