The Day I…Got 6 A Grades in my GCSEs (and the Aftermath of the Great Exam Heist)

“There’s a bridge to the other side, don’t take your eyes from the prize.”- Dodgy

Get ready for it to pour out of me. It feels like some back tracking is needed to my teens and a follow up to last Friday’s Paddy Campbell story. This won’t fill you with wonder or excitement, but it’s something I need to jot down and get on here. While I have the memory and inspiration I may as well get down to the details of what happened in the aftermath of the “great exam heist” (as it is now known, having received a message from Paddy Campbell himself on Saturday morning!) .

“Heist: a theft from an institution which involves a large haul of loot”.

On the 20th anniversary of the day Paddy Campbell, my best mate at school nicked the exam paper, I finally published the story on here. I didn’t expect anyone to read it apart from a few school friends, and once it was published I started working on my travel stuff again and typed up my tips on getting an Indonesian visa. But within two hours of posting the outrageously immature but fun story of nicking the exam paper, the story had received over 120 page views and I had received messages and comments from friends on my personal Facebook feed. To my surprise they were all incredibly positive. I had admitted a wrong doing from my teenage years and yet the response was good. I was pretty surprised by that reaction as I normally get slated for opinion and over the top stories. I got slightly inspired. Indeed I realised that the Paddy Campbell story was the first time I’d told it, even at university and in my many jobs, I never told the story to my 10+ best mates in the intervening years, nor indeed my best mate at present, not even in a conversation. So let’s pick things where I left off on Friday as I tell a more selfish story of my teenage years, the 2 years that followed Paddy’s dismissal.

“It may have worked but at what price?” – Manic Street Preachers

So yeah, Paddy had gone. He had been expelled for nicking the exam paper. I don’t know how they proved it or whether he actually put his hands up and admitted it. Scott Callen and I had served our school suspensions and a string of Saturday detentions (neither of us ever admitted playing any part in the theft of the exam paper but they obviously saw us as allies to Paddy, without proof). And things had to carry on. And they did. But a void had been left behind. I was left empty. In fact it chilled me to the bone on Friday night to think that that one event changed my entire teenage years. For the better or worse is anyone’s guess. But let’s not dwell on the good or bad and focus on what came next for me. First though, with Paddy gone, it’s weird to think that while he was my best mate for a while at school, I’ve never been in a photograph with him. The only class photo we have is the one below, which was 1Y. Paddy joined in 2Y.

Form 1Y was now form 4Y but things were never the same - incidentally Paddy isn't in this photo, he joined in 2Y.

Form 1Y was now form 4Y but things were never the same – incidentally Paddy isn’t in this photo, he joined in 2Y.

I had lost Paddy. We didn’t have Facebook in those days. We didn’t have mobile phones and we only saw each other in school really. Of course, I could have simply asked around, found out his phone number and where he lived and arranged to meet up and stay friends. But I never did that. It didn’t feel like the right thing to do. The truth is the next two years of my teenage life were hard for me (yeah right – you will say as some people have been through illness, death etc. – this was just a mate getting expelled, but still times were tough – adolescence is possibly the most important part of your life). So I watched the 1994 World Cup and hung out with Peter Bell, who lived on the same street as me. Peter and I were good friends too and I of course confided in him with the entire Paddy Campbell story. He knew Paddy and I were good mates.

Then In the summer of 1994 I spent a fair bit of time in Belfast with my cousin Gary, playing football and computer games. I also had a week in Castlerock watching the football Milk Cup and a family holiday to London and Bournemouth. Something strong was always on my mind in this case and I didn’t know it then.

The absence of a school buddy as intelligent and hilarious as Paddy Campbell hit me hard. In the last week of June 1994, it came to choosing our subjects for the next 2 years of school – the GCSEs. By getting my 67% in History I was now above the 65% average over all subjects and I had scraped into the second highest ranked class, with the likes of Andrew Cowan, James Irwin, Robbie Milliken etc. I cheated my way there of course but I was in and the rest was, ironically history.

“Escape from our history with nothing but memory” – Nicky Wire

History teacher Mr. Bonar came into our class one day and we were asked if we wanted to study history or geography or both for GCSE. My mind had been made up, I was dropping history. I couldn’t face the fact that I was still studying a subject I had cheated in. Also for Paddy’s sake, so I dropped history completely. Every time I had a history lesson I knew I’d just be thinking of Paddy and it was time to move on. Nobody would have been allowed to sit beside me. I’d have written a note on that chair and desk saying “Paddy Campbell’s seat”. Even though he was never going to be there to sit in it, it was still his seat. September 1994 came round and I started 4th form at Bangor Grammar. Older, wiser and ready for my GCSEs. The original “Y” class at BGS had split up for good. We still met in the morning for form class and roll call but the magic had long since passed the class by. Paddy was like the guy who made school exciting, made it worth going to. Now, the highlights from school would be talking about football at break time, playing football at lunch time and believe it or not, actually doing some work.

