Chapter 4: The Dark Ages

Thank you The Guardian, for once again representing students in a fair and accepting light.

Apologies for the brief hiatus, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you for your patience. Where have I been, you may well ask. But the question that might be more pertinent is: where have I not been? The answer: university.

It’s over, people. I am no longer a student. The discounts stop here, no more trips to the library or arbitrary essays or poncy formal dinners from now on. From now on, we are adults, now doomed with nothing to looked forward to but the ever increasing woes of taxes, ageing and petrol prices. Unless of course you have chosen to do a masters or postgraduate course of some sort, in which case go back to bed and sleep peacefully knowing how lucky you are that you are still on board the student gravy train.

Or so everyone will tell you. Graduating is a horrifying, morbid prospect nowadays. Whereas once you might peacefully lope back home, spend a few months squelching about the house wondering what you were going to do to earn your bread and placidly absorbing the light naggings of your parents, these days the new graduate is immediately plunged into the black abyss of abject terror that is Being A Graduate. The breath-taking fear that you will never find a job wraps itself around your neck like a boa constrictor as you read article after article lamenting that 90% of graduates never find a job, or end up working at Asda for the rest of their lives, or are simply laughed out of every job interview they ever have simply for having been stupid enough to think a university degree might get them as far as some schmoe with plenty of experience who’s been working since he was 16. The gentle nagging of parents has been replaced with franting bleating, urging you to start applying for things immediately and take any work experience you can get, whether paid, unpaid, menial or requiring huge chunks of the day shovelling excrement out of a middle eastern dungeon. Newspapers fling up their hands in desperation at the state of our Young Adults, who have been mollycoddled by ‘soft’ degrees and student loans and are now not fit for a job in the real world. 


Graduates themselves absorb all this with passive, worried cooperation, simply because we have nothing else to go on other than what we are being told by these factions. We frenziedly apply to graduate schemes, most of which promise a pittance of a salary for you to end up in some job called Accounts System Human Resources Coordination Overseas Consultant (i.e. professional email forwarder). Companies offering these schemes, aware that these jobs appear like glistening gold nuggets held in their pudgy fists, demand that graduates complete a four-step application process including two online questionnaires and aptitude tests, a 2000-word essay on your suitability for the role, an interview held in either London, Glasgow or Helsinki (applicants will be informed of the interview location two days before interview) and finally a submission of a felt effigy of the Hindu god you feel best evokes your positive qualities. We freak out and worry that our CVs are poor, and do anything to accumulate experience. We start blogs under the delusion that they will be a worthwhile arrow in our quiver (cough cough). Ever day spent at home simply enjoying yourself or remembering that you actually quite like your parents and/or your cats is tinged with the guilt that you are not at that moment on a train to The City to be interviewed for something. Even living at home for longer than the couple of weeks it takes to sort out a placement is seen as somehow pathetic – as if your graduating changes your living at home from being the standard state for young unmarried people into the type of ‘living with your parents’ which becomes the immediate No factor on dating websites for the over 40s. Any recent graduate who reads this article will find themselves whooping with joy that at least one public voice has recognised this and is happy to affirm how preposterous it all is.

Graduating isn’t a sudden plunge into adulthood. It isn’t the end of hope, dreams and fun. To begin with, we should take time at home or abroad to think things through, partly because we ought to have a chance to relish a few weeks without any deadlines or tutorials whatsoever, and partly because these are life decisions that shouldn’t be made in panicked haste. We should recognise that it is a prudent and normal decision to live at home for as long as necessary because rents in the UK are organ-thievingly high and there isn’t the lovely flat-share culture you find in places like Germany. And if we want a job, we should be allowed to feel confident about the fact that for the time being, any job is good enough, whether it’s a low-level lackey job or a part-time thing on a shop floor. Earn money, gain experience, meet new colleagues, great. Just don’t do it out of the fear and illusion that it’s the only chance you have from now until your final breath to break into the industry of your dreams – the course of life is endlessly and astonishingly forgiving, flexible, and it goes without saying that there are no absolute final chances.

