The Day My Best Mate at School Nicked the Exam Paper (and got expelled)

I, I sometimes lose myself in me, I lose track of time
And I can’t see the woods for the trees, you set them alight.
Burn the bridges as you’ve gone, I’m too weak to fight ya
I’ve got my personal hell to deal with”
– D:Ream (Londonderry, 1993)

Paddy Campbell and I sang along to it instead of doing an English project – the D:Ream song “Things Can Only Get Better” – that’s how mature we were in a 1994 Northern Ireland. We played Fantasy Football instead of Science and we generally hated school teachers. Ironic that I later became one. Twenty years too late then, I present you with the day my best school buddy nicked the exam paper (and got expelled). I know this little article in my “the day I” series isn’t really a travel story but it’s a lifestyle story and something that has haunted me ever since – it’s part of my journey and it has earned a front page spot on Don’t Stop Living (I thought shyly of sticking on my personal website but changed my mind). It’s 20 years ago this month since “Paddy Campbell nicked the exam paper”. As it’s the 20 year mark, it feels like the time is right to tell what really happened in May 1994 through my eyes, in form 3Y at Bangor Grammar School in Northern Ireland. The story goes, and everybody knows that Paddy Campbell a smart, popular and crazy lad in our class didn’t make it into 4th form at Bangor Grammar. Nor was he allowed to sit all of his 3rd form exams, which at the time were important. Though trying to convince us all of that back then would have taken some doing.

“You’ll never change what’s been and gone” – Oasis

addy campbell bangor

Red Glasses: The Day My Best School Mate nicked the exam paper (and got expelled)

This is the first time I have told this story, it has never even left my lips before. I kept the story to myself for 20 years. Mum, Dad – yes this is what happened and I’m telling it now and I’m happy to tell it and I’ve moved on. It doesn’t make me a bad person to tell this. We all make mistakes and we all learn from them. I was 14.

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field” – Niels Bohr

When you keep secrets for this long, a cloud hangs on your shoulder as it does for me on my self titled “Paddy Campbell Day” every year (May 16th incidentally – yes it’s 20 years ago today, hence this post). It just feels like a good moment to get this off my chest – 20 year mark, World Cup coming round. No regrets.

“It’s no secret because you told everybody” – Kylie Minogue

A bit of background.
I first met Paddy Campbell in the 1980s when we were in hospital together. We both had eye operations and were in adjacent beds. I used to tell people about my “mate in hospital called Patrick” and they thought I was crazy. I was. And so was Patrick. Paddy and I went to completely different schools though and after hospital I didn’t see him again. Until 1992 when a new pupil walks into our 2Y class at Bangor Grammar School. A guy called Patrick Campbell. A guy that looked like he knew how to have a laugh but still cool enough to wear red glasses in Northern Ireland and get away with it. Bullying and name calling in Northern Ireland is part of the childhood culture and upbringing. If you don’t have thick skin, you might end up with no skin. Harsh, and not even fair. Paddy had red glasses and looked like a “geek”. But he wasn’t. You should never judge a cover by what’s in the book. After a few weeks of getting to know Paddy, he became one of the popular dudes in the class. Class 2Y. A class oozing personality incidentally – I know of people from that class went on to become an ex-Pat millionaire, a local business owner, a global traveller and a musician.

“You can have it all if you like” – Stereophonics

It’s May 1994. 20 Years Ago
Paddy and I were good mates at the time – in fact I’d say that in 1993-1994 we were best mates at school. We never really met outside of school but as the 1994 World Cup approached we planned a big meet up to watch the opening game together, hang out away from school and also head down to the beach in Bangor to “get some girls” and have a few illegal tins of beer when the sun reared its head on this beach resort in Northern Ireland. We were both 14 – he was a month older than me. However an event that occurred in May 1994 meant that Paddy and I would cease to be in touch, we wouldn’t be friends again, we wouldn’t watch the World Cup together and after 1994, Paddy and I would only meet once more, for about one minute at a bus stop in 1997. I haven’t seen him since. 17 years ago. This story explains why.

“Man you should have seen us on the way to Venus, walking on the Milky Way” – OMD

Before I start, this story is a sensitive issue for some and some names have been protected. But you know what, I don’t really care any more – I’m telling it now as I want to. There is also one paragraph with some inaccurate content on it for the benefit of those concerned in the story. If Paddy Campbell ever reads this, he knows the truth. He will know what 99% of this story is gospel, and I’ve stuck 1% of bullshit in. You know what it could even be the other way round, but this is as I recall it. This is what really happened. I hope so anyway. But please also forgive the memory – this was TWENTY years ago so not all of the story can be remembered in detail, but I’ve done my best.

