Monday, 2 June 2008


Ten days ago, at exactly 1pm, in a carpeted room just off Tottenham Court Rd, I sat down, a cup of coffee in one hand, a Pilot G-1 Grip in the other, and did something that, nearly thirty-five years ago, I promised myself I’d never do again.

I did an exam. Well, a mock exam. Well, part of a mock exam: one question rather than the full four, 45 minutes rather than three hours.

Still, it was an exam and therefore something I’d promised myself I’d never put myself through again. Exams, from the age of nine to twenty-one, term after term, year after year: enough! Yet there I was, in a room with eight or so others. Some of them looked more worried than me. Some didn’t.

So? So . . .

1. Just like everybody told me, my years of professional writing experience meant that I was used to putting thoughts into words quickly — and that my spelling and grammar are close to spot-on first time through. (Why I found it hard to believe them is, I guess, less a matter of scientific reasoning than for psychoanalytic investigation.)

2. Forty-five minutes is not very much time, even if you know a bit about the subject. It’s like writing an extended caption. A few hundred words and you’re there. There’s little room for shape, certainly none for anything but the briefest digression — or gag. It’s intro, substance, outro, re-read, pen down. No time for breath or second thoughts.

3. Last-minute revision still works for me. I did no real preparation, mostly because I was busy on other things. But, if I’m honest, it was also a deliberate thing. I worried that it would be truly, horribly, dispiriting if I did a reasonable amount of revision and then found myself stumbling for words and thoughts in the exam room.

So I did a little revision, a very little. I started at noon for a 1pm exam — 20 minutes at my desk, 15 minutes on the tube. I remembered from before that if you do that little revision, there is no point trying to cover everything or even very much. You have to place your bets carefully but boldly. There is no point in betting on red or black. You’ll know extremely little about everything — which you probably already knew anyway. You have to put the lot on one number. So I bet the farm on one number. I went over one thing only. (The changes in Freud’s drive theory 1915-1923, if you’re interested.)

It came up, too. (I may have bet boldly but it was hardly a stupid bet. It’s come up in every past exam paper I looked at.) I made a fair fist of answering it. I didn’t make too many stupid mistakes, I think — though I did realise later that I inadvertently killed off one of Freud’s sons, in the mud and gore of the Great War.

I’m promised feedback on it from the course tutor. We’ll see.

RIP Bo Diddley 1928-2008

I spent a little time in Chicago with Mr Diddley — as the New York Times always referred to him, with style-book formality, unfortunately, rather than genuine deference to his otherworldly grandeur.

Or rather, I spent a little time looking at Mr Diddley. He quite ignored me. His concern was his guitar and his Rock And Rye — a sticky mix of fruit syrup and whisky. I was just leaving a Clash tour to fly home. He was just joining it. It was at the Aragon ballroom. A wild, old place, all dolled up with all manner of inter-war art nouveau. The dressing room looked out on the El. The promoter, figuring punks liked dirt, supplied a couple of really worn-down, ageing, fishnetted prostitutes. I got fined for drinking a beer in a moving vehicle — I wasn't driving, just drinking.

I'm told by those who stayed with the tour that Bo never failed to give up his tour bus seat to his guitar and that every night he slept sitting up with his Rock And Rye in his arms.

Bye, Bo.

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