…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.

Rainy, shiny, night or day

Hello, gentle snowflakes, from the utterly deluged, indeed saturated, West Sussex-Hampshire border! It’s the second week of the Easter vac and I’ve just got stuck into revision for Finals: eight-hour days, early mornings, early nights, and lots of reading. Unfortunately, I am not a revision machine. I can’t work for fourteen hours at a stretch (though I know some people who can), and I can’t do nothing but revision all the time. Most of us can’t. Herewith, a few of the things that have been working for me, so far:

Learn to do something. English isn’t really a skills-based subject. (Well, I mean, it is, but they’re very abstract skills. You learn how to use your mind, not your hands.) I haven’t had to learn how to do something really practical and basic for years–probably the last time was when I was about fifteen and Mum insisted that I at least learn how to boil water for pasta. The Revered Ancestors, with whom I am staying, have a proper log fireplace, and today I asked how to lay a fire. It was quite a revelation (I had no idea there were so many ingredients: newspaper, twigs, kindling, coal and finally the logs on top of all that!). Moreover, it helps you feel that you’ve at least accomplished one concrete thing today, which is comforting if the reading’s going badly, and further vindication if the reading’s going well. (Also, in my case, it means there’s now a fire crackling merrily away, which is very cozy.)

The village from the top of Harting Down (not today, obviously)

The village from the top of Harting Down (not today, obviously)

Get outside. So, okay, it has been raining, which has made it difficult to walk, but I love walking, once a day at least and twice if I’m up early enough to take the dogs. Walking is a very effective way of relieving tension and feeling as though you’ve done something nice for yourself. I have two favorites when I’m here in the village: one takes you nearly the length of the village, up North Lane and then down the long field on the other side. The other is to head in the opposite direction, up New Lane, which leads you right to the foot of Harting Down. There is a path that goes straight up the side, and it does make you feel terribly good about your cardiovascular activity if you follow it. It branches halfway up; the rest of the ascent ahead is dangerously steep, but the footpath carries on to the side along the shoulder of the Down, rising gently, and you get to the top more easily that way. The views are stunning: miles on either side, and in one direction, if it’s a clear day, you can see all the way to Portsmouth, which is really very good. Unfortunately I suspect the footpath will be muddily impassable at the moment, so I haven’t been up there yet.

Control what you eat, and, if possible, when. This is probably a personal thing, and some of you will undoubtedly consider this bizarre, but I find it a lot easier to cope with a day when it’s broken up by meals at specific times. If I know how long my mornings and afternoons are going to be, I can plan what I’m going to read or get done in that span of time. Controlling what I eat is partly because, being a diabetic, a sedentary lifestyle is the worst one possible, so if I’m going to be sitting down all day, I need to not be eating biscuits every fifteen minutes (which, permit me to assure you, I would do, and have done.) A small breakfast, lots of water, hot lunch with many vegetables and a slightly smaller dinner tends to work pretty well.

Read something irrelevant. Several things irrelevant, in this case. I’ve got two books on the go at the moment. One is Doctor Thorne, the third book in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series. I absolutely adore Trollope for comfort reading. He’s funny and irreverent, but his novels are gentle enough that you know nothing will happen to seriously upset you. (Especially the rural ones. In fact, being chez les Revered Ancestors is a lot like being in a Trollope novel.) He’s also clever and articulate–the Palliser novels, his other big project, are really incisive on Victorian political life, and The Way We Live Now, which I read over Christmas, is probably his masterpiece. It’s not vapid, but it’s not complicated, either: perfect for relaxing after a day grappling with medieval mystics and their contemporary critics.

In the beautiful new Penguin English Library edition. I love attractive books.

In the beautiful new Penguin English Library edition. I love attractive books.

The other book is Nigella Express, which I’m reading cover to cover. You’d think that this would make my self-imposed strictness of diet more difficult, but in fact I like to look at the pictures, and every time there’s a recipe without too much bacon or cream (admittedly infrequently), I jot it down. More abstractly, it’s also very nice to read something without a plot. No one should ever underestimate the delights of reading cookbooks cover to cover for this very reason. Having wrestled with literary criticism all day, there is little more delightful than being able to read something for which your powers of memory are not at all necessary.