Well, you know, that sucked. And I blamed life for a bit, years 16 to 18 being by far the hardest in my life so far, and I blamed school for a bit, until I noticed all these famous people in later life I’d shared classrooms with who had shared my beginnings and opportunities and played their cards rather better than I had, and then I (and others) blamed myself for congenital laziness, even though I seem to have managed to get three degrees, and have written eight books, and even had a half decent career for five minutes or so.
But, you know, footfalls echo in the memory down the passage which we did not take towards the door we never opened, but the university I actually went to turned out to be the right place at the right time, not just for me, but for a load of other people who seem to have accidentally ended up there. Plus, you know, lifelong friends. And Anne. God bless Lampeter.
So, my message is this. For the winners and the losers and the majority in the middle, alike. It’s just school. There will be years and years of graduations to come.
Here’s one of the proudest moments of my life, (seriously). Far more than a thousand things I’m supposed to be proud of, but which are sanitised, tick-box achievements, lacking substance and resonance.
Bristol, late eighties/early nineties. In my mid-twenties, coming out of the hinterland of the early eighties (which we seem set on re-entering) where I struggled to get anywhere. I have a good job, I’m earning meaningful money for the first time, I have a house and a soon-to-be-wife and am happy and settled and to compensate have a newly-acquired gambling habit.
Eastville dog-track is 400 yards from my house and I have a system, my first ever, and it makes money. I go often, sometimes only for a few races, put my pony on the red dog where I’ve sussed the edge and, more often than not, collect.
In my own head, at least, I am a calm and collected professional gambler, no stress, no drinking, no forecasts or tricasts, just a slow purposeful walk down the steppings, adjust your (at the time ridiculously over-sized) glasses to get a cold long look at the prices on the boards, go in for the kill. Watch the race. Calm. Go collect.
In those days you bet on the boards with one of the six bookmakers present. You gave them your dosh and in return the bookie gave you a ticket which you trusted as a contract. At the dogs, in the last minute before the off, things happen incredibly quickly. Owners, and faces and mug-punters alike rush the boards as the dogs go in the traps. It’s always been one of the greatest thrills of my life. Now dying, sadly. And in that rush the bookies don’t bother with tickets for the people they know. For the high-rollers, the trainers, the owners, the faces. For the faces. For the shrewdies. For the ones who move the markets, the ones who know what they are doing.
They have nicknames for them. For the shrewdies. And so it came to pass, one Tuesday night, in Eastville (now an IKEA), when I had a couple of ponies on Trap 1 at 5/1 and the main man, the “rails” bookmaker, took the money and said “£300 to £50 the red dog, down to Glasses”.
“Down to Glasses.” That’s an A Level right there, A* with knobs on. Read ‘em and weep. How do you like them apples? That is, quite literally, being alive. Most other things I have gone on to do, have been merely ticked off for conformity, or expedience, or to pay the bills, or for a quiet life or often quite by accident. Effort can be its own reward but a lot of what we do to get by is just bollocks. Exams also. Most of it is treadmill, and the celebration of it is mostly the disillusionment of 10 o’clock. Of course, in this instance, for balance, it must be said, the dog lost. But then that’s the problem with the gambling gods, they hate dreamers.
But even now, thirty-odd years on, being “glasses” is one of the proudest moments of my life. Or at least better than any other qualification, for sure. And that would be true even if I had gone on to lose everything to gambling. As one poet once pointed out, the thing we always forget about Icarus is that he also flew. So, forget grades. Go fly.