Not dead yet (well, perhaps brain dead…)

Beautiful when it’s on a flower. Hell when it’s soaking into your trousers.

I am the sole editor working on a digital publication which is due to go live in June next year. The amount of work that needs to be done between now and then is the work originally destined to be done by two people, one with far more experience than myself. One of the jobs is to sort and edit a list of vocabulary, adding in individual feedback options for specific correct and incorrect answers, totalling roughly 3,000 words. I work in an office, and I have my own cubicle. The result of all this being? Seven hours a day spent glaring at a computer screen. 

Words on a screen have started to decompose into oscillating lines in front of me now. I imagine them warping into surreal dancing figures like some weird 1960s cartoon set to experimental jazz. I have ceased ‘typing’ and have reached the stage where I just flagellate my fingers at the keyboard and whack the letters in like the actions of an octopus suffering a tremendous electric shock. Microsoft Word keyboard shortcuts and Alt codes are wired into my tendons. I read newspapers by lifting the page upwards in quick bursts because I can only read now in the jerky up-and-downyness of a scroll button. I am a German editing machine.

This vocab editing is probably the most punishing part of the project so far. The vocab testing component of the publication is vital, mostly because the poor guys in digital spent many hours and cried many tears trying to programme a vocab-testing template that would actually work and take into account all the ridiculous vagaries words necessitate: did you realise how many synonyms there are for full-cream milk, all of which ought to be marked correct if typed in and therefore have to be programmed into the system so that students don’t get penalised for typing ‘whole milk’ when it’s clearly the same thing? Then there are accents, which are their own can of bloodthirsty tapeworms, because they are different for different languages and although it will cost us a ridiculous amount of money to programme the French ‘é’ into the German foreign characters pad we can’t not because ‘café’ is such an important word. 


The important thing is that we end up testing the students on all of the vocab included in at least one exam board core-level specification, because that is the best (least worst?) yardstick there is for finding a base level of the minimum number of words you might need to complete a GCSE in German to a basic degree of competency. The spec we used, Edexcel, is frankly shameful; there is an actual booklet that students are supposed to print out and learn by wrote, and the booklet makes it unequivocally clear that students will be expected to know all of these words to at least scrape a pass. The list has clearly been sellotaped together by a gang of gibbons with some scissors and a dictionary. It is rife with spelling mistakes, genuinely incorrect translations and genders, and a truly inexplicable choice of words (‘banana’ appears in the list no less than ten times, yet the students are never expected to learn the word ‘animal’). Thanks to this mountainous heap of bollocks on which an entire qualification has been based, I have had to meticulously scrape through this selection of thousands of words deleting repetitions, correcting errors, adding in ‘sich’ for reflexive verbs and other silly bits of housekeeping which take hours and make my retinas crumble into something resembling muesli. 

The tragic thing is that I discovered this booklet before I started. My lovely Mexican colleague, who is on Spanish, didn’t know there was an electronic version available, and typed every single word in the Spanish spec in by hand. When I then discovered that the booklet had been extended since her first collation and new essential words had been added, meaning that she would now have to look through the new booklet and check through her whole list to see what had to be added, she looked at me with such heartbreaking sorrow in her eyes that I felt like a war criminal. 

That’s the ‘core’ list. Then, to make the list extend to the kind of vocabulary higher-level students might aim for, I had to compile a list of more advanced words based on the course structure this digital product is built upon. It’s a slightly wild and left-field selection of ideas when you get to the higher-tier stuff in this course, so this means that higher students will be learning basic words like ‘bread’ and ‘youth hostel’ alongside ‘desertification’, ‘individualist’ and ‘ice-blading’, whatever the heck that last one is. It’s not really within my power to add the kind of words I would want to know into the selection, so sadly they will never learn ‘hedgehog’, ‘moustache’ or ‘unbelievable’. 

