Second best

For more or less my whole life thus far I have wrestled with the notion of mediocrity. Now that would not have been quite so bad had it not been instilled in me from an early age that excellence was all that mattered. At my small local prep school, exams were a regular end-of-term ordeal. This wasn’t the kind of school which believed in competing against oneself or any such namby-pamby liberal nonsense. We competed against each other. Plain and simple. Our headmaster Hamilton H, reasoned that, in life itself, you competed against others not yourself. Life was a savage cockpit and you had better enter it prepared. Deeply unfashionable though these ideas became in the early 70s, he stuck to these principles resolutely.

We were examined in 10 subjects (English, maths, chemistry, biology, physics, Latin, French, geography, religious studies and history, as I recall) with scores of up to 100 in each subject, yielding an overall total out of 1000.

Looking back, this level of granularity beggars belief but, such as it was, it must also have been a colossal task for the teachers to produce such a penetrating yet different invigilation each term. In my class the spoils of victory, bragging rights or whatever were shared between three boys – Stephen H, Nigel A and myself. Other boys occasionally (and I mean occasionally) flickered into life on subjects close to their heart. I remember one boy whose father, unbeknownst to us worked in some kind of unspecified roving role for the foreign office in Africa. Predictably he excelled in geography. His classmates simply took this as an added step up in geography. None of us put two and two together to draw the obvious conclusion – that his dad was a spook. But, such rare anomalies aside, Stephen was by a clear margin the brightest, with a photographic memory to match. Nigel too was consistently knowledgeable across the board. And my flame had brief sputterings, enough to suggest strong potential. Almost invariably Stephen won the overall prize each year and it would be a battle for second between Nigel and myself. The gap between first and third could be as narrow as five marks (out of 1000!)

Each term, along with copies of my school report, I took home the exam results in a separate sealed envelope, to be handed directly to my father. He therefore knew the outcome before I did. Sometimes he would ask me to sit down with him, in silence, while he read the results before placing them back in the envelope, sometimes without comment. This of course, from my perspective, amounted to torture. But I think he was really doing little more than collect his thoughts for discussion at the dinner table. I mean, of course, nothing so grand as an actual dinner, merely the time point when my father finished the evening surgery and rejoined his family for food. If surgery dragged on late, buoyed by a procession of hypochondriacs, he would face the inevitable ‘burnt offering’, as he put it, with stoicism.

Nobody spoke until my father had pronounced on my exam results. Sometimes, and I came to realise that this had as much to do with the health status of his more cantankerous patients, he would be brief and usually encouraging. “Really coming along strongly in French” he would say. Or perhaps “maths is slipping back a bit don’t you think”. Never harsh and, if I’m honest, an accurate reflection of performance. Reading the above, It seems to me that I make my father out to be cold and detached. He was not. And his criticism of my performance in the exams was, accurate. He seemed to know those subjects in which I was treading water before I did. But of course, he was a man, who, when a boy, used to coming first.

At that time I was a keen supporter of the then mighty Leeds United. Although widely acknowledged to be the best team in the land at the time (around 1970 give or take a few), Leeds consistently finished second, somehow conjuring defeats from the jaws of victory. Famously knocked out of the FA cup in the 5th round by Colchester on 13th February 1971. Defeated by Sunderland and their goalkeeper’s heroics in the 1973 FA Cup final. That sort of thing. Actual titles were relatively few. Although doubtless unaware of my mirroring of Elland Road’s finest, it seemed to follow suit. Whilst Giles, Bremner and Hunter carried The Whites to the edge of the title, they seemed doomed always to be second best. And so it was for me. Term after term I improved, overtaking Nigel into consistent second place but somehow never scaling the heights of Stephen’s stellar performances. At the end of the year, prize-giving ended with Stephen weighed down by silverware. There were no trophies for second place. Nigel and I prayed there had been a counting error and that we would be declared victorious. I’m not sure really what life lessons we took from this – Stephen probably learnt that life was pretty cushy at the top. Nigel and I learned that there was no reward whatsoever for hard work if you didn’t translate that into being top of the form.

In the end, in the penultimate year before boarding school, I was awarded the English prize. The school, probably as bored as I with Stephen’s routine ‘Grand Slam’ of trophies, had somehow engineered the results in such a way that Stephen was not allowed to collect more than six cups, shields or plates, and therefore the runner-up, myself, was awarded the English prize for second place in that subject. Nigel picked up physics I think. Stephen was magnanimous nonetheless, accidentally dropping and denting one of the cups whilst offering me a congratulatory handshake. He hadn’t had to do that before and it is a measure of his social skills and upbringing that he did not need to be told how to be gracious.

I remember going home and drinking a small bitter shandy from the trophy at teatime (I was 10) along with a larger slice than usual of my aunt Kath’s legendary lemon meringue pie. Ah, the spoils of victory! At the end of the day, I went to sleep aglow with my ‘victory’.

Over the course of that summer, I learnt that Stephen’s dad had moved jobs, to somewhere in the Peak District. I never saw him again. His place was taken by another boy, a dentist’s son as I recall, bright and cheerful and with teeth to match. A keen sportsman as well. The school loved him. As did I, until the years exam results were published. There it was in black-and-white. Effortlessly, he had taken first place. And once more, after briefly remembering the shandy and lemon meringue pie, I was back in my rightful spot. Yes, you guessed it – second.

A year later I went on to boarding school and learnt a great deal more there. There I would have settled for second. But the boys who came to Marlborough were all firsts’ big fishes in their respective prep school crammers. Much lower than that and you didn’t get into the school. I learnt the most valuable lesson of all there – that mediocrity was a relative commodity. I was now mediocre. My dad, bless his soul, had simply been preparing me for the realisation of the greater truth. For every second place there was a first-place and a third-place. And if I didn’t find them, they would find me.