My mother, God rest her soul, never tired of telling me, albeit often with a laugh, that I was a “rather difficult child”. Always highly strung and prone to exaggeration, this was a statement born out of weariness. No longer finding an appropriate hyperbole, she eventually condensed all of my misdemeanours into three words – rather difficult child.
This was borne out by my school reports. “Wilful” was a common theme. “Disruptive when bored” was another recurrent leitmotif. Most of my school marks were As, often qualified with a minus symbol, the inference being that I knew my stuff but was lazy. In my school’s eyes, a B+ was a more honourable grade, suggesting an honest hard-working plodder. Good Protestant middle-class values. A grades were an admission of excellence and, unless you were also the captain of the cricket team or your father has just refurbished the library, were always qualified with a minus. There always had to be some area of deficiency in your school report, perceived or real, with which your parents could browbeat you. It was just the rules.
I sailed through prep school, always finishing either first or second in the end of term exams. Generally second if I’m honest behind Stephen Halliday whose grandfather had once been a cabinet minister and could recite huge chunks of Shakespeare. This was Yorkshire in the 1960s. You were hard pressed to find anyone who could spell Shakespeare, let alone recite it.
If I was third in the end of term exams, my mother would greet my father from work, wringing her hands and hopping from foot to foot in a maelstrom of anxiety. Jonathan had come third – the world was evidently about to end. At the very least, she would be unable to go to her regular hairdressers in Bawtry except in dark glasses. The shame of it.
“Speak to him” she would say to my father. My father, engrossed in the Telegraph and a preprandial glass of Bristol Dry, would briefly lower the newspaper, raise an eyebrow and, unnoticed by my mother, wink. Once.
In contrast to my mother, my father had a yen for the dramatic understatement. Like emperor Hirohito whose surrender speech concluded that “the war situation has developed not entirely to Japan’s advantage”, so it was with my father. A Cambridge scholar, brilliant diagnostician and creative thinker, he took such qualities as granted in his offspring. It worried him not one jot that his eldest had come third in one exam.
The fact was I was brilliant at school. Nobody ever told me otherwise. I was everything you would expect from such intellectual genes. Arrogant. Conceited. In spades.
It was not always so, my mother said, a year or so before she died. “Remember kindergarten”.
I did indeed remember kindergarten. I stood out. “I was in Miss Poskitt’s reading class” I said “she called us special”.
There was a pause before she spoke. “I never had the heart to tell you”
I looked up. “Tell me what?”
“Did you never wonder why it was called the special reading class?”