Even though it’s forty-three years ago, I remember mine vividly.
We’d been on holiday in the Lake District two years earlier, when the O-Level results were published and, coincidental or otherwise, I’d fallen ill with headaches and nausea that very day. Being unable to go to the school to check, I’d left a stamped postcard with my subjects written in a neat column, which the school then filled in and sent to me at home.
My first check, however, was in Thursday night’s Manchester Evening News when we got to Droylsden, coming home. Not having read the MEN in decades, I don’t know if the practice continues to this day but, that long ago, they would publish all the O- and A-Level results, school by school, name by name, in close-set italic type: just the name and, in brackets, the number of passes.
Having been rushed out so quickly, the printing was sometimes not of the best. I’d taken eight O-Levels and I had duly passed eight. Or was that a smeared three? In a situation where paranoia was hovering eagerly, it was impossible to tell with certainty, and I had to wait, fretfully, until we drove home to Burnage and the postcard confirmed that I had passed all eight subjects, with a range of grades from 1 to 6 (Grades 7 to 9 were fails).
The better scores were where I wanted them to be, and the lower half were in the subjects I was keen to drop: Physics and Chemistry, French and German. I’d scored my sole Grade 1 in my favourite subject, History.
Choosing A-Level subjects was both easy and difficult. I wanted my top three subjects, History, English and Maths, but at A-Level level, this was rather a crossing of disciplines. The Grammar School system at this stage separated itself into Arts and Sciences strands, with the two meant to be parallels. But I didn’t have a third Arts subject I felt comfortable with, given that I would be doing double periods, two hours at a time, on it every day.
Nor did I have any career in mind. I had no idea what I wanted to be. Given my lack of any discernible practical skills, much to my good-with-his-hands Dad’s disappointment, it would have to be an office-based job, and between them my mother and uncle suggested Solicitor and Accountant. Neither of these filled me with great enthusiasm, but then again, both seemed perfectly possible subjects for me, so I said ‘Why not?’ and it was settled. I was not a decisive person when I was fifteen, basically lacking any confidence in my ability to take the right decision, not to mention having never been allowed to take a decision for myself yet.
So Solicitor it was, with Accountant as a back-up, which meant I needed to include Maths in my courses, no matter what opposition the school put up, essentially arguing that the clash of disciplines could – or rather would – hinder my progress in both. But I had no other subjects that would suit and so my choices were respected. And they were my choices. To a degree at least. But if my mother had objected, they wouldn’t have been.
Of course, the Maths was a mistake. Not for the reasons the school put forward, the switch from Arts to Science strands and back never had any noticeable effect on my work. No, it was the unforeseeable one that, essentially, I was a good Maths student to O-Level but beyond that I’d hit my peak and was starting to struggle.
It didn’t help that, alone amongst all the teachers in the Sixth Form, I didn’t get on with the Maths teacher (who was nicknamed Katmandu Pete after he’d taken a Summer holiday there). We’d never crossed paths during my first five years, and he was simply disappointed in me. Subsequently, I was told that my name had come up in the Masters’ Common Room when the School had been advised that my Dad had died, and several of the teachers were very sympathetic, and hoped that it wouldn’t throw me off track. Katmandu Pete had asked about me and been given rather glowing reports, so when he finally had me to teach, just as I was starting to hit the limit of my Maths skills, I fell far short of what he’d been led to expect.
And as our Maths group consisted of only ten pupils, there was nowhere to hide.
(Actually, I do have one pleasant memory of Maths in those two years, being the only time I punched someone in class and got away with it completely. With only ten of us in a standard classroom, we naturally gravitated into widely-spread pairs. I sat by my mate Zack, who sat on my right, further away from Katmandu Pete’s desk. Somehow, Zack had managed to get my right wrist and twist it up behind my back, where Katmandu Pete couldn’t see it. I lacked the strength to break free, and it bloody hurt so, once I’d been released, I sat there seething and determined on revenge. In a Sixth Form Maths Class where I was so much more visible than my so-called mate. I waited, however, my lightly balled right hand on the desk, resting easy, watching and waiting until, at last, Katmandu Pete turned back to his desk. In that split second, when he was looking the other way, I lashed out, without the least warning, swinging my right arm round as hard as I could, and smashing Zack in the face. Long before Katmandu Pete looked back, I was sitting angelically in my seat, hand on my desk where it had been when he looked away. If he’d heard the impact, I don’t know. He didn’t show the least suspicion. I got totally away with it. Zack didn’t even try to get his own back. And he never tried that again.)
