It’s the day students across the country collect their A-level and AS-level results, and the cafe saw a steady stream of chaps and chapesses from Highgate School and Channing School for Girls talking excitedly about what they’d got. The place reeked of juvenile privilege. There was an almost stifling amount of “ja ja ja” and “oh my god” –ing. I transcribed one particularly obnoxious monologue, because I couldn’t quite believe what I was hearing. “She got two As and a C, so she’ll never get to Harvard now. She’s going to have to try for Cambridge and hope to push her marks up... Yeah, I got 83 per cent in history. It’s still an A, but I’m really disappointed. No, but Saph got 4 As and so did Eliza. But Pandora got a C, a D, and E and a U. I know, scandalous. OMG, I might actually cry for her. It’s really sad. No wait. She’s spiteful. Did you see the pictures of her in Hawaii? I KNOW.”
A moppy-haired chap in front of me had done particularly badly and kept opening and closing his results like something was going to change if he did it often enough. He was bleating away to someone on the phone in one of those hideous Sloanney voices and I began to feel secretly pleased that he’d messed up. I was particularly thrilled to hear him whingeing about getting a D in music. There’s something about the kids at Highgate School that has always wound me up. That place doesn’t just have a music classroom, and a cupboard with a broken violin and 27 glockenspiels inside, it has an entire building dedicated to the subject. They have recording studios, edit suites, top of the range musical instruments. You walk past the windows and all the kids are playing concertos. They pretend to be common and go on to form bands like Razorlight because they have supportive parents and don't have the pressure of needing to find proper jobs. They come from the wealthiest backgrounds and most won’t need to lift a finger to get ahead in life. It makes me sad and a bit angry.
I used to tutor two A-level music students and they couldn’t have been more different. One was a black girl from Neasden, the other was a middle class lad from Uxbridge. She’d been taught really badly and desperately needed tutoring. He didn’t. She lived in a tiny little council house and could only afford two lessons, which came out of her own pocket. He had lessons with me every week for an entire year. His mother left the money on the top of the piano. I took him through his grade 8 theory and we spent hours listening to music and working on his compositions... Much as I would defend the comprehensive system to the hilt, I’m aware that it fails many children.
At my school, many of the kids who aced their GCSEs fell apart at A-level because they simply didn’t know how to learn. They were badly advised, insufficiently taught, not given a sense of the incredible opportunities in the world and were often dealing with so much weirdness at home that they just didn’t have the head space for studying. One friend had to pay rent to her mother all the way through her A-levels, which meant working at Kwik Save. Another had to look after his baby sister, because his mother, as a recent divorcee, felt that finding a new partner was more important than his education. And the saddest thing was that he didn’t know he was heading for catastrophe. He thought he’d breeze through, just like he’d done with his GCSEs.
One girl got her A-level results and went running around the classroom screaming that she’d got three As, when in actual fact she was just looking at the A in the word A-level! Somehow I blame the system for giving her the belief that she might have been capable of getting 3 As, when her results actually weren’t even good enough to get her into her second choice of higher education. So I guess if you can afford a private school, why on earth would you send your children to a comp? Well, because it teaches them about life, I suppose. Going to a comp was actually very good for me. I think it gave me a much clearer idea about what was going on in the real world, but then again, I had intelligent, middle-class parents, so I was always going to have the best of both worlds. I don't know... I thought writing this blog entry would make my mind clearer on the subject, or at least begin to sand away at that chip on my shoulder. Sadly, I don't think there's an answer to the problem. But that doesn't stop me hating those kids!
August 19th 1660 was a Sunday, and Pepys' entry for the day provides us with a piece of text that will feature in the first movement of my motet. "In the morning my wife tells me that the bitch has whelped four young ones and is very well after it, my wife having had a great fear that she would die thereof, the dog that got them being very big... After dinner my wife went and fetched the little puppies to us, which are very pretty ones”
The entry also includes, I think, the first reference to St Olave’s Church, which was round the corner from the Navy Office and where Pepys had decided he would worship. It's where both he and Elizabeth are buried and it's where the motet will be performed on November 25th. Pepys went with Sir William Batten to see the church wardens to “demand” a pew “which at present could not be given us, but we are resolved to have one built”. In those days to have one’s own pew, particularly if it was elevated above the rest of the church was seen as the ultimate status symbol.
After hearing Mr Mills, the minister, preach, Pepys went home to dinner to discover his wife wearing her new petticoat. He concluded that it was made of a “very find cloth and a fine lace; but that being of a light colour, and the lace all silver, it makes no show.” Poor Elizabeth. I have images of her slinking her way down the staircase hoping for coos of adoration and getting a big fat slap in the face. Worse still, Pepys then discovered his wife was carelessly leaving her clothes all over the house and he became angry. Still, things were obviously patched up before they retired for the night; “my wife and I went and walked in the garden, and so home to bed.”