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Sex and O levels

I woke up one bright September morning when I was 15 and thought, "Oh shit."

I remember the moment my life changed very clearly. I was 15 and it was the beginning of September.

O levels

I woke up on a clear sunny morning and thought: my O levels are nine months away. (O levels were the UK exams you did then at age 16).

Then I thought: “but I don’t know anything, I failed every single one of my school exams in the summer. I have been spending my time at school writing stories and being class clown.”

“I’m going to fail all of my O levels.”


Now at that point in my life I had completely lost any fear I’d had of exams because I’d failed loads of them and I hadn’t died.

So I knew I would survive failing all my O levels but…

“Oh shit,” I said aloud, “if I fail my O levels, I won’t get to do A levels. If I don’t do A levels, I won’t get to a university, let alone a good one. And if I don’t get to university, I will never meet any intelligent men and so I WILL NEVER HAVE SEX.”

Yes, I know my logic was flawed, but bear with me, I was only 15.


The prospect of never having sex was a terrible one. Despite the fact that I was still a virgin, I had reason to suspect I’d like it very much.

So my future lover(s) had to be somebody intelligent I could charm. Was I an intellectual snob? Yes, I was.

So I sat down and made a plan. I listed every subject in which I was taking an O level. Under each heading I listed what I already knew. This didn’t take long.


I collected my text books together and looked at them with a view to self-study.

Most of them were ok.

But Maths – catastrophic. The only textbook I had was the School Maths Project, an idealistic “New Maths” inspired attempt to get schoolkids interested in the wilder aspects of maths. This probably excited the 15% who could already do it and fatally confused the 85% who couldn’t. “New Maths” is why we stopped producing engineers in the UK and USA.


I went to my mother and told her to get me the Maths tutor who had really helped my brothers. She did. I met him, told him I had to pass my Maths O level, explained I knew nothing from fractions onwards. He tested me and found it was true and we set out to crack geometry and algebra by sheer brute force.

The worst problems were Latin and French. The Latin textbook was crap. I bought myself a Teach Yourself Latin book and started learning it.

French was tricky. The Teach Yourself book was crap. The school textbook was too high level for me, I needed the slightly easier one with all the grammar.

French teacher

I asked the French teacher if I could have one of the textbooks with grammar, and she told me I was wasting my time, I didn’t have enough time or the determination to learn enough French to pass the O level. No, she wouldn’t give me the textbook I wanted.

I looked at her and thought something like: “I vill crush you under my chariot veels.”

Yes, I loved Conan the Barbarian.

The textbooks were kept in a locked cupboard. I waited my chance, and when a nice slightly scatty  teacher was in there, I pounced, chatted to her, helped her and strolled away with the French textbook under my sweater.

I still remember the thrill. Conan would have been proud.


That evening I made a start, studying each textbook in turn, chapter by chapter. And that’s what I did for the next nine months.

It was odd. By the turn of the year, I had a sense of acceleration. I knew I could do it.

By spring and the mock exams,  they just confirmed the feeling. The French teacher gave me my paper back: “Sixty four percent,” she said in a strangled voice, “Well done.”

I had got 23% in the summer. I just looked at her and thought: I will crush you more.

In the end, I did ok. I got A for everything except Maths, and Physics with Chemistry. Astonishingly I even passed Maths which was a helluva relief.

I got A in French as well, which gave me immense pleasure. The teacher knew she had nothing to do with it and that was all I wanted.

Difficult task

So what’s the point of all this boasting?

At the time, I had no idea what I was doing, I just did what seemed logical to get my O levels.

However this experience has helped with every long and difficult task I’ve faced since. In particular I think it helped me write my first book only a year later when I was 16. I wasn’t conscious of the parallels at the time, but in retrospect I learned a lot that I otherwise wouldn’t have until much later.


Firstly, motivation. You need really good motivation and you ideally need to be running towards something good not away from something bad. Yes, sex is a good and powerful motivator although I believe there are others.

With writing a book, obviously I hoped it would be a huge bestseller and make me rich, but there was also the basic motivation of story-telling — to tell a story that seems so powerful and “true” that it simply must be told.

Don’t panic!

Secondly, I didn’t panic. I knew I wouldn’t die if I failed my O levels — which was a very freeing thought. A lot of people just freeze when faced with writing 80,000 words of anything and end up rewriting the first chapter a hundred times. But having stared down the barrel of the O levels, I knew I could do it.


Thirdly, I did an honest assessment of where I was, so I knew how far I had to go, and then planned my campaign. With my book I planned it mostly in my head, with occasionally forays to flow diagrams so I could see the shape of the plot.


Fourthly, although I didn’t yet realise this was a good idea, I broke the huge amount of work I had to do into small chunks. When I was studying, I moved between the subjects every 30 minutes.

Being young and full of energy then, I didn’t set myself any goals in writing. I just started and stayed at my typewriter until I’d run out of things to say — sometimes 2000 words, sometimes 7000 when I was really motoring. The first draft (which was terrible) took me three weeks.


Fifthly, for my exams I asked for help from my mother (got that) and the French teacher (nope). I now realise it was also helpful that I was, and am, naturally contrary. I found it very encouraging when she said I couldn’t do it.

