Tracey Emin: My Life In A Column

'A fatefully cruel thing happened one day. Personally, I blame it on punk rock and anarchy'
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I don't want to write my column today. There are some days when I find it quite difficult, like when I have to write it at an airport or in Istanbul when I really want to go to the Topkapi Museum. On days like that it feels like I'm trying to get my homework in. Not that I ever really knew what that felt like. I always did most of my homework at school. It seemed too much, eating on my lap and writing on my lap.

All those magical A-level students happily dosed up on their Pro-Plus, with their miniature libraries by their side, and the family library in the drawing room. That's how I imagined it would be. I never did any A-levels, or O-levels, or level anything for that matter. I did five CSEs - which stands for Certificate of Secondary Education. Which means I went to secondary school and had a second-rate education.

But it's not exactly fair to say that about my school. You see, my school looked nice. It was built in 1940. One level - a giant, sprawling bungalow - with two magical quadrangles in the middle, divided by the assembly hall. Two tortoises lived in the quadrangles. We'd see them occasionally rummaging between the long grasses and the palms. One with the word "Ethel", the other with the word "Bert", on their backs. Yes, my school was called King Ethelbert's.

A fatefully cruel thing happened one day. Personally, I blame it on punk rock and anarchy. We were all called to the assembly hall. We were informed by the headmaster that Ethel had come to a violent, tragic death. His secretary had witnessed Ethel flying through the air, resembling a Frisbee, until she bounced underneath Mr Tuppens' car. These tortoises were as old as the school - and do you know what? Some people actually sniggered and laughed. It's events like that that make you realise what kind of educational establishment you're in. But perhaps even in the highest echelons of education these cruel events of life happen.

My school had an amazing running track; an old haunted cricket pavilion where everyone had sex; the most fantastic allotments; a really good archaeology class run by an old hippy and a very good sports department. My thing was cross-country. It was brilliant. I didn't have to run fast, but just keep to the same pace, no matter what the terrain, which meant cabbage fields with mud up to your thighs, old Roman roads, and my favourite: the beach. I remember all my skin tingling and being bright red. And then I'd sprint the last 500 metres. Sometimes, halfway through, we would stop for a fag. We could run at such a steady pace, that occasionally it would give us time to pop round to our friend Susan's house.

It was strange, school. It was somewhere I never, ever really took seriously. Not until 1989 when I had to sign on at Elephant & Castle after receiving an MA in Painting at the Royal College of Art. When I had to fill the forms in I didn't bother putting down the CSEs. I just put down my First Class Honours degree and my MA in Fine Art.

The next day I was called up and told that I had to go and work in a baker's shop. I explained to them in the employment centre that I was actually over-qualified. "I've got an MA, I'm not going to work in a baker's. I'd actually be taking someone else's job."

They said I wasn't over-qualified because I didn't have any O-levels or A-levels. I said to them: "The whole thing is a bit embarrassing. Just because I haven't put them down on the form doesn't mean I haven't got them."

They said: "How many have you got then?" I took the pen and my form and filled in 11 O-levels and nine A-levels. They looked at me in astonishment. "Nine A-levels?" they said. "What grades did you get?" "Oh, not very high. Mainly Cs and Bs. Three As."

"And what subjects did you take? Can you write down the grades?" English literature, B. "And English language?" they asked. "No, I didn't get English language, because I can't spell." Art, A, Art history, B, Drama, A, Modern philosophy, A, Zoology, C, Anthropology, C. As I started to hesitate they said: "Maths?" And I replied: "Er, no, funnily enough, not maths." Meteorological studies, B, Alchemy, C. They just sat there shaking their heads. "Wow," said the guy in the velvet jacket. "Would you like a sweet?" Oh, how the tables had turned now!

I was never offered another job. And even when I did my job restart programme they treated me with kid gloves. All I had to do was prove that I could put together a CV and I was let off scot-free.

Even though there was a level of dishonesty here, it's pretty obvious that I didn't know what you were supposed to have, and what you were not supposed to have, in terms of education. But I knew what I really did have. And the whole time I was on the dole I never once wasted a moment. And it's really paid off.

People are often happy to believe the most incredible things.

Yes, thinking about taking up Swahili next week...

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