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.  

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.

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!