And cheer up, noble graduates! There may be some who are doing masters because they want to stay in the student lifestyle, but the adult lifestyle is so much better and so much richer! Yes, you have to pay taxes, but you are still left over with a bit of income which is all yours, and the satisfaction of that is thrilling in itself. Yes, you have more responsibilities, but there is a total pleasure in finally being in charge of your own things and having to clean your own loo and find your own dentist because you are now mature and tough enough to be trusted with such things. Life is better because it is less easy: people are not parcelled out in societies and corridors but rather you have to find your own people whose company you can tolerate, and for that you develop a smaller but much more pleasurable group of friends; you don’t have essays and worksheets to fiddle with so you have to find new and more interesting hobbies to fill up any formless stretches of time you might have; even losing the student discount is nice, in a way, because it means you are now finally recognised as a real and respected member of society rather than a poor yet gullible well of profit who needs the incentive of a saved pound fifty to be goaded to spent nine pounds anyway.

Because in the end, and this may sound sad, all I can think of is the things that I won’t miss about being a student. I won’t miss never being taken seriously, and the assumptions that if it’s 2pm you’ve probably only just woken up from your drunken stupor. I won’t miss relatives assuming that I’m waking up in strange beds and subsisting entirely on Pot Noodle. I won’t miss nebulous work that expands or contracts to fill whatever time you might have to do it in and nonetheless is expected to be of the same exemplary quality every single time. Look at the photo at the top of this post again. The way that the ‘student voice’ is evoked by a photo of three drunk idiots dressed as zombies. That is why graduation is wonderful: university is one big coming-of-age ceremony, the western version of having to spend a day hunting in the rainforest having taken a poisonous drug extracted from vine toads, and only after you come out of it do people finally treat you like a man. We hope. 

The Noble Art of Chucking Things Away

Sadly, not everything can simply be got rid of in the recycling.

What’s the first thing I did on the first day of 24 hours of freedom? I threw things away. And it was glorious.

A wad of flashcards as thick as an Oxford dictionary, endless rain-softened folders, reams of posters of declensions and gender rules and plural endings, collected up, divested of blutack and chucked into a crate. Arbitrarily symbolical, now dead flowers mouldering in the bin. Entire notebooks tossed with lascivious joy into the recycling pile. Replaced with strings of flowers, posters of shapes and colours, or sheer empty space in which I can now start keeping things that are useful to me rather than detrimental to my mental stability. And as a souvenir of this monolith of work, now completely behind me, I have kept a single poster: a hand-drawn picture of a nude man with his various body parts labelled and coloured in blue, green or purple according to gender (his hair is orange – plural). 

This may sound heartless but let’s face it, it wasn’t a part of my life I feel a huge deal of affection or nostalgia for. Of course university has been a huge catalogue of memories I adore and relish, but they aren’t the memories that will be rekindled by an accidental glance at ‘Shakesp. Practice qu.’ It’s not like old schoolwork either – I can’t imagine myself reading back through an Inchbald essay and thinking “D’awwww, gosh I used to be precious.” It’s dull, dull, dull and too often a reminder of times I was simply stupid; not a patch on things I have kept from primary school which include a long and fascinating story about a flea who lives in a mouse hole and becomes infuriated when someone puts a cactus right in front of his ‘front door’. No – throwing it all away was simply the most fantastic few hours of cathartic life-purgation. Colonic irrigation for the soul.

   Hundreds of people hate to throw anything from the past away, though. It all contains too much emotional value, too many memories. This makes a lot of sense; it’s not an easy thought to consider lightly tossing hours and hours of your dedicated work into a bin already full of crushed cereal boxes and empty jars. Harder still are the ‘souvenirs’ and keepsakes you accumulate through life, millions of tiny fragments of things that contain meaning: the lollipop from that German bop where people thought you were Princess Leia (no, that’s how Bavarians wear their hair), the tiny plastic hippo you found in the covered market inexplicably abandoned on a windowsill, the hideous old-fashioned mirror with a handle you bought as a prop for the play you had to furnish on a budget of about forty pence. Isn’t it brilliant how we infuse everything with meaning? I honestly think it’s one of the redeeming features of western humanity that we invest each object with the moment and the sense of the moment in which it was needed and used, until we end up surrounded by the living we’ve already done. 