We were doing four subjects for A-Level, with General Studies imposed on top of our three course choices. This was a woolly, wishy-washy course, which offered a single period every day, that might be about anything, since its principal purpose was to act as a relief from our specialisations. It was a pig of a subject, simply because it had no structure or defined theme, which made it simultaneously, a terrible paper to sit – because how could you study for it? – and a doddle. We used to say that you got a C if you wrote your name on the paper, a B if you spelt it correctly, and an A if you used your ruler to underline it.
Midway through the Upper Sixth, and very aware that I was losing ground in Maths, I asked to drop the subject. I had an offer to go to Manchester University, subject to me getting a B and two Cs (the par line) and I was justifiably confident of achieving that with History, English and General Studies. The additional ten hours per week could be put to further study on those subjects. And I was serious about that: I genuinely was not thinking that I could breeze around, do nothing.
But my mother was having none of it. If there was a way of talking back to my mother, of standing up in the face of her decisions, I never found it. I didn’t get to drop Maths.
So I took all the several papers, and one more. In History, my mate Glyn and I were the two acknowledged leaders. To be fair, it was a triumvirate, including Steve B., who was every bit as smart as us but who doomed to exam results that didn’t reflect his standard, because he was painfully slow at writing and never finished a paper. Glyn and I were aware of the Special Level papers, which lay over and above A-Levels, and pressed our History teacher – who was also the Deputy Head – to be entered for that as well.
‘Bill’ was very reluctant to do so. He had put twenty-three boys into S-Level History at one time or another, and only one had passed, and he only got a Grade 2 (at S-Level, there were only three results: Grade 1, Grade2, Fail). The odds were against us and he didn’t want us having extra pressure at such a vital time. But not only were we both eager to test ourselves, we could deal with that objection very quickly. The S-Level paper was based on the same curriculum as the A-Levels and the single exam was a whole week after the last of our A-Level papers so we could treat that completely separately.
As to the papers themselves, I have only two memories, both involving History, and I’m not even completely certain that the first of these involved the actual A-Level paper, or maybe a Mock, or midterm paper. Basically, there were two exams, one on British History, the other on European History. We had to answer four questions out of six in a three hour period. I turned over the European paper and scanned the questions, quickly finding three I could do confidently (one was my pet question: I had already written that essay for a) homework, b) a midterm exam and c) the Mock A-Level paper: I could have written it in my sleep by then).
But I was immediately concerned about which of the three remaining questions I would have to answer. The actual choice I put off until I’d written the first three essays and the choice became imperative.
I can’t remember the selection, but the most probable choice was a question about why a certain Treaty had failed to prevent the War of the Spanish Succession (think Duke of Marlborough, Battle of Blenheim). I hadn’t a clue about the terms of the Treaty, but I did know the causes of the War.
So I started off by arguing the proposition that the (undetailed) Treaty had failed to prevent that War because that had never been its aim. I put it that Treaties in that era – i.e., prior to the Twentieth Century – were not seen or intended as peace-making, but were rather an exercise in aggrandising the victor at the expense of the loser by landgrabs etc., the intention being to put the victor into a better, stronger place from which to fight the next war. The War of the Spanish Succession began because…
It was an argument that we had never been formally taught in class, or even debated, and I still think it was a nifty little trick to shift the question onto the grounds I could fully answer, and as we’ll shortly see, the examiners must have shared that opinion, or at least applauded my cheek. But there was this moment, with about fifteen minutes left and me deep in my explanation, when ‘Bill’ came wandering past, looking over people’s shoulders at what they were writing.
We were conscious of him doing that, and he was no real distraction. He’d read a few lines, show no reaction, and go on to the next boy, leaving you in peace. But on this occasion, he leaned in and did a double-take. He studied my paper over my shoulder for several seconds then, instead of strolling on to the guy in front of me, he strode to the top of the Hall, picked up the paper and studied it intently, obviously trying to work out which question I was trying to answer!
