Do fidem

I graduated on Monday.

What the hell, you guys. This was not supposed to happen, like, ever. I was meant to come to Oxford and be ridiculously happy and make friends and learn things and never, ever leave. All of those things happened, but now it turns out I have to leave.

Well, sort of. I’m still living in town next year. But I won’t be a student again for a while to come, and I sure as shootin’ won’t ever be an undergraduate again. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it turns out that it is really quite surprising.

The morning I graduated, I woke up so nervous that I felt sick. I’m still not sure why. It might have been motivated by a subconscious fear that my family would do something American and gauche, like cheer at a wildly inappropriate moment, or it might have had to do with the fact that I knew perfectly well what the day would entail: inhumane amounts of clothing experienced simultaneously with extreme heat, stress, uncertainty about where to go and what to do, and a general inclination of circumstances towards the unenjoyable. Actually, most things turned out fine. I had already pre-ordered the BA gown and hood, which is lined with white fur, from Walter’s, the shop where I’d bought both my commoner’s gown in first year and my scholar’s gown after Mods results. I’d completely forgotten about the problem of subfusc when I was packing up my house earlier this month, and had therefore put mine in storage, which forced me to buy an entirely new skirt, shoes and black ribbon for the graduation ceremony. But apart from that, which I’d taken care of before getting to Oxford, all of the regalia proved unproblematic. The woman at Walter’s, whom I’d spoken to on the phone, leaned to me conspiratorially as I left: “I’ve given you a nice hood,” she said in an undertone. (And she had.)

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

We were meant to show up at the lodge and leave our hoods in the rector’s lodgings, before attending a briefing by the Dean of Degrees on how to behave during the ceremony. I met both Darcy and the lawyer in the quad, with their respective families, and although I quickly lost track of the lawyer (finding him again later), Darcy and I went off to the dean’s meeting together. Our Dean of Degrees is one of the modern language tutors, who frequents chapel for the music, so although I’ve never met him officially, his was a familiar face. His duty in this instance is to present us to the Proctors and the Vice-Chancellor formally, to ask them to admit us to the degrees which we’ve worked for. There’s some onus on you as a student, as well; you have to bow at certain points, as a mark of respect, and you have to respond “Do fidem” (“I swear”) to the injunction to uphold the “statutes, privileges, customs and liberties of the University”. This question is posed in Latin, and, as the Dean warned us, it did not sound like a question. Consequently, there is a lot of bleating and mumbling as people try to work out whether their turn to assent has come or not. I think the graduating group of Exeter B.A.s did better than most. We were certainly an improvement on the two hapless men receiving one of the Masters degrees, whose incompetence so greatly surpassed the norm that it even flustered the officials.

There were, I admit, a couple of tricky moments. One of them was the point at which the Vice-Chancellor told us to applaud our families, who were all sitting in the uncomfortable, closely-spaced, high-banked seats of the Sheldonian, watching the ceremonies. He reminded us, pertinently, that we would not have succeeded without them. This is quite true, and it made me feel a bit weepy. (I could see, even from several hundred feet away, that my dad had already succumbed to the same impulse.) When we sat again, I pinched my wrist to deflect the weepiness, and watched the blue-and-rust mural of unidentifiable semi-pagan figures and painted clouds on the ceiling, waiting for the hot prickling sensation behind my eyeballs to disappear.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

After you say “Do fidem”, you are marched out of the side doors of the Sheldonian and into the Divinity Schools (a massive room in the Bodleian, where they filmed the infirmary in the Harry Potter films). All of our hoods were somehow moved into this room while we were inside, and the ritual is to don the hood before being paraded back through the Sheldonian, three by three, like a weird triumphal procession. I found my labeled bag without apparent difficulty, fastened the hood properly, and cast around for Darcy. He was standing by the window, hoodless. “Someone’s stolen mine,” he said with peculiar calm–so I waited, with the lawyer, for the Development Office minions to find a spare. As a result, we ended up the last three in the procession. “At least our parents will know which ones we are,” I pointed out.

The lawyer, whom I’ve known since freshers week, stood on my right; Darcy, on my left. “It feels rather appropriate to graduate with you,” the lawyer said. “End as you began, after all.” End as you began, and as you continued, I thought: with your friends. The doors opened. We walked in, and through, and bowed to the Vice-Chancellor, and out. We had degrees. We could officially put “B.A. (Oxon.)” after our names. We were really, truly finished.


But I’m not finished here.

I know I started this as an Oxford blog, but it’s become more than that–a travelogue, a sort of incubator for opinion pieces and sketches of places, people, events, a record of thoughts and doings–and I want to keep doing it. In the fall, it will move to a different website, and I’ll keep you all updated on that as it progresses. (I’ll also include a link to the new site here, when it moves.) Meanwhile, the summer beckons: I’m in York at the moment with my parents, which is a good chance to revisit a city I loved six months ago, and a further trip seems to be in the offing in August. Keep coming back, and I’ll keep feeding you!


Beginning-of-life crisis (or, You’re not a freak)

Although the Duchess (who’s seen me through many, many weepy outbursts) will tell you otherwise, I’m pretty good at hiding my existential terror from most people. If I don’t live with you, chances are, you think I’m completely okay. If I know you from around college, and you’ve asked me what my plans for next year are, I guarantee you I’ve given you some form of the following: “Well, I’d like to go into academia, but I need to earn some money to pay my way through postgraduate degrees, so I’m taking a year out to work in Oxford–I’ve signed a lease on a house with four friends–and I’ll apply for an M.St. next January.”

I almost certainly have not mentioned to you the following things:

a) I’ve already applied for that M.St., this past January. I didn’t get in. So, yeah, I need some cash, but I don’t really have a choice about it either. And, yeah, that makes me feel like a pretty big failure.

b) I’m terrified about the implications of that failure. The course I applied for is one of the most oversubscribed around (English lit 1550-1700), but what if that’s not the major reason? What if I actually cannot do the thing that I have spent my whole life believing I will do, the only thing that I have ever felt in any way good at or qualified for? And what if, when I apply again next year (to more than one university this time), it still doesn’t work? I mean, when might it be time to give up?

c) I’m terrified about next year. It’s not because I fear the world of work: I’ve worked before, all through high school and the summer after first year at Exeter, at the bookshop. But I got that job when I was fifteen, and my dad had been such a loyal customer there, how the hell could they not have hired me? (He bought me a book every Friday after I turned two. Every Friday. At primary school we had to do a counting worksheet where we counted things like how many stairs there were in our house, but also how many books we had. I don’t know if we were meant to count our own personal libraries or our parents’ books, but I did the former, and I had something like one hundred and thirty-five. You want to know why I did an English degree, that’s why. Thanks, Dad!) I mean, I turned out to be good at the job, but I don’t seriously believe that I actually got it because of my innate competence.

I’m terrified about next year because seriously what if I can’t find a job. I’ve already given up on doing anything “career-enhancing”: first of all, what does that even mean when you want a career in academia? Most people don’t use research assistants these days (thanks, Internet) and I’m pretty sure the ones who do don’t exactly pay them a living wage. And secondly, there don’t appear to be any “real” jobs in Oxford for someone who’s just finished a B.A. The closest thing I could find was a graduate traineeship in Jesus College library, which fell through (whatever, as if I wanted to be picking up the phone and going “Hello, this is Jesus” twelve times a day. Except I did. I totally did! Wouldn’t you?)

So I’ve been submitting my CV to cafes and trying to think things like: “This is fine, I can get a job or two waitressing somewhere, make some money through tips, and have a little time to focus on writing poetry, articles, maybe getting them published, doing some general reading–all the stuff I haven’t been able to do for three years.”

Which is a good mental strategy but only gets you so far. Because there’s that back corner of my brain that isn’t as tiny as I’d like it to be, and it keeps saying things like this: “So, what, you got a degree from Oxford? What’s that degree doing for you at the moment? You think you’re smart? Oh, okay. You must just be misunderstood, I guess. Especially by the graduate selection committee. What a shame.”

That corner of my brain is an asshole. I know this. Unfortunately, it’s a rhetorically gifted asshole. It is a modern-day Cicero, if you will. It is frequently very convincing.

Anyway, I don’t have a tidy moral lesson or a particularly happy ending for this post, I’m afraid. Fundamentally, of course, I have faith that things will turn out all right. In a way not quite religious but somewhat uncanny, I have been thinking, right from the moment of rejection, that this was meant to happen. Something out there–circumstance, if you don’t believe in anything else–wants me to have a year to explore my own life, before I go back to the rhythms of studying. But I am still really scared. I’m afraid that I won’t get a job, but I’m also afraid that if I do, this one year off will turn into two, then three, then a lifetime. That I’m signing up for a life of anxious mediocrity.

I think maybe it’s useful to let other people know that you can be scared. I keep feeling like a failure–as a Finalist, as a student, as an adult human being–for not having the thrilled anticipation that everyone else seems to have about the rest of their lives. There must be other people who feel the same trepidation. To you, fellow worriers, I have this to say: we are not failures. We will not be failures. We will be okay. It is all going to turn out right.

(But try not to drink alone too much. Really, that is too sad.)


…is, supposedly, the greatest feeling in the world.


Like most things that are supposedly great (nightclubs, Valentine’s Day and birthday parties spring irresistibly to mind, but I could think of more), it was never going to be able to live up to expectations.

Which isn’t to say that it was terrible. It was great to finish, great to scribble out one word at the bottom of an essay and write in a clarifying phrase just as the invigilator called time (rendering my handwriting shaky with adrenaline as well as cramp), great to throw down the pen for the last time and wait smugly for my script to be collected, great to walk down the stairs of the Exam Schools wearing a red carnation and smirking a little. It was great to have water thrown on me by my friends once I got back to college (although that took a long time, since I went to the bathroom and found, when I emerged, that the other English students had left without realizing that I wasn’t with them. Awkward.) It was great to have pasta afterwards. It was great to have two bottles of cava all to myself, have a disproportionately enthusiastic chat about Game of Thrones with another English finalist, tipsily crash the second-years’ Middle English class, lurk in the quad for the entire afternoon absorbing the resentment of everyone who hasn’t finished yet, devour a fajita, return home and watch an inebriated two episodes of How I Met Your Mother with Darcy before collapsing into bed. That was all wonderful. But it was also somehow deeply, unsettlingly weird.

I was given a balloon at some point after my trashing, and lost it within twenty-five minutes–I tried to tie it to a bench in the quad, and of course it floated away. I jumped for it but didn’t catch it, and off it went, its little blue body swaying drunkenly in the breeze (much as I was to do several hours later). Apparently, from the age of about three, I’ve always both had a talent for losing balloons and been utterly miserable about it (my mother told me this when I called her to reassure her that yes, I had finished, and no, I hadn’t fallen under a bus yet). But quite apart from this, it still made me feel ludicrously sad. This must happen to most people: reactions they know are out of proportion, but can’t do anything about. As the balloon went, so did most of the self-control which had (still has) prevented me from having a complete crack-up. I felt strangely weepy, and–in a stroke of brilliantly embarrassing behaviour–actually did cry, for about thirty seconds, in the front quad.

I’ve tried to rationalize this as the result of what, for lack of a more precise metaphor, could be called a very sudden loss of carbonation. For months I’ve been fizzing (simmering, maybe?) Every train of thought I’ve had has been subjected to interrogation; I’ve become accustomed to relentlessly examining my own opinions, trying to work out where they’re wrong or weak, or where they could go the extra mile and be really clever. This has rendered my thought processes infinitely (and irritatingly) self-conscious. And, although I have found that Oxford’s not nearly as  blatantly stress-inducing as other places appear to make their students–Harvard, for example, cultivates its own image as a hothouse of academic self-castigation, but I’ve never felt particularly pressurized by anyone other than myself here–a certain level of stress is inevitable. Still, since I’ve been my own harshest critic (as far as I know; possibly my tutors have just given up on me, but they’ve kept that to themselves if so), I couldn’t help thinking, and still think, that I should have been more unhappy, or at least more uncomfortable, while revising for Finals.

All of this may explain why the sudden disappearance of a balloon made me irrationally upset. Or why, when people keep asking me how I feel, I don’t quite know what to say (I’ve settled on “happy but directionless”, which keeps them content while still gesturing towards honesty).

However, I did go to the Trout yesterday afternoon with my aunt and uncle, who came down for a day visit, and the Duchess. It was sunny and we all had fish, which felt summery. My uncle was forced to order Pimm’s for me, my aunt and the Duchess, which he did with a sense of great shame and unmanliness (apparently Pimm’s is a sissy drink, perhaps because it has fruit in it). He tried to recover this with a large beer, which worked admirably. After lunch, we had a walk down by Godstow lock. Young cows wandered freely across the path, and we pointed them out to each other as well as the various buildings of Oxford’s skyline (we found Exeter chapel!) On the way back, another walker silently but excitedly pointed out a warren of baby bunnies, which appeared entirely unconcerned by people. We stalked them for several minutes, making squealing faces as they hopped about within a few feet of us. A boat was going through the lock as we came back, all blue and shiny silver. The woman standing on the prow called something to us as the boat descended, hard to make out, but we gathered that it was a houseboat, beautifully appointed and tidy. It seemed a particularly lovely evening, yesterday, for messing about in boats.

Trufax about taking exams; or, The sort of thing they ought to tell you in revision lectures, but which you end up finding out for yourself anyway

1st day: Morning exams are nice because there is every chance you’ll see people you know cycling in to college while you’re walking to your exam, and every chance that they will wave and shout “Good luck!” This will cheer you considerably.

2nd day: The first one is scariest. Of course it is; it’s a new environment and beginning is always the difficult bit. After your first exam, the whole process gets to be routine, fast. You’re still nervous, but you’re a lot less nervous.

3rd day: In at least one of your exams, some Weird Shit will go down. About twenty minutes into our Romantics exam, the room was filled by the sound of three haunting, guttural screams which sounded like they were coming from the echoing lobby of the Exam Schools. One hundred and fifty Finalist heads popped up from their papers and looked around; and one hundred and fifty Finalist heads thought, “Can’t afford to care” and went back down to the paper on the desk again. If that’s the way it has to be, that’s the way it has to be.

4th day: Your hand will get tired. The only piece of advice I heard from a tutor which I decided to implement immediately was to handwrite all of your revision notes, to give your muscles (more accustomed to typing in this day and age) a chance to get used to it. It was good advice. The joints in my right thumb keep swelling up anyway.

5th day: You will get tired. On the morning of the fifth exam, all the adrenaline is gone. We’re almost there, but we’re not quite there. Plus this was the medieval commentary paper, which no one likes. The only saving grace is that it’s only two hours instead of three. That, and knowing that after this morning, the next exam you take will be your last.

Days in between exams: If you have them, rejoice. The English exams don’t all fit neatly into a week. We have Saturday, Sunday and Monday off between our penultimate and our last. I’ve done no work this afternoon except to hang out in college on a bench and eat a Victoria sponge (and walk to the English faculty to pick up my alumni card–is this real life?) and it’s been great. Tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that will be plenty of time to do some last minute quote-solidifying.

And then… and then… I can’t even bring myself to think about life A.T. (After Tuesday) just yet. (Except that one of the other English students and I were having a chat in the quad about all the books we were going to read, and he said “I’m going to read Gravity’s Rainbow”, which is an extraordinary assertion even for someone who hasn’t just finished Finals. I told him I was going to read Game of Thrones, which is sort of true. I’ve got a pretty long list.)

This looks like fun…

Le dernier jour d’un condamné

(Inappropriate title? Perhaps.)

Pre-Finals, everyone needs to take a day off. I decided that I couldn’t refuse to work the day before they start (my plan is to take it easy, but to write out final plans and points and to solidify the quotes I’ve learned for the first exam, Shakespeare.) So I refused to work today, the day before the day before they start. It’s been lovely. I haven’t looked at any of my notes all day, or even any sort of book at all–I went so far as to remove all of my revision materials from the kitchen table before breakfast. They’re all upstairs, waiting for me to have a look at them tomorrow.

Some books and stuff, I guess

Some books and stuff, I guess

I slept in late. Like, properly late. Well, properly late when your body’s schedule is more used to you waking up at 7: I slept until 11:45, waking up only to turn over again or to register the kitchen door slamming as my housemates moved to and fro. Coming downstairs to find Darcy at the kitchen table, incommunicatively hunched over a laptop which contained some of his revision, I returned upstairs, where I ate fistfuls of granola to tide me over and waited for the Duchess to get out of the shower. Once she did, we went to M&S and bought an absolutely grotesque amount of food for a picnic. We’d planned to eat in the back garden/patio/barbeque area, but just as Princi and I were moving the little table out of the sitting room, it began to rain. Undaunted, we returned the little table, spread quilts and blankets on the floor, and had an indoor picnic, with smoked salmon, strawberries, blueberries, houmous, carrot batons, cheese straws, Spanish chorizo, mini scotch eggs and sausage rolls, chicken satay skewers, and other such middle-class delights.

Stomachs distended from our feast, Darcy and I waddled into town to see the new Star Trek film, while Princi went to a singing engagement (one of the glories of being a Finalist is the ability to refuse singing engagements) and the Duchess applied herself to an essay. (Guppy, sadly, missed the feast and Star Trek, being the current musical director of the Gilbert and Sullivan Society–yes, hello, Oxford stereotype! They’re now in rehearsals for a production of Utopia, Limited, to be staged later in term. He says it is, and I quote, “meant to be the shittest of all the G&S musicals”, which obviously means that it must not be missed when it opens.) The new Star Trek has many, many plot loopholes, some rather unconvincing motivation, and several scenes of explosionary mayhem which caused me to whisper frantically to Darcy, “Why are things exploding? Have I missed something?” He reassured me that he, too, had no idea why things were exploding, which at least suggests that the failure was on the part of the filmmakers. Still, it was worth seeing for the opening sequence alone, and for Benedict Cumberbatch, who really is excellent at being a psychopath. Makes you wonder.

The icy smolder. Nom.

After this rather sedentary afternoon, Darcy proceeded to make a chicken stir-fry which we probably didn’t need at all but which was delicious and comforting, and then Princi showed up with Casanova in tow and made mince with pasta, which she insisted that I eat, so two dinners, hooray for being a hobbit! She cooked while I watched Doctor Who (I’m way behind, no spoilers, I’m going to catch up once Finals are all over) and it was lovely and companionable. Casanova and Guppy went out to the shops and came back with two (!) bottles of red wine, which we didn’t manage to finish but which lent an air of general merriment to the evening:

Prof Guppy

Prof Guppy

Ain't give a damn

Ain’t give a damn

Pass notes: Finalists

[my thanks and acknowledgments to g2, the supplement of The Guardian, for the format]

Okay, what are Finalists, then? Seriously? Does what it says on the tin.

C’mon. Pretend I’m a total newcomer to the subject. Is that a cunning revision tip? Don’t give me cunning revision tips! That’s cheating! Also, everyone who marks you is definitively not a newcomer to the subject so that’s actually the worst advice you could possibly give me!

Calm down. NOOOOOOOokay.

So what’s a Finalist? Someone who’s about to take Finals.

And what are Finals? Well, most other places, they’re a set of exams you take at the end of every semester, because your classes end every semester, and they kind of add them all up at the end of three or four years. At Oxford, they’re a set of cumulative exams which you only sit at the end of your entire degree, and they’re literally the only thing that counts. In three years of work, your performance during one week (or ten days, sometimes) is the only thing taken into consideration.

…Right. Does it work? Sometimes.

And what kind of exams are they? Well, they’re a little different for everyone, but for English students, they’re three-hour essay exams (you get one hour per essay) which consist of profound quotations. You’re meant to pick a quotation, extract all possible resonances from it, and then write something which manages to both demonstrate your range of knowledge and stick closely and explicitly to the terms of the question, even though it’s possible you’ve never seen the quotation before.

Can I have an example? Welp, here’s one from last year’s Shakespeare paper: “Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?/Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy.” (Sonnet 8)

So, um, how do you study for that? Alternating steady work and frantic panic. Most people start to revise their work for the past year and a half over the Easter holidays before Trinity term.

And what’s Trinity term again? Ffs. Haven’t you been reading this blog for the past three years?

Humour me. Summer term: April-June. Famous (or infamous) for punting, Pimm’s, college balls, croquet tournaments, everyone you know suddenly hooking up with everyone else you know (it’s the sunshine), and Finals.

Where do Finalists spend most of Trinity? In the library. Duh.

I see an awful lot of you in the quad or the fellows’ garden. Study break.

For three hours? SHUT UP.

I also see a lot of first years and second years taking up spaces in the library. Don’t even talk to me about that. The other day I heard a second year complaining about how there were no seats and I nearly punched them.

So the stereotypes about crazy bitchy Finalists are true. Oh, so true. It’s kind of hard to talk to anyone in any other year because they simply have no idea what you’re referring to when you say “I’m stressed.” They go, “Oh yeah, me too, I went to Park End/Bridge/Junction every night this week and now I have to pull an all-nighter to finish my essay.” Then you just want to hit them again.

That kind of impulse to violence doesn’t seem very healthy. Nope.

Everything’s going to be fine, you know. You’ve worked hard and you know a lot of stuff. That’s what everyone says.

Do say: “Can I buy you a cup of tea?”

Don’t say: “When do they start?”

I need a sunburn

I know I promised not to freak out too much here, about revision or life in general, over the next few weeks, but it seems as though I frequently gloss over or ignore the less positive parts about being a student; I pretend they haven’t happened or I don’t write about them, and it doesn’t feel right sometimes, that sort of lying-by-omission. Oxford is wonderful and rewarding and it has probably saved my life, but it is also hard and exhausting, and if that hasn’t come through in the past few years’ worth of posts, it ought to come through, just a little bit, now. Here’s the truth of what’s happening now: I’m tired of this.

I’m tired of the weather. I’m tired of the chilly winds, the mild drizzle, above all the ceaseless greyness of the sky. I’m tired of not seeing the sun all day, of being woken only by the lightening of grey outside my window, of going through twelve hours that are like a prolonged dusk before the encroachment, in the evening, of darkness, that quality of light at six or seven o’clock in the afternoon that makes you feel the rest of the evening will be hopeless and makes you want to go to sleep immediately, without any dinner. I’m tired of trying to revise all day and not being able to do seven or eight solid hours and feeling as though I’m not doing enough because I so quickly reach the point where I can’t do anymore, can’t focus hard enough, where I’m simply forced to take a break. I’m tired of trying to watch what I eat and failing because I don’t want salads or sensible yogurts when it’s only ten or fifteen degrees above freezing and raining every day; I want sausages and potatoes and sticky toffee pudding instead, but they fill me with guilt and, because I’m a diabetic, that food makes it harder for me to concentrate and work well anyway. I’m tired of wanting to go outside every day but finding, when I get out, that it’s utterly unrewarding, because of the raw or stinging cold, a stiff breeze, dampness hanging uncharitably in the air. Above all, I am so bloody tired of winter.

I want last year’s spring back again. I want sunshine to be hot and golden on my back. I want the fields dense with tall green grass and dotted with sweet flowers. I want the blackthorn winter of white blossoms scattered so thickly upon hedges that it looks like snow. I want the delirious blue of the sky. I want the wink and glare of the sun setting on a clear day and lighting up the back garden. I want to be able to sit outside again with a cider or a G&T and read in the sun loungers. I want to wear dresses without tights. I want to go all day without feeling the need to consume pasta or bread or starch of any kind. I want to feel better.

Above all, I really want Finals to be over.

They haven’t even started.