Basking in my son’s First, I wonder – what kind of sadist put exam season in the summer?

My birthday’s in mid-May, and the number of times I had to sit exams on it is beyond count

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So today I am bracing myself for the drive to Manchester in order to pick up the eldest son from university. I’m not looking forward to it, although his company for the return will be most welcome. On the way up there, though, all I will be doing is brooding. I am delighted to report that he has graduated with First-Class Honours; a boast whose force is somewhat reduced when placed against the achievement of his father. “A chip off the old block,” a friend wrote. No, not really. If he’d really been a chip off the old block, he would have got himself a solid, gentlemanly Upper Second.

How he got this I’m not entirely sure, although I’ll probably find out during the drive. As far as I am aware, he didn’t take any exams. The degree is in film-making, and he has written and directed at least two brief films that I know of, both of them, I am proud to say, small masterpieces of comic timing. He also had to produce at least one long essay – I think it was about 10,000 words, and listening to him talk about the prospect of writing it was one of the very few times I have heard real fear in his voice. Well, he can’t have cocked that up. Still, he’s the only person I know who managed to do even less work at university than I did.

How does one do it? Take exams in the summer, that is. What kind of arbitrary sadism is it that builds the academic year around the fact that students of almost all ages are, throughout the land, revising or sweating while the blossom is out, the trees in full leaf, the birds and the bees doing their things?

My birthday’s in mid-May, and the number of times I had to sit exams on it is beyond count. It struck me as a deep injustice. I always thought you shouldn’t even have to go to school on your birthday, let alone take an exam. I remember once, in the hall used for exams at my school, watching a small lake of piss expanding beneath a contemporary’s chair; he had been too terrified to raise his hand and ask for permission to leave. I took no delight in his shame; everyone felt it too, and thought “there but for the grace”, etc.

I remember how my own university days went, in the first year. I managed, somehow, to produce three baffled essays in my opening term. The first one was on Sir Philip Sidney, and all I remember of it was that I never wanted to read a word of his ever again, and that I was strongly advised not to use the word “hermeneutic” until I was very certain what it meant. (Up until then, I have a feeling that the only critical writing I had ever read had been published in the New Musical Express. Well, it was awfully good in those days.)

The next term, I decided that three essays was overdoing it a bit, and so instead of the mandated four, which was hardly a stretch, I wrote two. By the time summer rolled round, though, I was so exhausted that I could only manage one essay, an absolute stinker on Henry IV parts one and two, written in a caffeinated haze over a single night, and completely failing to mention part two, on the grounds that I hadn’t found the time to read it. I recall advancing the theory, with barefaced hypocrisy, that Falstaff was actually a tiresome boor, and it was quite right that he should be shunned by… by… whoever it was who shunned him.

At this point the university authorities clamped down on me, and I was told that if I didn’t shape up they’d expel me for good. I remember looking out of the window during my telling-off, and thinking: look at all that sunshine. Look at all those young women, in their summer dresses. Look at all those pubs, with their beer gardens basking in the light. Hmm, sorry, Mr Senior Tutor? You were saying?

It is not, perhaps, a healthy attitude. I produced a more respectable amount of work later on, but concluded fairly quickly that the only way I was going to get a First would be if there was some kind of mix-up at the marking stage. The night before my Finals began, I realised that it was really too late to do anything about it. My revision that evening consisted solely of my rereading all the Narnia novels.

And so I have, in a way, escaped the awful syzygy of summertime and exam time, largely because I thought of exams as things to be brushed aside as brusquely a possible, in order that the easy living that was waiting for me in the world outside could be enjoyed. As I might have mentioned before, the very verb lézarder means, in French, to make like a lizard: that is, to bask. I couldn’t have had a more nominally determinative surname, unless it had been “Shiraz”. (Or, in those days, “Greene-King-IPA”.)

Anyway, it’s off to That London now, and then to That Manchester, and some stern words for my son: “You’re making the rest of us look bad.” 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 05 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Corbyn delusion