YET. Throwing things away is also one of the most brilliant, fun and mind-clearing things you can do, and if you are one of those who treasures everything too much, I beg you to try it. For a start, when does something stop being a perfect symbol of a memory and simply become a knick-knack? I finally threw away a huge selection of volcanic rocks from my trip to the Grecian islands when it occurred to me that these rocks don’t give a particularly good summary of the power of the volcanic landscape and taken out of context are just ugly grey lumps simply good for the dry feet on the bottom of your skin. I find myself in the middle of a swirling accumulation of …just stuff…that is now part of my space in the world without ever being used or touched apart from when it is being moved aside so I can get to something I really need. And I think this is why it is so glorious to throw things away and free yourself up; you can get all that clutter-cholesterol out of your bunged-up system and feel more…clean.

This doesn’t mean you have to be a cold-hearted destroyer of all your treasured keepsakes, though. It simply means being critical and aware of yourself: I like to ask myself questions like “Is the memory this thing is related to really so special that I won’t remember it without this thing?” Generally the answer is yes, and then giving the thing to Oxfam doesn’t hurt at all because you realise that the best memories you have don’t need a chunk of plastic as a monument. It also means being practical; size is important, as you can keep a plastic hippo, say, with a lot less annoyance than a huge scented candle an old squeeze of yours once gave you. Chuck things away, I say! Remove the drifts of bits and scraps from your life! Occasionally it can be as enlightening as a religious realisation, like when I came to see that I could avoid the irritation of sweeping all my knick-knacks onto the floor every time I closed the curtains if I simply swept them all into the garbage instead. There is so much fun to be had in looking through your clothes and realising that you always felt blobby in that top anyway and you can only wear it with one specific cardigan so it will look much better soaring through the air towards the bin-bag full of charity-shop offerings. It is so relieving to stop yourself constantly accidentally treading on the sharp thing if you realise the sharp thing is just a floating bit of sentimental paraphernalia. And it is tremendous to hurl away huge rafts of degree work visualising the sheer cubic-metreage of space that is now becoming available to you to move in, redecorate and not stub your toe on. 

And let’s face it, a worrying majority of domestic misfortunes happen because trinkets get in the most annoying places. The Bauhaus is a German design movement which revolutionised product design by suggesting that something ought to be designed to work and be useful before the prettiness and knick-knack-quality was considered. Without them Ikea simply wouldn’t exist, and their fundamental propaganda video is a hilarious silent staging of the contemporary household beset by things and bits and stuff. The wife comes to make the breakfast but can’t get anything together with ease because every object is breakable and has fancy handles or spouts which look nice but ultimately spout the milk onto her lap. She tries to do the laundry but it tumbles everywhere and sweeps stupid hanging ducks and ceramic flowers off the wall on her way down the stairs. The boss comes over for coffee, but the coffee-pot’s pretty lid falls off, he receives scalding coffee in his crotch and knocks a porcelain cherub onto his head in his agonised frenzy. The Bauhaus knew the hell of too many knick-knacks. Each scene is interspersed with a black screen and a sardonic bit of commentary: “Unlucky again, Herr Schroeder! It’s a shame the chair is so easily stained, too!”

The best things are things you can keep and at the same time reuse or repurpose so they’ll be there with you forever: favourite mugs broken and converted into jewellery holders, old theme-park pressed pennies drilled and made into a chain, beach rocks gathered into an old glass vase to keep the flowers upright. You don’t have to keep the whole T-shirt if you can just cut out the motif and sew it onto a canvas bag, a pillow or even a new T-shirt that actually fits. And my favourite thing of all is my ‘special box’. It’s a dark wooden box that for whatever reason is broken enough to require a special 36-degree upwards-eastwards pushing-pulling motion to open it, and it contains all the priceless stuff that you couldn’t make me chuck for love nor money. It has the plastic tiara my friends crowned me with on my last night in Berlin and my wristband from my first ever May Ball, and a lot of other tiny and private things. That’s why it’s so fantastic to throw things away: because then you get the pleasure of picking the few tiny and precious bits that make it into the box.

