Journalist and novelist Andrew Martin is the author of the 'Jim Stringer' series of novels based around railways. He has written for the Independent on Sunday, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Times and the New Statesman among others.
Sunday 30 August 1998
I do hold a CSE Grade One in maths, which is an "O" level equivalent I'll have you know, but caters to a pretty low level of ability. The paper included questions like, "How many sides has a pentagram?" Easy enough, but the examiners were good enough to provide a picture of a pentagram if I remember rightly, so it was just a question of counting.
My teachers did put me in for the harder exam, although without much confidence. "Remember to show your working", they kept telling me. So I would guess an answer - something like 278.741 (I mean, it never comes out a round number does it?), and boldly print QED alongside. Then I'd write some random numbers in the margin - showing my working, you see. I got a D.
I was quite proud of not being good at maths, and I looked down on the people who were. They'd put their arm around their exercise book so you couldn't copy, had high voices, and picked their bogies and ate them whilst excitedly doing integration. Maths seemed an unfitting pursuit for a thrusting young blade.
But the good-at-maths types are getting their revenge, making me feel unmanly and inadequate in the process. Many have become Chartered Accountants, masters of the arcana that dominate my life. My accountant says, "Hello Andrew, how are you?", and after that I'm lost. The regulations concerning VAT and petrol, for example ... I think they must have something to do with Banach Space.
People who are good at maths also go on to work at the Inland Revenue. And this lot recently rectified their inferiority complexes stemming from all those C-pluses in English by implementing the policy whereby self- employed people have to pay two tax bills in January, thus financially crippling every non-salaried person I know. They also spend a lot of time sending me letters containing incomprehensible figures, and here, incidentally, I'd like to give them a tip. Headline your letters with either: "This is what you owe us," or "This is what you have paid," or "This is what we owe you." (Although, God knows, not many of the latter get sent).
Other good-at-maths types end up in the City, and my dislike of pinstriped loudmouths is tinged with fear, for they understand something that I do not: numbers. The Chancellorship of the Exchequer is regarded as the second- best job to that of PM, but if I were a politician, I'd dread being offered it because of the sums. "Nice of you to think of me, PM," I'd say. "But I'd just as soon be the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster." I don't think there's much maths in that, but then again the awful discovery of manhood is that those damn numbers are everywhere, and only wimps don't understand them.
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