For my book I got help from an Irish cousin who drove me round all the accessible parts of Ireland though not Dundalk because of the IRA. Of course, I consulted my mentor, my Hungarian grandmother who had been a historical novelist in Hungary before the war. She gave me advice on the characters, pacing and believability, and read an early draft. Very sadly, after a devastating stroke she had to go into a nursing home and never saw my book published. She died two years later.


Sixthly, I kept my mouth shut about what I was doing which kept the stress levels down. My family thought I was writing stories while I was studying. I didn’t enlighten them. I did tell my mother I was writing a book, but she regarded that as a totally normal activity for a seventeen year old which usefully stopped me from being interested in punk rock.

Double down

Seventhly, I kept at it and as my wheels bit and my engine hummed, I doubled down, studied more, wrote more, kept at it until it was finished. And then I rewrote it twice.

I know you’re all wondering, did she get what she wanted? For my book, no, A Shadow of Gulls wasn’t a bestseller although it did start my writing career. It was published when I was 18.

But for the exams, yes, I did get what I wanted. I went to a good university, I met intelligent men and had sex with some of them. Best of all, I found an extremely intelligent wild man who astonishingly wanted to marry me. So we married. We had LOTS of sex. And three kids.

It was definitely worth it.


A Shadow of Gulls was my first book which won the David Higham Award for best first novel of the year.

A Suspicion of Silver is the ninth book in the Sir Robert Carey series of Elizabethan crime novels.








  1. Virginia Taylor says:

    I loved that!

  2. Julie says:

    Brilliant and excellent advice! So glad you met your goals at University and since then.

    1. thank you! Mind you, I think I was quite lucky.

  3. Karen Black says:

    Sounds a lot like “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” Kip’s high school education, but compressed into 9 months. Anything worth doing is worth overdoing, eh?

    1. Heh! I’ve read “Have Space Suit, Will Travel” but didn’t spot that!

  4. Arnold says:

    ” I went to my mother and told her to get me the Maths tutor who had really helped my brothers. ”
    Ho Hum DO appreciate just how Middle Class Privileged that sounds? I was born in 1949 to a working class family in the North East of England. Now, way back then, if you had FAILED your 11Plus exams – ALL of the working class kids in my – working class area- junior school in Sunderland Failed ..and had then been relegated to a secondary modern school back in 1965 ? Well … The middle class kids from the good areas , who passed the 11 plus exams -see above for examples of Gaming The System? – went to Grammar School as exemplified up above? But the leaving exam if you had failed ..and had it ground into you that you were a failure? Back then the EXAM would have been the Northern Counties and that exam would have certified that you could both read and write. If you had no family contacts that could get you a craft apprenticeship in some sort of useful skill then oft you would go to lay bricks or whatever. If No useful family contacts? Then you could find yourself several miles underground shoveling coal ..this at age 15, which was the school leaving age of way back then. There were various rules to stop your coal shoveling activities at age 15, and these had to do with Heath and Safety and training. Those H & S rules and training in practice bore an uncanny resemblance to Shoveling Coal. Oh, and that was for the Boys.The Girls at age 15 in the ever so glamorous 1960s? Well, they worked on assembly lines in factories or – if they were a bit posh shop assistants until the married the Coal Shovel Lads. This whilst they were barely out of their teen years ..then they produced the next generation of Coal Shifting Lads … who powered the UKs industries and also kept the lights on, this since the entire country was powered by coal way back then.
    You really were quite extra ordinarily Privileged, as well as being talented. If you hadn’t been privileged then you would have been unlikely to have been able to exercise your talent ..whose product I do enjoy. I’m really looking froward to the next book in the Sir Robert Carey series.

    1. I’m perfectly aware of how middle class privileged I was. I was oblivious to the fact at the time, of course, as most people are in their teens. I had no notion how lucky I was and I also had no notion of what an idiot I was to waste the time I spent at university as I did.
      I refuse to apologise for who I was in the past, as you seem to expect me to do. Although I do thank you for the social history lesson. I was aware of some of the details although not all of them.
      The counterfactual me, who failed the eleven plus in Hampstead Garden suburb – would have retaken it. Do you think a little thing like that would have stopped my parents, although god knows what they would have said to me if I had failed? I actually still shudder to think of it.
      It never occurred to me that I could fail, which is probably the aspect of my privilege which annoys you most. I was brought up with books, we talked about all sorts of things in my house, my mother considered my habit of writing stories from the age of 7 to be perfectly normal since her mother had been a historical novelist though in another language.
      In case it makes you feel better, I experienced poverty after I was married when my husband got lung cancer. Since he was a barrister, he had no sick pay or anything else: barristers eat what they kill. I was running the household on my autistic son’s DLA and working part time at W H Smith’s to pay the interest on our debts. No, the royalties from my books weren’t nearly enough to support us. It was quite salutary.
      I honestly think that if I had been born in Sunderland – as my paternal grandfather was – and to a coal-mining family, I would have found a way to claw my way out and make writing my profession. Other people did in the 60s and 70s.
      I’m very glad you enjoy my books. I’ll be finishing Carey 10 soon and it will (probably) come out in September 2021 – nobody knows what will happen next, after all.

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