From a really early age, I’ve been fascinated with why things work the way that they do. I’ve never normally been confined by the fact that people love to tell you that you can’t achieve something. I’ve always found that as a gauntlet-down challenge and more often than not achieved it in an unconventional way. A great example of that is when I was 18 I found myself with a conditional offer from Oxford University for a teaching degree. At around the same time, I found girls and this rather hampered my efforts, I’d always found school easy, but my luck was about to run out. You see, I find that being “a natural” only takes you so far. For me, that was somewhere between GCSE’s and A-Levels.
I discovered that being funny, being a bit of a comedian can only take you so far, but what you needed to do was pay attention and learn stuff. I didn’t take heed and found myself on the day we found out our grades in my 1980 Austin Metro, hands shaking, opening the envelope with what I thought was the key to my future in it.
The key turned out to be brown in colour as I discovered my fate. A “D” in Graphic Design (my favourite subject), an “E” in English (I never even read Pride and Prejudice – I will never know how I thought I was going to be able to answer questions on it) and finally an “N” for French (That’s right, everyone says I didn’t know you could get an N – well you can. It means N for near miss or close to an E but again you really didn’t try hard enough did you).
After consoling myself and being comforted by my family, I decided that some direct action was needed. I decided I will never know why, to write a letter to the dean of residence at the college. Don’t forget kids, this is before the internet – but I used it to my advantage. I wrote that I wished to discuss my grades and my offer to the college as I felt I was still good enough. I wrote that I’d be coming on the 15th of August (the next day) at 10 am to discuss in person my application. Now I know that the letter would never get there in time. But I thought I’d use that as leverage.
I drove two and a half hours to the college and arrived. I was greeted by the school secretary, informing her that I had a meeting with the dean of residence. She checked the diary. No appointment. At which moment I erupted in the style of a pantomime dame into a diatribe of how far I’d driven, how disappointing it was and that I had expected more. The secretary, assuming it was her fault called the dean of residence. He was in work and came down to see me.
above: a picture of me in the first week at university
I was ready to undertake my first bit of sales and marketing – on myself. This was my moment. He bowled around the corner, I felt my bravado leaving me as we sat down. What happened next was quite remarkable. He agreed to pick my application up through the university clearing system after I pledged I was still good enough to study at the college. I was shocked and really at that moment, I realised that although exciting, the career of teaching probably wasn’t going to be for me. In fact, it turned out that two years later I decided to leave the college, having only gained a love of real ale and a smoking habit. I look back with some remorse as to what could have been – but I am so glad I did, as the life of a teacher really wasn’t for me. Those of you who know me would probably agree.
The lesson it taught me was that no matter how unlikely the odds are that you’re going to succeed, you really need to give it a go. Who would EVER have thought that a D,E and N would get me into an Oxford College? I think I must have the record surely for lowest grades. Whilst I’m not proud of my lack of drive to get the grades, I did become proud of what I later considered to be a fantastic example of seizing the day and getting through in the most unlikely circumstances.