“When I was younger so much younger than today, I never needed anybody’s help in any way” – The Beatles

Paddy and I at school
Paddy and I weren’t the best students behaviour wise. Academically I reckon we did OK but we messed around too much. We were teenagers having a laugh. We played fantasy football league during lessons, we had ridiculous competitions during lessons about funny stuff we could do. In one lesson he had to say the word “trapezium” 100 times during a lesson in a gay accent. He did it. In another lesson I would sit at the back of class with a box of pencils and make a pencil tower. To see what I could get away with. For what reason neither of us would ever know. We weren’t very mature but we did have fun.

“Trapezium” – Paddy Campbell, 1993

Third Form End of Year Exams, 1994
In third form you do end of year exams, aged 14 – these were during May and June 1994. I never put education first though as you may have read before, but these exams would determine your groups for the next 2 years of Secondary School, with the higher graded students getting placed in higher level classes for the next two years. It wasn’t actually a big thing you know, but I had my eye on getting into one of the top 2 classes out of the 6 available. I gathered from an early age that prestige and the honour of being there was more important than how you got there (a theory that I stand by, to this day). i.e. If Einstein is the best Physicist of all time, we all applaud the fact and ignore the journey that took him there. I wanted the prestige.

“If you want more, scream it out louder” – Usher

I was good enough at English, French and Geography to do it. I was let down by Science and History. I remember telling one of my history teachers “I’d rather student a subject called ‘Present’ than worry about the past!” (Mr. Mackie). Alas I was 13 at the time, and wrong. History is important as it forms the reasoning behind the present. I had to look back to find that out.

“We’re here because we’re here” – Northern Ireland football fans

How to pinch a 3rd form History Exam Paper
It’s a three step process my friends, it worked for us and it could work for you too. I concocted the idea myself, before deciding to confide in my best mate at school – Paddy Campbell. I made it look like we both wanted to steal the exam paper somehow but the reality is – the event didn’t happen by chance – I planned the whole thing. I told Paddy – “Paddy, let’s nick the 3rd form history exam paper and get decent grades.” “How the hell do you plan to do that?” Paddy said. “I have the plan”, I said.

So I told him my three steps. I made it sound easy and we executed it to perfection. I needed an ally, Paddy was the ally. What I didn’t know was that he would become the scapegoat. That was never the plan.

Three Easy Steps to Stealing a 3rd Form Exam Paper in 1994 in Bangor Grammar School:
1.   Find out which history teacher at the school is compiling the exam paper (we were told in advance it would be compiled by ONE teacher only)
2.   Go to their classroom when they’re not in it and find it.
3.   Pinch it.

That was Plan B in fact. Over the next week, by chance I told Paddy of a “Plan A” which crept up by chance. During the next history lesson I asked our teacher “which teacher will be making the history paper this year?” They told me – “Mr. Jones”. We knew him as Jonesy and for 2 lessons a week we would be in Jonesy’s room for a lesson – I think it was Room 103 or 102. Even better Jonesy wouldn’t be in the room, but his files and materials probably, and hopefully would still be. So we had got past step 1 and had a chance of making it to the next round. Next step was when we next had a lesson in Jonesys room, Paddy and I went in early to scrummage for it. I can’t remember how we did this – but we did – just two of us went in early, took the two seats at the front of the classroom right in front of his desk. It would look suspicious 1 of us going in on our own, but not two. Before the next teacher came in we had checked all the files and drawers and I found the exam paper. I found it. We had to confirm this was it though. I got Paddy to double check. But one thing we didn’t do was nick it straight away. By this time the other classmates were in the lesson, as was our teacher (not Jonesy). During the lesson I wrote on a piece of paper to Paddy – “nick it”. The only reason I can give for not nicking it myself was that out of the two of us, Paddy was less likely to be caught. I was more vulnerable. I wasn’t being selfish getting him to do it – I had the balls to nick it too, but felt he was the safe bet. Failure or getting caught wasn’t even on our minds. We were buzzing. The lesson finished and Paddy nicked the paper. Step 3 complete and job done nice and easy. Only one problem – Jonesy would be back in his room and probably looking for the exam paper so we had to either:

1.   Memorise the questions
2.   Write out the questions
3.   Photocopy it

There were probably other options but these were the 3 we came up with. We decided to bunk off the next lesson, run to Bangor Library on Hamilton Road (a 5 minute walk), photocopy the shebang and return it to where we found it – Jonesys files. We racked up the 60 pence and got it photocopied. Buzzing at this point. That’s right – two 14 year olds buzzing at the theft of a nothing exam paper for a something exam at a nothing school. But you live in the here and now and yes we were buzzing.