Congratulations! Your life now no longer has meaning!

Hey dude, sup. Just chilling. Word.

So, I did it. I sat a full degree’s worth of final exams and they are now completely behind me, never again to be touched until the examiners get their mitts on them. I revised for about 11 weeks, got through three books of lined paper, developed a variety of stress-related illnesses and wrote a blog entry about cheese graters. It was like wading through a swimming pool of congealing cold porridge, desperately trying to reach the sympathetic-looking lifeguard beckoning from the other side of the pool; and when you finally do get to him, you realise it was just a high-visibility vest propped up on a broom. The problem is that Oxford was always perfect for me in one way, in that I have to be busy and partially under stress at all times in order for me to really do or be anything worthwhile, and four years of marching about producing essays and library-hopping and running societies was the ideal habitat for a busy-body like this. Revision and exams was just a slight elevation of this, really. Then there is a sudden and almost surprising spurt of exhausting activity which really does feel like a spontaneous purgation of built-up mental fluid, and then all of a sudden, you’re on your own. You can relax!!


Except: what does that mean? For a start, it means gazing watery-eyed around my room regarding the sheer casualty of living that developed while I was glaring at irregular verbs. There are sacks of laundry, dirty and clean, everywhere; piles of mugs in every corner; incongruous things in all kinds of incongruous places (hiking boots in the recycling bin, mp3 player in a slipper, gloves in my bed); folders and notebooks smeared all over the floor and desk like the residue of autumn leaves that cover the street. My supplies-cupboard (which I like to call ‘the pantry’) used to contain most of my food and ‘supplies’ but now has been reduced to some Ryvitas, half a jar of pickles and thousands of dark chocolate Tunnocks teacakes which my mother brings me every time she comes to visit once a fortnight. My right eye is a large throbbing growth which arrived the day before my last exam and apparently is going to hang around for a few more days to soak up the atmosphere before it leaves me alone and returns me back to looking like a real human being and not half of Admiral Ackbar. Needless to say, some things need sorting out here before we can properly move on.


Then I suppose I’ll just be doing everything I’ve wanted to do for the past two months and haven’t been able to. I’m going to go to the garden and dig some things, go to the shops and buy more than just milk, maybe even find the time to treat myself to a trip to the doctors to deflate my eye. Go punting and visit the botanical gardens. Make some jewellery and paint my toenails. Collect some stories for you lot.

And beyond that, what? Are we adults now? Was that the poison-arrow-frog initiation test? You’d think it was from the way you emerge from the final one: blinking in the sunlight and hand still aching, you find a thronging crowd outside the exam building held back by riot gates, poised with tubes and bags of silly string and confetti and gooey things and powdery things and stainy things all waiting for their own one friend to come out so they can smother them with the stinking, crusty coating of ‘trashing’ ingredients that is their own way of saying ‘We love and admire you for your bravery’. The medics finished with me and of course got the royal treatment, which I can only imagine was the precursor to sheer apocalyptic hedonism because we all know what medics are like. I got flower garlands and one made of lined paper because I’m a classy gal and because we were once sent a very threatening email from our college warning us not to use food products for trashing because it’s offensive to homeless people who might look on in jealous peckishness (“I’d give anything for a raw egg mixed with cocoa powder right now…rich bastards…”). The weather is blistering, the day is young and there’s still one more box on the exam schedule that needs crossing out with a big red pen. I’ll catch you all later, bunnies.

Doing the Deutsch

Hi, can I get a Quorn Bratwurst in a quinoa tortilla please?” “Bugger off.”

