Just put on my travelin’ shoes

I’ve never really moved before.

It’s true that I moved to 52 Cowley from college at the beginning of second year, but that was nothing. When you live in, you have to move all of your stuff in and out of your room at the beginnings and ends of terms anyway, so you have much less latitude to acquire things. I had even less latitude because I don’t have parents who can come and pick me up in the car, so when I was living in, all of my belongings had to fit in four transparent plastic storage boxes (which could be left in college) or, if it was stuff I actually wanted to take away with me like clothes, two wheelie suitcases, a backpack and a hefty handbag. Getting the plastic storage boxes from college to Cowley Road involved a single taxi trip.

Having lived in the same house for two years, though, I’ve never had to move any of my stuff anywhere. Now, my lease runs out in two weeks, and I own a lot more than I did when I first moved in.

Much of this accumulated stuff is books. My course was, to say the least, reading-heavy (that is the funny thing about English), so my degree required me to have a lot of books. I want to hold on to most of them, too–though I’ve managed to give away Ben Jonson’s collected poems (I hate Jonson), and a copy of Faulkner’s Light In August that’s too tatty and run-down to be of any use. I’ve had better luck with the books I’ve acquired independently, giving away (with some sadness) Graham Greene’s The Human Factor, Robert Graves’s The White Goddess, the magisterial Moby-Dick (which I’m pleased to have read, but which I shan’t want to read for a long time to come.) I’ve decided not to give away any books that were given to me, like the copy of David Sedaris’s Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls that my parents sent me after Finals, or the Arden Troilus and Cressida that Darcy picked up for me in a second-hand bookshop.

I’ve been trying to work on the one-in-one-out principle so beloved of bouncers: I’m not allowed to acquire more books than I give away. The snag in this plan is Blackwell’s, which is running a 3 for 2 deal on most Vintage books, and a buy-one-get-one-free on Oxford World’s Classics. I picked up five books there this afternoon, and so I’m giving away another five tomorrow. It’s an arduous process but there’s nothing else for it. (I’ve always had this problem: the books my dad used to buy me would accumulate in my room until the floor was invisible. Sometimes I would find them in my bed. I cleaned up twice a year, usually sending two or three brown paper grocery sacks’ worth of books to the Salvation Army or the library on Gordon Avenue.)

There are also no more readily accessible plastic boxes, so I popped over to Boswell’s this afternoon (after Blackwell’s–why are so many Oxford shops named for possessive nouns that start with B?) and got some. My ever lovely uncle has promised to come up from Bournemouth and take winter clothing and duvets back with him for the summer, so in some ways it won’t be as much of a challenge as it was in first year. It’s kind of exciting, actually. I feel a little bit more like a grownup now. Moving’s what grownups do, right? In August I’ll sit on the floor in my new house, surrounded by boxes, and eat some takeaway before unpacking, maybe from the Thai restaurant across the road. I don’t know how many times I’ll move in my life, but I think that’s meant to be one of the fun bits: discovering your new neighborhood (even though it’s only a couple blocks away.) Taking all of your stuff out of its packaging and then acquiring some more. Making yourself at home.

There’s something to look forward to, after all.


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.)

Sweet Omelettes and Operettas

The other day Darcy, who surprisingly both likes cooking and is good at it, made a sweet omelette. They’re much like normal omelettes, only you add a great deal of caster sugar to the mixture, and the filling is berries. He was ever so pleased with it. So was I, because it was delicious.

Just like in a fancy-dancy cookery book! Isn't it nice.

Just like in a fancy-dancy cookery book! Isn’t it nice.

Summery, juicy berry-ness.

It’s a summery, juicy mess.

Anyway, here’s the recipe if you’re interested in that kind of thing. Three things are different: 1) we didn’t limit the filling to blueberries (because WHO WOULD. Really.) 2) The frying pan doesn’t need to go in the oven to heat up, just put it on a low heat on the hob. 3) The berries didn’t go in a saucepan on top of the stove; they got sprinkled with caster sugar, mixed around in a bowl, and left in the oven at 200C for a few minutes, til they’ve caramelized and maybe burst a bit.

Further to summery joys, we went to see Guppy’s show last night: Utopia, Limited, a satire on colonialism and limited liability companies, among other things. It’s a Gilbert & Sullivan, but so infrequently performed that Guppy had to write to the D’Oyly Carte opera company (who premiered all the G&S shows when they were written) and ask them for scores. They sent him back a number of handwritten orchestral parts, which are bound in fading blue cloth and transcribed in indigo ink, with some pencilled notes in the margins but a very stern notice pasted onto the front saying that marking of these scores is PROHIBITED IN THE STRONGEST POSSIBLE TERMS AND VERY HIGHLY IMMORAL TOO.

The show is infrequently performed because it’s supposedly not very good, but the production we saw yesterday was so intensely enjoyable that I can’t see why its reputation is so poor. Actually, I kind of can. The satire is very unfocused: comedy is mainly generated through the peculiarly English device of laughing at one’s own absurdity, but whereas in other G&S productions specific institutions are mocked–the House of Lords in Iolanthe, the Royal Navy in HMS Pinafore–in Utopia, Limited you’re never really sure what the Target, with a capital T, is meant to be. It could, I suppose, be limited liability companies, but that really only enters into the last third of the plot. It could also be forms of government more generally (the “despot” of Utopia is entirely under the thumb of his two Wise Men and the Public Exploder, who is licensed to blow him up with dynamite should he stray towards any exercise of actual power.) But again, the exploration of that theme isn’t particularly sustained. The idea of “government by party”, which is introduced as a way of keeping the lawyers, doctors and legislators of Utopia in employment and preventing too much social progress, is something of a deus ex machina, mentioned in the final scene more as a throwaway line or a cheap giggle. Several things made up for the vague comedic charge of the libretto, though: the poignantly ridiculous situation of the king of Utopia; the relationship between him and his daughters’ governess, the redoubtable professional Englishwoman (a la Anna in The King and I) Lady Sophy; the performance of the actor playing Captain Fitzbattleaxe (yes, yes), whose aria about trying to sing whilst in love was probably the show’s musical highlight; and the glorious interaction between the Escort First Life Guards (all garbed in lifeguard shirts, for obscure but amusing reasons) and the daughters of the Utopian king, who spent an entire musical number attempting to gain the attention of the men with increasing degrees of desperation. Basically, it was entertainment at its silliest and most innocent, and it was wonderful. Guppy’s musical direction should not be shortchanged, either; every time I glanced over, he was practically on tiptoe with concentrated energy, and in the final number he actually jumped into the air, which was just perfect.

Flora and fauna of the Cowley Road: A bestiary of student housing

Here’s something I can’t believe I’ve never talked about: the creatures that invariably share your dwelling with you when you’re paying minimal rent for a cheaply built house. Nature isn’t content to stay outside your box. In the wintertime, it wants in because it’s cold (and can you blame it, poor thing); in the summertime, it wants in because it’s warm (a little less likely in England, I grant you.) At 52 Cowley Road, we’ve been gifted with two particularly outstanding forms of Nature over the past two years.

The first was mice.

I’m not meant to write that because if the Duchess’s mother finds out, she’ll never come to visit us any more, but the lease runs out in July anyway so hey, worth the risk. (Also my mother, if she finds out, would never come to visit us any more, but then she hates the house anyway–last time she refused to go in the kitchen at all.) Our new house is a million times nicer, Mums United, I swear.

Anyway, mice. I can’t imagine why I didn’t write about this last year because it was a serious occupation of ours for quite some time during Hilary. The damn things knew no fear. Once we were all in the kitchen (this was when Bunter was still with us) and we opened the door to see a little furry fellow sitting in the middle of the carpeted hallway. He only scurried away when I actually moved towards him, and disappeared into the wall between the hall and the sitting room, which did not bode well at all. With some trepidation we installed traps. The sissy-looking ones with the fake cheese came first (as if mice are at all bamboozled by fake cheese. The only reason humans recognize that yellow triangle of plastic as cheese is because we understand stylization. Mice, I would imagine, do not.) After that, we drafted in Darcy’s dad, who has a farm and knows how to deal with pests. He brought down to Oxford a series of farm mousetraps staggeringly reminiscent of the Spanish Inquisition’s interrogation tools, all teeth and spikes. None of these were even remotely effective. Only the installation of a little black plastic plate, which glows with a strange blue light and which apparently emits a frequency too high for human ears, had any result: no more mice. [edit: Darcy has since informed me that his father also put down “enough poison to kill a small tiger”, as did Warren, our delightful mustachioed handyman. Disillusioned.] It was only several weeks later, when Darcy began to appear in the kitchen looking dismal and holding a succession of gnawed socks and ragged jumpers, that we discovered how our small lodgers had truly occupied themselves.

The second wave of cheerful emissaries from the Great Outdoors has been slightly less cuddly.

I came in from Schools dinner (a formal meal with your tutors and coursemates post-Finals, in which you eat rather less than you drink) on Thursday night, or rather early morning, full of what, for euphemistic purposes, I shall call the milk of human kindness. (The milk of human kindness, it turns out, comes in three varieties: red, white, and sweet. We’d had rather a lot of all three.) The Duchess was still awake and in the kitchen, in the company of a large grey-yellow slug, which she was contemplating with the appearance of someone calculating the distance to the nearest salt shaker.

I’ve always liked slugs. I don’t know why, but they strike me as kind of poignant. I mean, they are probably the most poorly-endowed creatures on earth re: evolutionary defense mechanisms. All they have is slime. It doesn’t seem very fair in comparison to, I don’t know, the poison dart frog or the Komodo dragon. It just makes people go “Eww, gross!” and then try to kill them. As an evolutionary strategy, disgusting other organisms so much that they actually wish to destroy you seems piss-poor, to put it mildly. Anyway, I have a fondness for slugs. According to the Duchess, I marched into the kitchen (or, as is more likely, I stork-walked into the kitchen; bear in mind that I’d had a lot of the milk of human kindness, and my heels are three inches and skinny), stopped dead, bent down and picked up the slug. Our conversation then, apparently, went something like this (my conversation with the slug, I mean. Obviously.): “Hey, little buddy! What’re you doing inside? Let’s take you back out again, okay? You’re a nice little slug. Here”–I must have opened the back door–“you can sit on this leaf”–I think I remember depositing him on a piece of green weed growing between the tiles–“Okay, you just stay out there, okay? I’m sorry I have to put you out. Don’t get too cold.” I shut the door to the sound of the Duchess murmuring something which might have been, “You’re so weird.”

Lest you think this was a fluke, I found another one–it might have been the same one–this evening, when I opened the door to the shower. Now, that was something of a shock: I was stone cold sober and only wearing a towel, both of which circumstances tend to produce less charitable reactions to…well…almost anything. But, I’m proud to say, I did not scream, nor flee, nor reach for the nearest noxious chemical/condiment with which to destroy the slug. I picked him up (with some difficulty–ever tried to get something slimy off a damp tile?), took him outside and put him on the same leaf. If he comes back again, he’ll have earned the right to a name.

And if you read this and think for even one minute that I am sad and pathetic and weird, then I urge you to do two things. One: take Finals and then, when you’re done, see how full of love and benevolence you are towards literally everything living (except for the Board of Examiners). Two: try being a slug for a day. It’s a hard life, and it’s a cold night. I kind of hope he makes it back inside.


…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