English, Economics and History, the examinations for my three A Level subjects began on Monday, 4th June 1979 and ended eleven days later on Friday, 15th June 1979.
In ordinary times, such an occasion would now be marked by a rowdy party or even a group visit to a Spanish resort (I have read of groups of eighteen year olds heading to Ibiza to celebrate the end of their secondary education). In 1979, no such options were available to students of limited means living deep within rural England.
The passing of our days at Strode College in Street was marked in an altogether more subdued way. A small group of us spent the evening playing skittles and drinking ale at the King William Inn in the village of Catcott. The evening ended in an even more traditional manner than in which it had been passed, we sat on stools at a wooden table and ate a supper of crusty bread, Stilton cheese and pickled onions.
The next day, Saturday, 16th June, entirely unaware of the existence of something called “Bloomsday,” I went with my parents to the library in Bridgwater. I had gone with the deliberate intention of borrowing books that were considered to be “important.” Perhaps I imagined that by reading I could become someone whom people considered to be “serious.” Among the books I brought home that day were James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses, the latter being a nine hundred page narrative of the day of Leopold Bloom in Dublin on 16th June 1904.
Discussing the books at a friend’s house that evening, my friend’s father thought it distinctly odd. He was emphatic in expressing his belief that it seemed very strange that any red blooded male should be reading Joyce. More than forty years later, his logic still seems unfathomable.
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man was read with great effort, it was very different from the adventure novels that had been my usual choice. Part of the reason for the slow progress through the pages of dense prose was that I had begun my summer job, labouring at Kelway’s Nursery, on Monday, 18th June. Starting at 7.45 am each day and working in the fields until 5 pm, I was exhausted at the end of each day. Having had enough of Joyce, Ulysses was abandoned after forty pages and not picked up again until 2003.
There seems a clarity in those moments of trying to become a serious reader, as if I could reach out a hand and pick up one of those books.