Tony Blair believes that academic talent is 'God given'. I am living proof that he is wrong. My dismal educational career only evaded implosion through motivation, not talent, and that came from an extraordinary commitment to me from my father.
He was no stranger to the travails of prep-school life, having attended St Cyprians a few years after George Orwell. It was a viciously snobbish concentration camp well chronicled in his essay 'Such, Such Were the Joys', where the boys with a Handle (lords, baronets and suchlike) or on their way to Eton got much better treatment than the likes of my dad or Orwell.
For my early education, my dad eschewed such strict schools, and he was never remotely happy with the disciplinarian, authoritarian ways of nearly all fee-paying schools in that era. But in the mid-Sixties he felt there was no choice other than to consign me to this trial and he did a remarkable job of holding my hand throughout it. At the end of my first term at public school, I immediately failed the internal exam and dropped down a year. I scraped along the bottom of classes near the bottom of the school until, just after I had sat my O-levels, my dad took me out for a glass of Pimms.
'Let's face it: you are about to just pass a handful of O-levels, badly,' he began, an assertion with which I could hardly disagree. 'The way I see it, you have three choices. You can leave school now and go and work on the railways as a labourer, in Swindon.' This seemed quite attractive at the time (though why Swindon, I do not know), so he moved rapidly on. 'You can grind on as you are and do appallingly in your A-levels, in which case you will have to become a stockbroker in the City.' In our family, that was the equivalent of suggesting I work as a concentration-camp guard in Auschwitz. My final option was 'Go to Cambridge', which sounded pretty good to me.
It is no exaggeration to say that this single conversation completely changed my life. From that summer holiday onwards, I began reading and noting books with a view to doing well in exams, with a fanaticism that made Samuel (Self-Help) Smiles look like a character from Men Behaving Badly. While getting good marks has long since dropped off the radar, I have been a sucker for earnest study ever since. The hard graft did not result in good A-levels, but in those days you had a second chance in the Cambridge entrance exam, in which I did well enough.
Parents of idle and selfish teenage boys may be wondering how they could achieve the same. The answer lies in the particular nature of my relationship with my dad. Whereas he never showed the slightest interest in the academic progress of my three sisters, and while he was pretty allergic to hothousing as a principle, in practice how I did really mattered to him. Because he really mattered to me, I changed my ways.