As I mentioned, each word needs to have the translation added for it and then potential synonyms so that students don’t get told they’re wrong for getting the gist but putting it in different words. This is difficult. There are thousands of ways to say ‘pleasant’, but since they all basically mean ‘pleasant’ if you’re struggling through an oral exam and you just want to say your holiday was nice, you deserve to get a mark for guessing any of them. My job is to look into the future and think of all the different words and variations people might guess. Then, of course, there are potential wrong answers. Thankfully the Company have deemed that it would be insane to have to enter in every single possible wrong answer the student could give, but we do have to have a couple of specific ones for the occasions when the student might have forgotten the right gender and need a useful hint to pop up that says ‘Hey dude. Did you really think that ‘waitress’ was a masculine noun?’ Unfortunately this means these possibilities must be typed in for every. single. noun. Every noun needs a feminine, masculine and neuter entry without a capital letter (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget that German nouns always start with a capital letter’) and the two incorrect gender entries (‘That’s incorrect. Don’t forget to choose the right gender’). It’s important though, because if you’re miserably ploughing through tons of dry vocab the least you deserve is a bit of feedback reminding you that you were on the right track but you just needed to think a little bit harder. It’s a shame that we can’t also account for morons who spell ‘advise’ and ‘advice’ the wrong way round and that kind of thing, but what do you guys want from me? I’m only one person!

Why am I bothering to spend so much time on this and do it so meticulously? Because I have studied German to the end of degree level and I can say without doubt that the majority of real German-learnin’ time gets spent rattling through vocabulary. It’s monotonous and it’s dry and the genders really get on your biscuit (one of my favourite German expressions). You have to do it for life. And in the end, you have to learn to enjoy it and love packing your mind with hundreds of useful words because grammar is the skeleton of a language and the words are the meaty, juicy bits that flesh it out to make a magnificent body. The more words you have, the more you ‘own’ the language; feeling eloquent is almost a form of power, because eloquence is the power to express what you want to say in exactly the right way so that people know not only what you want to say but how you want it to be heard. And when you’re being asked what you think about ‘drug taking among young people’ it’s great to be able to say what you mean, not just a key phrase about the dangers of parties.  

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.

I wonder if revision is detrimental to the kidneys…

Cup of tea no. 134. Of this day.

Writing a blog entry after an exam? Wow, now that’s a professional. That’s a real writer. That’s a blogger we want to employ for our television and soup making business, they’ll say.

Or maybe not. Either which way, if you deciphered the slightly cryptic previous post, the reason for my absence was the down to my exams FINALLY starting. Thanks to the preposterous system this university insists on keeping going from the early middle ages, my (and most other people’s) final year exams make up the entirety of their degree grade for the entirety of their course. Four whole years worth of reading and typing and scrawling and lecture-sleeping and small-child-humouring have gone towards these few precious hours in which I get to prove that I’m not a true moron, after all. The system is so amazingly wrong that I am going to have to explain it to all of you who are not aware of what happens here when the final exams begin for the first time to flicker their shadows over the distant horizon.

Ok, so first things first. We’re doing our final year at Oxford. That means that from the very start of term we’re going to have to endure a lot of ominous and frankly unnecessary warnings from our professors that we simply have no time to lose at this point. This, of course, is patently a lie as these professors are the people who are going to spend the next few months wasting our time with vigour and aplomb. We’re also going to have to contend with the fact that us fourth-years have just been on a year abroad and now are going to have to have a quick read over everything we studied almost two years ago – oh yeah, and then sit entire papers on it. We’ve got to do a break-neck dash through a few new topics, spend two eight-week semesters lurching from essay to pub, and then finally get down to revision in the Easter holidays when everything is finally starting to not be cold, grey and just so damp all of the time. 

Then we have to get our Fusc and Sub Fusc sorted. Sub Fusc is our exam uniform: a white shirt, black skirt/trousers and black shoes with a black ribbon tied around the neck for the girls and a white bow-tie for the boys. Oh, and why is it called Sub Fusc? Because it goes ‘sub’ (under – come on!) the ‘Fusc’, the big, black, flappy, pointless gown that undergrads have to wear to add the misshapen cherry to the clumsy-looking cake. If you did ok in your first year exams you get a funny square sleeveless gown with long straight strands hanging down from the shoulders which sort of makes you look a bit like you’re wearing a broken set of window blinds. If you managed to get good grades in your first year exams you have the privilege of shelling out almost fifty quid for a big billowy gown with sleeves which is a cross between the lovely drapey things they wear in Harry Potter and the enormous decomposing carcass of a bat. It is important to note here that the first year exams count towards absolutely nothing beyond the question of whether or not you will be allowed a gown with sleeves. You will also need a mortar board, which you will have to carry around like a clipboard but YOU MAY UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES PUT IT ON. We joke, but there are actual monetary fines in place for the wearing of your mortarboard before you have graduated. I have never even let my mortarboard anywhere near my scalp because of the sheer taboo of it, as if simply putting it on on my own in a locked room would nonetheless incur some kind of destructive karmic revenge. 