I don’t say that it didn’t disturb me at all, but I don’t remember being that concerned. I knew what I was doing, and why, I was in full flow and closing in on the end of my essay and if I’d made a complete cock-up, it was too bloody late to scrub what I’d been doing and tackle an even dodgier question.
My other memory is of the S-Level paper, a week after it was all over. It was a hot, sunny day and, as Glyn and I were the only students, we were taking it in the Technical Drawing Room, sharing the room with the guys taking that A-Level.
The S-Level paper was based on the same curriculum, but it was broader-based and more interpretative: it was another three hour paper, but we were required to answer only three questions out of four. The exam began: Glyn and I turned over our papers, scanned the questions and simultaneously looked up and at each other. Our expressions were identical: oh well, it was worth a try.
Afterwards, we compared notes. Glyn claimed to have written the same answer three times whereas I had written two of my three answers not based on the course we’d studied for the past two years but rather the political background gleaned from two series of Dennis Wheatley novels (Roger Brook, on the French Revolution, and Gregory Sallust, on the failure of Appeasement, a part of the course we’d never even reached). Oh well, it was worth a try.
The results were published on a Wednesday in the middle of August, as the O-Level results were published on the Thursday of the following week. By a weird coincidence, it was the day of my Dad’s anniversary, three years since he had died. Mam was taking us out for the day, to Southport, but first we visited the Crematorium and then, on the way back, we called into the School for my results, which had been posted in the Secretary’s window from about 10.30am.
Mam drove down the drive and across the front of the school. There was room to park beyond the Secretary’s Office and the main entrance. She’d barely brought the car to rest, had not had the chance to even put the handbrake on and I was out of my seatbelt, out the door and striding back towards that window. What ever the results, I had to see them for myself first, had to know what I’d done before my family knew anything of it.
I still remember striding out in the sun. As I approached, I saw four or five of my classmates sat on the grass, talking. As I came up, they turned towards me and, in unison, they began shaking their heads, sucking in their breath and going ‘tt tt’. It was enough to tell me that I had done alright, but I didn’t give them any attention until I’d gotten to the window and seen the results. Three As and a D (Maths, what else?) Gloriously more than I needed for Manchester. A Pass, a result. That made it ok for Mam and my sister to have a look.
Funnily enough, I have no memory of her response, except that it would have been positive. Now I knew the result, and knew that the next three years of my life, at University, were set up, it was the chance to chat with my classmates – who had just been through the exact thing I had, who were justified in relaxing and celebrating – which mattered. I’d always been younger than all of them, always felt myself inferior to them despite being overall one of the smartest in the Year, from the start, but this was one of the few occasions on which we were genuinely equals. We’d been through the mill together and we’d come out on the other side.
It was an odd measure of togetherness, given that we had already been a group for the last time. I had close friends I’d continue to see, at least for the rest of the decade, but as classmates, yearmates, we’d already split apart and I was only ready to admit myself as their equal after it was all over.
I’d have liked to have stayed and talked longer, but I had a mother and a sister waiting to scoot off to Southport, so we got back into the car and headed off towards the East Lancs Road.
Oh, and those S-Levels? We’d passed, both of us, Glyn with a Grade 1, I with a Grade 2.
Two brief codas. The following week, we were off to the Lakes on holiday, the week of the O-Level results. Nothing to do with me but, by coincidence, on Thursday, the day of those results, we set off on the same walk as two years previously, when I’d fallen ill whilst out walking for the first time ever. Maybe it was psychosomatic, because I was aware of the connection, but I fell ill, headaches and nausea, for the only other time whilst out walking.
And, a week or two later, I had to go into school again for something, I don’t remember what. Whilst I was there, I bumped into ‘Bill’, who was full of congratulations over my results. And who then asked me if Glyn and I weren’t grateful for how he’d pushed us into doing the S-Level exams? I was nearly laughing out loud at the hypocrisy, and for one of the first times in my life, I answered an adult back, reminding him that it was the other way round and that we had had to badger him to let us do the exam.
He looked at me oddly, and said, “You cheeky thing!” I never saw or spoke to him again.
This is what comes back to me on A-Level Results Day, forty-three years later.