“Teenage angst has paid off well, now I’m bored and old” – Kurt Cobain

Oh yeah my 3 step plan was cool and all but I forgot there was a Step 4. – Returning the exam paper to look like nobody had nicked it. Because Paddy had nicked it, it was now obviously on my shoulders to return it. I had told him to nick it, and we were in on this together, so it was only fair that I should return it. The pressure was back on me. I came up with a plan – I had a friend who I knew had a lesson in that room just after and I’d go up and wait till their class came out, hopefully the teacher would too and I’d run in and return it as if I was part of that class or lesson. If the teacher came in and knew I wasn’t and I was stopped, I’d say I thought I left my book in there during the earlier history lesson lesson. It worked a treat. I placed the exam paper in the slot I found it in. I ran down to tell Paddy, we high fiv-ed each other and we now had to make an agreement – neither of us would grass the other one up. We now had a copy each of the exam paper. Paddy nicked the paper, but it was my idea. We were 50-50 so far, though the reality and (forgive the irony) the history books tell you the entire event was my idea.

“I fought the law and the law won” – The Clash

Why Did I Not Just Revise Harder to get a good grade?
Because that’s boring and uninspiring. I didn’t particularly like history at school and rarely read my history books outside lesson time. Geography and English – yes. Plus in the mind of a 14 year old in a troubled Northern Ireland the thought of stealing an exam paper was like an incentive or an act of rebellion. I buzzed off the dangers of it, and knew my sidekick Paddy would too. We also ran a rather shameful “nicking league” in the school which Scott Callen knew all about too – did I mention there were 3 of us? That’s a separate story for another day though. In short – Paddy won the “nicking league” but paid the price. And at this point in the story, two of us had a copy of the third form history paper.

“You and me, we’re history” – Richard Ashcroft

Then there was the “Business Plan”
Sat at our desks in third form history one day and Paddy and I no longer needed to listen to the lessons. We’d eliminated the need for it. We’d be able to get good grades easily as we knew the exam questions on the paper already. Fantasy football time. So I came up with a plan – change Jonesys exam paper into our own handwriting, photocopy it and sell them to other selected students in our year. We couldn’t hand out photocopies as it was because, if caught they would know we nicked it – as it was an exact copy of Jonesy’s papers with his writing on it. So one of us had to rewrite it so that if anyone did report us, the actual page that they had would look like just one of our own handwritten exam notes, we certainly weren’t going to write “Exclusive! Nicked 3rd Form Exam Paper – your ticket to freedom!” on it. Putting it in our own handwriting was dangerous ground of course as if grassed up, and somehow they proved we had access to the paper, we could be suspended or expelled. But we didn’t think of that. We buzzed off it. So we hand-picked a selection of students in each class who we thought “won’t grass us up”, of these Dougie Gordon and Craig McCune were happy to be named 😉

“My baby’s got a secret.” – Madonna

Bangor Grammar School, where the “exam paper episode” took place.

How to Make Money by Selling a Stolen Exam Paper
We’d charge 3 quid for the privilege of a copy of the paper, pocketing a massive £1.50 each and secretly gave the buyer a a copy of the questions. But we couldn’t exactly “advertise this”! Imagine the news “Hey Jonesy did you see the advert in the paper from Paddy Campbell and Jonny Blair selling your exam paper?”. But we asked a few others to buy it. We had to stop at about 10 students, any more and word would spread too easily. We confided in Scott Callen first off, and we didn’t charge him – a good mate of mine through Primary and Secondary School, Scott loved it buzzed off it too and we closed the box within a few days. As good a “business idea” as it was, we decided we didn’t want the money – we just wanted the good grades. I wanted myself, Paddy and Scott to get good grades. We’d saved revision time and in essence created our own “4 hour work week” philosophy, aged 14.

“You gotta fight for your right to party” – Beastie Boys

But the box wasn’t totally closed, one day Scott said to me “are you sure this is the exam paper? because student “x” also wants a copy.” This was the last copy we gave out. Student “x” got a copy and paid up. Paddy and I had fun the next 2 weeks – building up to the 1994 World Cup we had some footie mags and stickers. Paddy and I agreed to watch Germany v. Bolivia together – the opening match and we both banked on Milton Melgar for first goal. Good times. Everything was going well!

Remember Milton Melgar?

