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16 June 2016

My 1981 diary reminds me just how hard I worked for my A-levels: not very

I still have my diary from that summer and a quick glance at it reveals exactly how dedicated I was to my studies.

By Tracey Thorn

It’s A-level time and across the land teenagers are locked in their rooms reciting useful and relevant lines from King Lear, framing the bathroom mirror with motivational Post-it notes, or sticking chemistry equations on the fridge door. Mine are, anyway. Ben has cunningly contrived to be on tour for the next few weeks, popping back home every few days to get his shoes reheeled or guitar case relined, while I hold the fort and try to ensure that everyone is at least carrying on, if not exactly keeping calm. Welcome to the House of Stress.

Seeing how hard my daughters and their friends work sets me wondering about my own A-level revision. I still have my diary from the summer of 1981 and a quick glance at it reveals exactly how dedicated I was to my studies: not very. I’d already formed a band, the Marine Girls, with three other girls at school and we had recorded our first album – by which I mean we taped some songs and were selling copies of the resulting cassette, entitled Beach Party. My A-levels began on Tuesday 2 June, with a history exam described in my diary as being “about as bad as expected”.

In the run-up to this, I’d hardly been sweating non-stop over a textbook. I had spent the Saturday night at the Moonlight Club in West Hampstead, where I “saw a really good band called Maximum Joy, and Pigbag, who were wonderful. Danced my legs off.” On the Sunday, instead of fretting about the upcoming exam, I was wondering whether we ought to record a single. Finally, on the day before my A-levels started, I did some “last-minute work”, although in the evening, to balance that, I “saw an Elizabeth Taylor film, BUtterfield 8”.

So maybe it was no surprise that the first exam didn’t go to plan. I went to another gig that night, to see a local band featuring “two guitars, bass, vocals and bongos. Brilliant” – and another one on the Friday. A brief moment of studiousness kicked in on Wednesday 3 June, when I turned a gig down: “Jane rang. Mark, TV Personalities drummer, had phoned to say he got us a gig at the Moonlight Club on 18 June. Day before my English exam, can’t really do it. Damnation.”

The following Monday was my first economics exam, which was apparently “OK”, but more importantly we got confirmation from Rough Trade that it wanted 50 copies of our cassette. On the next day, I had a Shakespeare paper, which was “appalling”, followed two days later by a history exam – “pretty foul” – though this was leavened by the news that Rough Trade was going to send 25 copies of our cassette to America. “They said they love us!”

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On the Saturday night, I went to a party, where I got off with a boy who “likes jazz, blues and Paris, and sings in a band”, then had an English exam on the Monday and bought “Going Back to My Roots” by Odyssey. Tuesday was my final economics paper, about which I recorded tersely: “No comment.” On Friday 19 June, I sat my Chaucer paper and, with a nonchalant “A-LEVELS OVER”, I headed up to London to sell some tapes to Rough Trade.

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Friday 26 June was my official school leaving day. The previous night, I’d been at the Lyceum to see the Birthday Party, supported by Vic Godard and Subway Sect. At school, I “got £4 book token prize for English and history”. Later the same day, Gina from the Marine Girls rang “and read me a review of Beach Party – really over the top. Said I had a voice with a future – rich, controlled and soulful! Hahaha.”

That “hahaha” says it all. In retrospect, all of this looks like the beginning of a career but in truth I wasn’t taking music seriously and nor was I taking school seriously, in the sense of worrying about my academic future. I was living entirely in the moment, caught up in the whirl of exciting things like gigs and music, skating across the surface of boring things like school.

My results came in on Saturday 15 August – “A for English, C for history, E for economics. Will it be good enough . . . ?” Bit late to start wondering. 

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink