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. 

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!

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…