This is Bratman. (Dunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunnanunna…) He is the new Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. The only Bratwurst seller on Cornmarket Street. I think probably the only one in the country. This is jarring to those of us who are used to seeing five or ten of these guys on every street corner even at 7am, filling the morning air with the warm, damp, porky mists of the morning Brat. I first encountered Bratman when I was meeting with my German tandem partner who immediately made a beeline for him as if he were selling kittens made of gold. His Bratwursts are made to a real German recipe and even the Brötchen (bread rolls) are the real Schrippen of my year abroad, made to a German recipe! (A Schrippe is a small and stiff snow-white roll that costs about fifteen cents at most and therefore seems to contain only ground newspapers and bleach, with the nutritional value of a plastic model of a ricecake.) One can only hope that Bratman represents the foetal stage of a nationwide revolution in open-air sausage consumption.

One of the few things that keeps me going here in Oxford and prevents my nonetheless inevitable plummet into mania is that the city contains a small, quiet, but persistent German underground who doggedly keep German values alive even within the dreamy British spires. There are quite a lot of them drifting around, if you know what to look and listen for; I can pick up the intonation of Germans chatting from a good few metres away and usually have to restrain the impulse to skip over to them and beamingly demand “Wie geht’s???” because for some reason when you know someone else’s language you suddenly feel like you have an unspoken kinship with them. It’s probably the same phenomenon as when you assume you know someone like a brother the minute you find out their birthday is two days after yours. There aren’t many of us here who have done the German thing and have come back to what should by rights be nothing but wall-to-wall tweed, but for those of us that have, it’s a pleasure to know that there are still a few places to get your fix of Germaction.

For a start there’s the Oxford Uni German society. Granted, the members of the German society are almost exclusively vaguely disconcerting business/law students from Germany who are here to find the quickest, directest and most ferocious route to riches and a glossy glass-clad executive office. I distinctly remember the one German I spent the entirety of the first meeting ‘chatting’ to: a very tall, gangly young man who looked like a young Jim Carrey and thought it was devastatingly hilarious conversation simply to force me to try to guess his name and age for about sixteen hours. Because of the target demographic, the events tend to err towards pleasing the masses and so they generally tend to be speeches from politicians, lawyers and generic business sharks, like Jack Donaghy without the knee-weakening voice. Sometimes, however, they really pull one out of the bag; a talk from the chief editor of Bild, Germany’s version of our shameful Sun newsrag, was deliciously brilliant. He oozed forth rhetoric like an ancient Greek, claiming that Bild was not only not reprehensible but also contributed to the educational and cultural foundation of Germany oh and by the way we would never do phone-hacking you philistines. Things like that – or the excuse to make a pair of Lederhosen out of Primark tat and wind my hair into plaited buns for a German-themed bop (“Alle meiner Entchen!!”) – make the membership fee worthwhile.

There is also the German Baker Man, a guy with a truck who comes to Oxford every Friday at an unjustly early hour to sell real German bread to people who appreciate that a real loaf is not a squashy cuboid of carbo-foam but should be dark mahogany, the size of a house brick and weigh two kilos. I haven’t been yet because Finals, but the first thing I’m going to do on that Friday after exams are over is run there and buy a real, soft, German pretzel. Oh god pretzels. Ihr fehlt mir so.

A brilliant ‘Typ’ called Golo (which is incidentally going to be the name of my firstborn child) has been organising a Stammtisch for the past year for all of us who want to speak in a more crispy language for an evening, and I have been one of its most devoted attendees. It’s great language practice, but more than that being at the Stammtisch is a bit like sitting cross-legged in the middle of your bedroom and getting out all your old cuddly toys just to squish them and look at them. It’s comforting and wonderful to be surrounded by a language I miss so much, to still be learning new and fantastic words and reminisce about things we share like missing Mehrkornbrot, lamenting how expensive booze is here and discussing weird things we’ve noticed about German television. I feel that in some way I can make a contribution in return, namely by informing them that Lidl does sell real black forest ham and reiterating how much I adore their country no matter how embarrassed or modest they might be about it.  

Germany is missing to me so much that I find ever more tiny ways to inject a little German-juice back into my days. The Co-Op did a sale on pickled gherkins lately and I am ashamed to say I did not hold back; I listen to Berlin radio every morning (“InfoRadio mit Irina Barbovsky – WOO!! WOO!! MONTAGSALARM!! – und jetzt das Wetter…”); I wrap my teabag around the spoon like they do, hell I even have my Kaiser’s trolley token still hanging on my keychain. My long-suffering college friend gets texted a German Word of the Day every day depending on what I’m revising whether she likes it or not. And now, of course, we also have Bratman. The Germans underground is gradually spreading overground, Oxford, and there’s nothing you can do to stop us…

Welcome to number 10

I promise, very few blog pictures will be as dull as this one.