History Exam Day.
The day arrived – it was “history exam day” and Paddy, Scott and I met outside the Clarke Hall before the exam – “got yer answers already written up lads?” “Aye” said the hat-trick of us as we each pulled out our pre written exam papers out of our pockets. Genius. We’d written our answers to the entire exam already having had 2 weeks to write them – instead of the normal two hours! During a free period we each compared notes to make sure our answers varied slightly. Blair, Callen and Campbell – as the exams were done alphabetically we were sitting near each other for the exam. We knew of which other students in the exam hall also had the paper or at least so we thought, however there was still a 5% doubt that the paper might not actually be the one Paddy had nicked.

“Make the best of this test and don’t ask why” – Green Day

What if someone had grassed us up and the paper was changed at late notice?
It wasn’t – we were too smart. Within 2 seconds of seeing the exam paper I turned to Paddy and winked. “Good job mate”. We pulled our already written answers out of our football soiled blazers and placed them on our respective desks. We sat doing nothing during the exam of course. I think I drew a picture of Teddy Sheringham and worked out that Colombia would win the World Cup – on scrap paper. I was looking forward to watching the World Cup with Paddy and having a beer with him – I hadn’t drank beer before except at home with my Dad when he offered me a small glass on a Sunday football matchday.

The beer with Paddy never happened of course…
“Somebody squealed”. To this day, I have no idea who grassed us up or who squealed on us, but I know it wasn’t me, Paddy or Scott. Of that I’m certain. Why would Paddy grass me up, when we were best mates? Why would I grass Paddy up for the same reason? It was my idea – he nicked it, I returned it, we both distributed it. Scott wouldn’t have grassed us up either – it wasn’t in his nature – he was just your cool trusted lad – he knew the score and was in on it with us. There were 3 of us. If you’re reading and know who “told the teacher” please let me know – I won’t be angry. Twenty years on I’ll find it funny. Paddy Campbell might not…

The aftermath: Explusions and Suspensions
A week or so after the history exam, Paddy, Scott, myself, Dougie Gordon (a newbie to the story incidentally but another of the magic lads who had an advance copy of the paper) and 3 un-named others are invited to meet the headmaster for questioning. We knew something was going down. I saw it coming first when Paddy was called.

Deny it, deny it, deny it.
Winslow boy case – no proof. Circumstantial evidence. That’s what I said to the boys. I stood by Paddy. And I know Scott Callen would have too. I didn’t grass him up – Paddy if you’re reading this, I didn’t say a word – I didn’t tell them you stole it. Of course I didn’t. Because it was my idea. In my eyes, if you were expelled, I was expelled too. If I was expelled, you were expelled too. We were in it together. We both lose or we both win. I prayed for the win. I was sure of it. I valued our friendship at the time too much. I wasn’t in the room when you got questioned though and I never spoke to you about it again, so I don’t know what happened in there. Your expression said it all mate. I knew you’d been expelled but I never had the chance to ask you. I expected to suffer the same fame. I prepared for it. I knew Patton (the headmaster) would do the same to me. I was next in the office. When I went in he asked me “did you know about this exam paper in advance?”. “No” I said – “I know nothing about it – I don’t even like history lessons!”. “You got 67% Blair”, your normal average is 54 for history. “I studied hard, you can check my notes. I wanted to get into the higher class. I’ve no business stealing an exam paper I’ve no interest in. I’d rather watch football.” And with that, he suspended me, issued me with 3 consecutive “Saturday detentions” and I was let go. I left the room and remember looking for Paddy – he had gone. I went back to class and Paddy had gone. He had gone. Aged 14 you don’t cry losing a best mate and I didn’t know that was definitely that. But I had a hollow feeling in me. The fact of the matter is that he had nicked it, because I told him to. I encouraged him, I also put it back after we’d copied it. If fingerprinting in schools were done, mine were the last on it (I didn’t wear gloves putting an exam paper into a file). Yes – I cheated in the exam. I did get 65%. I deliberately didn’t get higher as that would look suspicious to be too good. One of the students who had an advance copy pulled a 89% grade. Unexpected for him. 65% was the cut off point in the end and I scraped into the second tier class for forms 4 and 5 to join Peter McIvor. Scott Callen made the cut of course, but into a different class and also got suspended and given multiple “Saturdays”. But alas – Paddy Campbell was expelled. Outright. It was the end of an era. Twenty years on, I’ve been slightly haunted by the event but only when the 16th May comes round.

“Denial is the first sign of guilt” – Jonny Blair

Why did Paddy Campbell get expelled?
Perhaps only Paddy can answer this. I haven’t had a proper conversation with him since. In my heart I reckon I know how they knew – the handwriting – someone had a copy of it and had given it to the headmaster and it had Paddy’s handwriting on it. You were expelled before you could get a word in edgeway. I’m sorry, mate. I got you into this mess, it was my idea to steal the paper, it was me who found it, but the fact remains – yes – you were the one that officially “stole it”. Incidentally Scott and Dougie were just in on it – they played no part in the theft, the photocopy or the business plan as far as I remember – Paddy and I kept the thing quiet for the most part. Paddy was gone and I had lost a friend, big time.

