When I was at school, I was a great disappointment to all the people (i.e. my parents and my school teachers) who thought Bright Kids Go Far. I didn’t go far. I dithered and didn’t know where I wanted to go, and I would only work hard if I enjoyed something (I then worked like a nutcase, to the exclusion of all other interests - this hasn’t exactly changed, come to think of it). I had the good brain, but my ideas of what I wanted to do with it weren’t considered much cop, and I soon learned to stop expressing them, since having them dismissed as ridiculous and unrealistic was pretty crushing. So I was told I ought to go to A Very Good University and I would have a Brilliant Academic Career; and I had nothing much to say in response except “well, okay, I guess so.”
Looking back, I marvel that no-one ever seems to have had any doubts about my suitability for a Brilliant Academic Career. I suppose they were waiting for me to say something; but the only other thing I had to say (“I’d rather do something creative”) had already been comprehensively dismissed. I had nowhere near enough confidence to fight for myself or for my vague and frightened dreams. I acquiesced; and then rebelled passively by not working.
There was a lad at my primary school, the son of some neighbours, who wrote very good poetry, and read voraciously, and who did work hard. Very hard. He went on to go to the boys’ grammar school down the road from my girls’ grammar, and he went on working very hard. His name was Ed, and I was regularly told I ought to be more like him. I wished I were more like him; I wished I were capable of it. He had all the drive and motivation I lacked. He really wanted to go to Oxford and to be one of those people who choose their college very carefully because they are going to spend the rest of their life there. Ed was academically gifted, he worked constantly, his creative writing got published, at seventeen he sang in a pub band; he looked like a hawk and he was going to go far.
As far as everyone but me was concerned, I was meant to be like that. I didn’t want it, but I knew I was meant to. It wasn’t a comfortable position to be in.
In the sixth form, one of my best friends, Sísí, left our school and went to the local public school for two years. Through Sísí I met some of her classmates; some of them were alright, some were ghastly, and every one of them had more confidence than me. Oh well, that’s life. Among them was an extremely ornamental lad called Tom who was the youngest of four brothers. He was tall and slim with prominent cheekbones and a shock of dark hair, and because he was so gorgeous I was too terrified even to speak in his presence.
His nearest brother, a year older than him, was another boy called Ed.
This Ed was nowhere near so attractive – he was tall and dark, yes, but skinny and speccy and with sticky-out ears – and I was consequently just about able to speak to him. He seemed a nice bloke. But as far as Sísí and her friends were concerned, and as far as my family were concerned, he was just a tiny bit beyond the pale, because he had dropped out of school. His parents had supported him, too, which my parents found shocking. He had dropped out, and become apprenticed to a potter.
I envied him so much it hurt. I knew I wasn’t meant to want what he had, but I really, really wanted it – not precisely to be a potter, but to be out of the nightmare race of academic success and failure, and constant comparisons, and being-a-disappointment; out of school, and into a life that made something.
I left school at eighteen, with bad A’levels, and I muddled through, and had some interesting experiences and some less interesting ones. I learned to cook, and worked as a chef for a couple of years. I discovered the joys of travel. I kipped on friends’ sofas. I got stuck on unemployment benefit a couple of times, and did some pretty rock-bottom things to get myself off it. Eventually in my late twenties I began to accept that I needed to have a go at doing what I really wanted, and that I had the right and the responsibility to try, and if need be to fail, on my own terms. So I quit a boring but sensible job in a book shop and went to art school. I didn’t “make it” as an artist, but I had a fascinating time; I now have a life I am pretty happy with, and I have no regrets at all about that bookshop job.
The first Ed did go to Oxford. He was a brilliant student, but then he had a series of breakdowns. He went on doing creative writing, and song-writing, and he took antidepressants that made him put on weight and caused his hair to fall out. He battled on, and did his best, and then in the end he took his own life.
The second Ed did become a potter. A very successful potter. Then he became a writer; a very successful writer. I’ve just finished reading his first book, and it’s good - this is one of those exhilarating occasions when a book that has been greatly praised lives up to the hype. I look at the author picture on the jacket, and he hasn’t changed much. I doubt if he remembers me, his kid brother’s schoolmate’s former best friend from her previous school. It’s hardly likely to have been a memorable encounter, when you look at it that way.
So the Ed I was meant to aspire to be like is dead, and the Ed who I was told had done something rather infra dig lives and thrives, and his work is good, and is known and recognised as such; and I cannot for the life of me tell why one path led where it did and the other led where it did.
I suppose the moral of this story is carpe diem. Pues su vida es efemera...