“I look at things now in a different light than I did before” – D: Ream, 1993

However one Autumn day in September 1994 I looked around the classroom and nobody could replace Paddy. There must have been a tear in my eye. Sure there were cool people about and I had new and previous friends, Peter McIvor sat beside me in most lessons and we played football together at weekends. My Primary School buddies Scott Callen, Mark McCullough and Graham Irwin were all still around. Colin Walker and I were good mates. As was Michael Whitford. Tompo, Pamps and McKittrick all played football with me at lunchtime. There were no girls in the school though. Boys will be boys. It was a lads school and we all played football and messed around. It was the 1990s. That’s what people did.

Bangor Grammar was a mostly Protestant school too, so your usual sectarianism was ripe in this school, which admittedly was something to cling onto in the absence of Paddy. There was an IRA ceasefire in 1994 though and Northern Ireland was almost as stable as it had been in my 14 years of life so far. But the truth of the matter was I hated the school. I just hated it. It was an over bearing, authoritative and pretentious shit hole. There was no get out clause. I was stuck and I was just not that happy. My parents were forever supportive of everything though and I can’t thank them enough for sticking by me all the way. But deep down there was an unhappiness within.

“I’m so happy cos today I found my friends. They’re in my head.” – Kurt Cobain

After Paddy had gone there was nothing too crazy happening in school. The rugby team got into the Northern Irish School’s Cup Final and that was a major event. It says it all really. In my opinion, the school was an over the top snobby pretentious shit hole. Banning football, you weren’t even allowed to eat in the school corridors. Yes – football was banned during games. You had to choose either rugby or hockey and I hated both. But I got on with things. 1994 became 1995. The year anniversary of Paddy’s expulsion passed by the same week that Blackburn Rovers deservedly won the Premier League title. Paddy was a Blackburn fan – he’d have loved that.

In 1995 I started writing for the Northern Ireland football fanzine Arconada…Armstrong! which was my first writing job, I even helped sell the fanzines outside the stadium in Belfast, so things had changed. 1995 became 1996. I still didn’t really have a best buddy to confide in though, and I had been a pretty good student for those two years. And when the summer of 1996 came round, there was an air of change. It was GCSEs time, I worked hard on my exams and left school on a high. I’d milked all that I could from a school which I generally despised. Paddy Campbell’s judgement in the early days had been spot on. He hated the school after a few months of attending it. They did him a favour – Paddy was a genius and he was too good for this school. I was still there.

“Where we you while we were getting high?” – Noel Gallagher

Colin Walker and I kept touch and we ended up going to an Oasis concert together with Keith Freel (from the year below us at school) in August 1996. It was down in Cork. It was a high. An all time high. A great concert and I had been an Oasis fan in the absence of Paddy. The next day I collected my GCSE results and got 6 As, 3 Bs and a C. That’s 10 GCSEs. 5 years of attending Bangor Grammar School and I’d done OK out of it. It had been two years since “the great exam heist” and I decided for whatever reason to hang around in the school and start my A-levels. As a 16 year old, I actually had nothing better to do.

“Aluminium tastes like fear” – Michael Stipe

However the Paddy Campbell day still lingered in my mind and while I started my A levels, things could never return to the way they were and I lost any fulfilment in going to school any more. I simply didn’t want to be there. I had got what I wanted from the school – I had 10 mega useful qualifications that could get me into any tech or college in the country, and even in other countries. My mind wasn’t on A-levels at all and I often didn’t turn up for lessons. In a crazy moment of madness, I would mirror Paddy’s episode before my first year of A levels were behind me, but I’ll tell you the truth about that episode in “part 3”. Yes let’s call this the “part 2”. We had the “great exam heist”, now some “great exam results” and there’s a third part to this story which probably completes the hat-trick.

I’ll save the third part for my long awaited book though. As I get on with my travels the next few months, heading out to Brazil , backpacking, starting new business projects and outsourcing my work to the Ukraine and Philippines (Courtesy of, I’ll be taking a break later in the year to get this stuff written up in some detail.

On a final note, after publishing my story on Friday, I tried to contact Paddy again – if you can’t get in touch on the 20th anniversary of an exam theft, then when can you? At first I checked out how he has gone on to be a famous playright, picking up awards for his play “The Wet House”. I retweeted some comments on Twitter that mentioned Paddy and said congratulations. I sent a tweet to a few of these people who were praising Paddy and within minutes I had been tweeted back by none other than Paddy Campbell’s girlfriend. A quick Facebook message to Paddy and I went to sleep. I woke up to the amazing news of a reply from Paddy, and a happy, positive one. “Ah the great exam heist. Absolutely class.” were his exact words. This is a man I haven’t seen in 17 years years and have only seen for 1 minute in 20 years. We’re now friends on Facebook and I’ve given Paddy the option of meeting for a beer sometime – I really, really hope we can. Life is one emotional journey my friends. I’ll savour that beer and catch up. You should check out Paddy Campbell’s play by the way 😉

Paddy Campbell’s Play – The Wet House

“Let’s all make believe we’re still friends and we’re like each other” – Oasis

Now where was I? Let me get back to my stories of Backpacking in Palestine…

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