My grandmother could be brutal. In my first month at grammar school, I came home and proudly announced that I was second in the maths test. “Never mind” was her response. Of course she and my parents just wanted the best for me – but seven years later, when the post arrived I was feeling the pressure.
It was 10:30am on 21st December 1974 when the letter I had been waiting for from Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge arrived, as I was enjoying the Marx Brothers in Go West on BBC1. My mother brought it in, and I tore it open –
Pause there. Let me put this into perspective. My father and his brother, headmaster’s sons from a small town in North Wales, both went to Cambridge. On my father’s first day at Pembroke College, the porter greeted him with “Morning Mr Edwards! You look very like your brother.”
My mother’s brother – illegitimate product of an adulterous affair, raised in poverty, the son of a ship’s carpenter – studied English at Cambridge, went on to set up and head the English department at the University of York, and later became Director of the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon – a world-renowned authority on the Bard. That might explain my grandmother’s high expectations.
My brother was studying at Cambridge, having obtained a Scholarship two years earlier. My cousin had been offered a Scholarship to a Cambridge college two days earlier.
– and I pulled out the letter. Before I could focus on it, the word “regret” had leapt off the page and hit me in the eye. I looked at Mum and shook my head. I sat down gloomily and tried to console myself with the Marx Brothers, but their antics had turned cold and juvenile. I got up and switched off the television.
I don’t mean to suggest that I had disappointed my parents, but seven years earlier, when the bedroom I shared with my brother had been refurbished by my grandfather, we had been given wooden stools upholstered in light blue for Cambridge and dark blue for Oxford.
Exam failure can be put down to lack of intelligence or to lack of effort. I chose to blame the latter, because it seemed fixable. But did I take the lesson to heart? Not especially. My academic career continued on its gentle downward drift, from frequently topping the class in first year at grammar school to an unimpressive 2:2 in my degree. Luckily the degree was at Warwick, whose reputation has grown over the years. “Warwick! That’s good isn’t it?” people say. “It is now” I reply.
Nor, a couple of years later, did I make the required effort to succeed in my accountancy exams. I put this mental laziness down to my fast start in education. I was bright: my mother had taught me to read before I started infant school, and most subjects came easily to me. I understood things without effort: I once scored 20/20 in a school comprehension test – although I rather spoiled the effect by asking my mother “what’s comprehension?”.
Easy progress made me complacent, so that when I encountered more difficult subjects – calculus springs to mind – I lacked the mental stamina to tackle them: I had never, if you will, learned how to learn.
But I was lucky, finding work in the City, where the relationship between hard work and success is tenuous. I enjoyed my career immensely, and things worked out well. So I’ve never had a chip on my shoulder about failing to get into Cambridge. No, hardly at all.