Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Billy Bragg, singer-songwriter and activist

'I didn't see the point of logarithms'
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The Independent Online

Billy Bragg, 48, is the radical "Bard of Barking" and founder of the Red Wedge scheme to encourage young people to vote Labour. His last album was England, Half English. His new box-set album, Billy Bragg: Volume 2 and his book The Progressive Patriot are out this week

At the end of my first year in the juniors at Northbury Infants in Barking, I came sixth in the form order. Next year I was fifth. Then I was fourth. There was one kid, Ricky Ogland, who always came first. Annoyingly, he was good at football too.

In the last-but-one year I came second and I thought: "Right, I'm going to get him!" But at the end of my last year, my mum was taken into hospital and we were packed off to my auntie's in Warwickshire, so I'll never know if I would have caught him. The only comfort I draw is that when they built the North Circular extension from the A406 to the A13, they knocked his house down. Revenge is best tasted cold!

Coming second to him was the highlight of my academic prowess. (Incidentally, 25 years later I was voted "Second Most Wonderful Human Being" in the NME, second to Morrissey.)

I failed my 11-plus - I've never been any good at exams - and went to a secondary modern school called Park Modern, which was, again, where my father had gone. It had a good reputation in the Sixties for educating young men to work in the Ford Motor Company.

After a year the school became Barking Abbey Comprehensive and merged with a grammar school; they had a blue blazer and we had a black blazer and they rather stood out in the playground. There were two classes of them and eight classes of us. It was like a class divide, and I always knew who had come from which school. I ended up in the "G" - top - stream, at one point being in 4G1 - "Foregone".

I already had pretensions to being a singer-songwriter and wrote poems. I wrote one poem in my third year that prompted the teacher into a wonderful demonstration of confidence in me: he wrote home to ask my parents where I might have copied it from! My father said that the only book of poetry in the house was Kipling's Barrack-Room Ballads, which didn't seem a very likely source. Later, I read the poem out on the local radio.

I got to take English language O-level early, in January 1974, and got an A. I thought: "What other qualifications do you need to be a singer-songwriter?" I sat my O-levels in June - and failed the lot. I fell in love with a girl at the school two weeks before the exams and - as a singer-songwriter should be - was absolutely besotted and unable to think of anything else. Also, I didn't see the point of logarithms. How did I come to fail English literature? The answer is that Northanger Abbey, a parody of a lame potboiler, destroyed any interest in novels. I thought: "Why can't I be in the other stream, doing The Day of the Triffids?" Mind you, I'm sure some of the people in that class were thinking: "If only we were doing Northanger Abbey..."

My parents' disappointment at this was such that in 1999 my mother told a television documentary that the school had given her to believe that I was "capable of better" and that failing my O-levels had been the undoing of me. I could have made something of myself if I had passed! I could have been a contender! I could have had a better job!

She was saying this on camera, as I was sitting on the sofa with her, and she meant it. But she comes to stay with me and she'll come to my book launch.

Over the past five years I've been going into schools to do some incredibly fulfilling work. We talk to a group of kids to give them stratagems to write songs; then they get up and sing to the entire school, with my backing band. Girls tend to write songs about how terrible it is to be a 14-year-old girl.

As for my 16-year-old girl when I was besotted, I wrote her a book of poems. If she had any sense, she'd put them on eBay and I'd buy them - and burn them.

jonty@jonathansale.com

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