Next, it’s time to throw away all of the lecture notes you ever made, because unlike most universities where lecture series are given depending on what might be of most use and interest to the students according to what they are studying, the lectures given here are more a selection of unrelated and strange themes brought to you by the few members of the English Faculty who are devoted, chatty or in-trouble-with-the-faculty enough to feel the urge to get off their arse and actually do a lecture series. Every term reading the lecture list is like being offered a chocolate from a 4/5ths empty box of Celebrations: “Oh…umm, aren’t there any Maltesers ones even? Ok, thanks I suppose I’ll have a Seventeeth Century Fungus Ballads on Stage and Screen if that’s all there is…” 


And now you will work, and once you’ve finished working you will work some more because this is the one chance you get to use all of that knowledge and reading you accumulated over this brief but intense period of scholarly dilettantism. Friends of yours will look at you with sad and sympathetic eyes as you shuffle mournfully into the kitchen to microwave your seventeenth cup of tea, you will perhaps stop shaving your legs and you will spend your children’s inheritance on coloured stationery items in the dogged belief that the more rainbow fineliners you have the higher your mark will be. And then things will begin, slowly but steadily, to go wrong.


During the revision period or any period of intense personal effort and struggle, small and isolated things choose that moment to go tits up, in the determination to rob you of your time, energy and mental integrity. One morning’s revision was interrupted by the disheartening sound of my mini-fridge grinding to a sudden death; another morning I awoke to find that my eye had swollen to a squidgy red golfball-size, to the horror of the poor tutor I had to see that day; my radiator broke and flared to the temperature of the molten innards of the sun…another recent joy is that my alarm clock has begun to stutteringly break down but only on certain unpredictable days, meaning that some days I am woken up to the interesting mixture of John Humphrys, Classic FM and some traffic radio bint from BBC Oxford, and on some days I am not woken up at all. Like today, when I had a morning exam. Not to worry, chums, I have been setting another alarm clock to go off five minutes after the first one just in case, but I mean it really is the living end.

Now you have to sort out your carnation. No, not the condensed milk, the flower – it’s tradition for students taking exams here to wear a carnation to their exams pinned to their gown, for the double joy of having a bulky floral pompom on your breast and an open needle ready to snag your tender skin. You are given your pompom – sorry, carnation – by your college child, who is the student allotted to be under your maternal care when they begin their time at college and whose carnation you bought when they sat their first year exams. If you are a returning languages student your child becomes your colleague and it all gets very complicated and in the end some flowers somehow arrive at you by wonderful underground clockwork. Complicated? Well, it doesn’t stop there, because of course there is also a colour code, white for the first exam, pink for the middle, and red for the last one. It symbolises – and this is true – the blood gradually shed by the student as they fight through each paper, one by one; although I prefer to see my pink carnation as a metaphor simply for my own sanity as it gradually gets withered and mushy over time. In my first year exams my pink carnation actually shed petals onto the paper as I closed the booklet of my penultimate module, a poignant reminder that life is an endless but slow march of decay. As I say, it’s a charming tradition.


Then – oh, then – you have to go to your exam. You stick your pens and university card into the hat-bit of your mortarboard because it’s really only useful as an inadequate pencilcase, and then you enter the colossal exam room, an elaborate hall with huge Hillaire Belloc-style clocks and lion sconces and incongruous pulpits all over the place. The chief examiner will read out the exam regulations and then, in the couple of minutes before you begin, say something jovial and sweet like “And now…think beautiful, restive thoughts…” 


Then threehoursofsolidwritingandnotverygoodquestionsandnotbeingabletorememberandrememberingotherthingswhichyoucanwritedownandparaphrasingandalmostherenowonemoreessaytodothreeessaysinthreehoursmyhandmyhandohgodmyhandohgriefwriteaconclusionanyconclusionandfinish.


And then you go home. Let’s do it again tomorrow!