Last week I talked about the three witches in class 11/12 and how they know everything already. And I said I was them, once upon a time.
Kier Salmon asked me on Facebook – what flipped the switch? What changed me from the sullen stroppy fifteen year old who failed all but two of her school summer exams into someone who went to Oxford, got a play produced on Radio 3 and her first book published at the age of 18?
The play and the book I’ve already explained – my Hungarian grandmother effectively gave me a Masters in Creative Writing from the age of 12. But Oxford? How did I do that from 25% in French, among other catastrophic marks, in the exams the year before my O levels.
The answer is simple. It’s sex.
I remember it very clearly. I woke up in my extremely messy attic bedroom one morning in early September, the year before my O levels and I thought: “I will never ever find an interesting intelligent man to have sex with here in Hampstead Garden Suburb.” Perhaps I said it aloud.
I was still a virgin but not because I hadn’t tried. It was just boys seemed to find me frightening and ran away. The most humiliating was the boy who took me to Burger King after taking me to the cinema (I insisted on actually watching most of the film too) and spent half an hour talking about football. I fell asleep. He left me to pay the bill.
“Therefore,” I thought, “if I want to have sex with anyone interesting, I have to go to university. In fact I have to go to Oxford, Cambridge or Durham.” That was because I hadn’t actually heard of any other universities, but being fifteen, it never occurred to me to check because I knew everything.
I thought a bit more, lying there while the sun streamed in with early morning. “In order to get into Oxford, Cambridge or Durham I have to get at least two A grades out of three A-levels. In order to be allowed to do A levels I have to get at least 5 O levels and the grades had better be good because they take them into account at university too.”
And then I thought, “Oh shit. It’s less than a year to the O levels and I know nothing at all. Ohshitohshitohshit.”
What happened after that was a sort of miracle. Once the connection between sex and university had been made and once I had stopped saying oh shit, I became… different. I planned my next year like a military campaign. First I assessed the state of my knowledge and realised that out of nine O levels I was due to take the next summer, I could count on getting an A in one, English Language. The rest – English Literature, French, Latin, Geography, History, Physics with Chemistry, Biology and Mathematics – I knew pretty much nothing about. Maths was terrible because if you failed it you had to take it again. I hated Maths (I may do another blog on the stupidities of the School Maths Project) so I asked my mother to get me a good maths tutor and she hired a lovely man who had worked with my brother. It’s entirely due to him that I didn’t fail Maths, him and my amazing memory. At that time in my life I could read something once and remember most of it – I had no idea this was anything special, mind you, I thought that reading things once was how you learned.
What about Latin, History, Geography etc etc and of course French, my bete noire, Mrs Wood’s class? I bought a Latin Made Simple book, found the text books that were buried in my lift top locker desk. French was a problem because we had a textbook that didn’t mention the grammar (a silly 70s fad that has caused an enormous amount of damage). I sank my pride and asked Mrs Wood if I could borrow a textbook from the next set down which had the grammar and the verbs all nicely set out.
“There’s no point,” said Mrs Wood, “You’ve left it too late. You can’t catch up before your O levels.”
Maybe she said this to spur me into action or maybe she meant it. I went off with rage in my heart, waited until a short-sighted and kindly teacher was in the locked textbook cupboard and stole the French textbook I wanted.
I don’t remember much of the next year because I spent it studying. Some teachers noticed that I’d woken up suddenly and encouraged me, explaining complicated horrible things like moles, DNA and atoms in lunch hours. Most of the time I just worked, feeling a strange thing like a mighty serpent inside me, that powered tirelessly through the textbooks and rammed its head against any obstacle until it dissolved or broke.
Mrs Wood didn’t notice because I didn’t let her. I continued to sleep through her lessons – and I needed the sleep because I was staying up till past midnight every night, plowing methodically through all the books. When we had classroom tests in French on Fridays I made sure I got at least half the questions wrong.
I remember being very surprised by how easy school work suddenly got in the spring as I filled in the holes and caught up with my peers. When we took our mocks, I had increased all my marks by about 50%. I was particularly happy about my French mocks. From 25% the previous summer, I got 64% in the spring.
Mrs Wood didn’t sound happy as she congratulated me on my marks. “I don’t know how you did it,” she said and I knew perfectly well that she thought I’d cheated somehow. I just gave her a long hard stare and left her to know that she had nothing whatever to do with my knowledge of French.
In the summer, the results came by post to where we were on holiday in Suffolk and in fact I’d forgotten about them. My brother came to where I was reading in bed (it was probably raining) and said dolefully that Daddy wanted to talk to me, my O level results had come.
I went downstairs, literally feeling my heart beating in my mouth, shaking all over. Oh shit, oh shit, what went wrong? I wondered, desolately. And also: “now I’ll never ever have sex with anyone interesting.”
My father looked up from the little slip of paper and said very seriously “You’ve got seven A grades.” For a moment I didn’t understand and then he laughed and hugged me and told me how magnificent I was. I had got A grades in everything except Physics with Chemistry, where I got a B and Mathematics which I just passed. There was family rejoicing and I think a special trip to the Orford Ness restaurant where I gorged on smoked salmon.
For the record, when I eventually got to Oxford, I did have sex with several interesting men and married the most interesting of them.