“It’s over – you don’t have to tell me” – Damon Albarn

Meeting Paddy Campbell in Summer 1994
Perhaps the worst part of this whole event was that I randomly met Paddy Campbell and his sister Sophie while in Bloomfield Shopping Centre a few months later. I don’t know why but instead of asking how he was and if he watched the World Cup and asking what happened that day, I walked up to him pointing “expelled” and walked off. I really really do regret that and I have no idea why I did it. Teenage angst is an excuse but by my standards not an acceptable one. Sorry Paddy, I was in the game with you and we should have both been expelled. Or neither of us, which was the masterplan.

Meeting Paddy Campbell in October 1997
In October 1997 I got off the train from Belfast to Bangor and saw Paddy Campbell waiting at a bus stop. It was a bit weird. I hadn’t thought of Paddy for 3 years as we had both picked up the pieces and got on with our lives. Strangely though, I had seen Paddy in a dream I had that week and it was now 3 years since the exam paper episode and this was the first time I had seen him since the day I pointed “expelled” at him (an episode he later told my friend Colin Walker). However it was now 1997. We were both 17 now. I said “hello” to Paddy and he replied. It wasn’t awkward. We had a 1 minute chat before he boarded his bus. “How’s things?” I said. Paddy replied – “All good mate – studying for my A-levels in Sullivan and just got a police caution for painting trains.” Typical Paddy – nothing had changed. We just weren’t mates any more and could never go back. In the intervening years I myself had also now left Bangor Grammar School after a silly episode of “teenage angst” during my first year of A levels. In 1997 I was studying media in Belfast by now. Paddy got on his bus, and boarded and since that day 17 years ago I have yet to see him since.

Hey Paddy, fancy a beer mate?
Paddy, if you’re reading this, I want you back as a mate even just on email – an explanation of what happened to you and I’ll give you my take on it. Yes it was 20 years ago, but they were good times until I stupidly decided we should nick the paper. Take me up on the offer – meet up with me for a beer sometime and we’ll reminisce on what happened. We’re older now. We’re wiser. If you’ll let me back in of course. If not, I fully understand. It was my fault. I must admit that now – it was me that got Paddy Campbell into that mess. I didn’t grass him up but I found the exam paper and I told him to nick it, which sealed his fate.

“Somehow I’ve survived” – Jon Bon Jovi

What’s Paddy Campbell doing now?
I had to know. And these days we have Google! This is the freaky thing – I just Googled “paddy campbell bangor” to see what comes up out of curiosity and a photo of my site came up first, because I’ve touched on this episode before on Don’t Stop Living. But then I found this site which delighted me – Paddy Campbell is now a playright by the looks of things, a writer and a successful one! A picture of him in 2013, below!

Paddy Campbell, now a playright.

Paddy Campbell, now a playright (photo copyright Chronicle

And then – the biggest freaky coincidence ever – both Paddy Campbell and I were featured on the BBC in the same month last year (September 2013) – me on my travel stuff and Paddy for his play right stuff. Seems we have ended up leading similar lives. Maybe he’ll forgive me. We were both to blame.
Paddy Campbell on the BBC, 19th September 2013
Jonny Blair on the BBC, 9th September 2013

OK so that’s the story – the book is not completely closed nor is this story complete. We need to hear from Paddy Campbell. I tried to find him on Facebook and found someone that “might be him”. I messaged him and tried to add him as a friend to no avail – I think he rejected me. Maybe it was really him and he has never forgiven me. I’m onto Twitter next and want to make amends.

“What else should I be – all apologies” – Kurt Cobain

I’m sorry Paddy. Loved reading that your a writer and a playright. I’m also a writer – I write about travel. Fancy meeting me for a pint?

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

** Disclaimer – I have tried my best to recount this episode in its truthful entirety. It’s not a perfect story and I cannot for sure say that everything is gospel but it’s my take on it. If Paddy contacts me and wants details changed, I will do that, I’m not claiming 100% accuracy here. Perhaps, Paddy and I just weren’t meant to stay good mates. Fate took us where it took us. We’ll never know what might have been.

“There’s a new planet in the solar system, there is nothing up my sleeve” – Michael Stipe

This post is dedicated to the genius that is,

Paddy Campbell. Thanks, mate stay happy. You deserve it.

This song forever reminds me of those good times:

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