In my A Level English exam I concentrated as hard as I could.

I sweated every minute for (I think) 3 hours.

I didn’t waste a second.

Meanwhile my mate, Nick, sitting behind me did nothing, except flick ink at the back of my head.

Plus scrunched-up balls of paper, rubbers, pencils, paperclips.

He kept whispering jokes then finally, ten minutes before the end of the exam, he picked up his pen and started writing.

We both got the same mark, a ‘D’ I think.

I sweated blood to get that, Nick didn’t even try.

In fact all the time I knew him, Nick didn’t try.

He was absolutely brilliant, so he behaved as if schoolwork was beneath him.

He was light years ahead of the rest of us, intellectually and culturally.

Where I had to force myself to try to read a book, Nick would effortlessly inhale entire libraries.

Sartre, Proust, Gide, Kafka, Gogol, Herman Hesse, Elias Canetti.

I would have to re-read every sentence three or four times to try to make sense of it.

Nick would discuss advanced, esoteric literature flippantly.

The teachers didn’t know what to make of him.

He knew everything about everything.

My taste in music was Motown.

Nick looked down his nose at that and educated me in Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee, Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Sun House, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jelly Roll Morton, Meade Lux Lewis, Bessie Smith.

Eventually Nick moved on to music I couldn’t even understand – free form jazz: Paul Bley, Ornette Colman, Albert Ayler.

Stuff that didn’t even sound like music, just squawks and honks.

Nick knew he was brilliant, so he never tried.

It was all just too easy.

I knew I was thick, so I had to try harder.

I’d gone back to school after a year working in a factory.

At this new school everyone could read French and Latin.

At my previous school we could barely read English.

After A Levels Nick and I drifted apart.

Last year I heard he died.

Apparently he’d ended up as a porter on the railways.

That seemed like a terrible waste, but I could see it coming.

The problem was it was always too easy for Nick.

Nothing was a struggle, so it must not be worthwhile.

For me, everything worthwhile was a struggle.

In America that’s known as ‘The Protestant Ethic’.

Anything good is a struggle.

Or, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said: “No pain, no gain”.

The belief that if a thing comes too easily, it wasn’t worth having.

That’s where I was lucky.

Believing I was thick gave me an added source of energy that smarter people don’t have.

And that’s something that stays with you for life.

Believing you’re not as good is an unfair advantage.

Because you have to work harder.


And, in the long run, hard work beats talent.