In June 1978 I received the results of my Part I law exams. There were no mobile phones in those days, so I crossed Trumpington Road to one of the red telephone boxes to give my father the news.
When I picked up the handset, there was a crossed line. I found myself listening to a conversation between Roger, a Cambridge student with the results of his finals, and his mother. I was spellbound.
The mother was cold and angry, her tongue like a whip:
“A third, Roger? How on earth has that happened? Your father and I are terribly disappointed. He got a two-one, nearly a first, and from Trinity too. And your grandfather got a two-one from Trinity. So how is it that you can only manage a third? After all we have done for you, Roger. Last year there was even talk of you getting a first. Now you have ruined your life, and your career prospects. How can you ever hope to follow in your father’s footsteps with a third? And what on earth do we say to all our friends?”
Roger replied in a bleak monotone:
“I know, Mum. I have let everybody down. I am thinking of ending it all and killing myself.”
His mother’s voice jumped half an octave, spiced now with panic:
“No, Roger! No! You mustn’t do that! Don’t even think of it! A third from Cambridge is nothing to be ashamed of! It’s an achievement! Your father and I are proud of you! You must come home immediately and we will all go out to celebrate!”
I finally summoned the willpower to put the handset down. I had my own call to make.