Every story needs a setting. You, the reader (and I’m going to assume there’s only one of you out there), need to be able to imagine the place where the plot plays out, where your tortured writer sits hunched over her great work with a glass of absinthe and definitely not a Tunnocks marshmallow teacake but something much more bohemian. I thought I would use this first reunion post to set the scene and give you the ‘Monica’s apartment’ locale for the next few months’ worth of storyline.

I am a student at a college in Oxford – it’s a secret which one, because I want to stay anonymous to protect me from stalkers overwhelmed by my staggering beauty (ok, ok, I look like a beardless BeeGee) – and this photo above is the view from my window. I like to think of it less as a view and more as a sort of squirrelarium, as there are so many squirrels scampering up and down those trees all day it’s like one of those time-lapse videos of train platforms they sometimes show in the news for no reason. As you can see, even though it’s spring the tree on the left, my favourite of the two, has sprouted its leaves and they have already started to turn brown and die off. It takes a lot of effort not to interpret that as a metaphor for something bleak. What’s that fancy-looking balustrade in front, I hear you ask? That is my balcony. I cannot actually use it, of course, for the minute the room was awarded to me the college blocked up the windows to prevent people going onto the balcony for a relaxing chilled glass of Riesling and then spontaneously plummeting one storey to their death. The person who was here before me could use it, though, so it is now just a large and inaccessible collection of oddities (some might use the term ‘garbage’). Five thousand cigarette butts, one bud from some headphones, an old flowerpot, and a large metal coffee-bean scoop. What I want to know is whether all those items were used separately or were all used together in some kind of incredible party.
  

 

  This is the nest area, featuring the remnants of this morning’s revision and a zodiac pillow. The enormous hanging cloth is a giant batik sheet I got at a Berlin flea market from a lady who was determined to give me the hard sell for fifteen minutes despite the fact that I really wanted it and it was three euros and I already had the money there in my hand: “Drei!! Nur drei euros! Es ist doch echte Baumwolle! Nur drei! Drei nur! Baumwolle!” I have hung the sheet up against my wall as chic décor and a memento of better days but mostly to hide the huge and disconcertingly greasy stains smeared all over that wall which is already a shade I like to call ‘Infectious Dried Pus’. And yes, the elephants look like they’re ascending to heaven in some kind of Sri Lankan version of the Rapture but that’s the only way around that it will fit. One final point to be made is that it isn’t attached to the ceiling very well and so there have been nights where I will be watching a film or sleeping and then unexpectedly be draped in a huge blue tent which then takes an age to put back up and involves balancing a computer chair on a broken mattress.

 There isn’t much space in here, and the room is a divided poky compartment of what used to be one large and opulent room so everything is on a sort of slant. My bookshelf is diagonal and also leans forward at an alarming angle, and my ‘wardrobe’ might better be termed a ‘storage coffin’. It holds two dresses and a box of cereal. As you can see, the carpet is a colour which I think Dulux simply calls ‘Malaise’, and the curtains are long swags of gold velvet. There is a sink, a desk, and a mirror propped in front of the mirror because the original mirror is too high for me to actually see into. I am short.

The earring box is actually a drawer for old newspaper printing press dies from Fleet Street. It is the best thing in my entire room.

This is where I spend most of my days, and all of my nights. It is not just a bedroom but a study, coffee-shop, dining room, toast emporium and Grandma’s attic. The neighbour above seems to spend his days throwing mallets, the neighbour next door is brilliant and I’m sure more annoyed by me than I am by her, and breakfast is served between 7.30-9am following your complimentary wake-up call of the street sweeper bellowing past the window at 6am. Shoes optional, tea compulsory. This has been my life this year, and soon it won’t be any longer. Welcome to number 10.