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December 11, 2012

'Tis the season to be excessive

My mother sent me an advent calendar last week. She does this every year, without fail. No matter that I am old enough to enter places which sell advent calendars on my own, or that thanks to the generous funding of the Economic and Social Research Council, I can just about scrape together the cash to purchase my own collections of novelty chocolate: she has done it every year since I arrived at university. I ain’t complaining.

This year the advent calendar has a Power Rangers theme. I’m not too sure how many people remember the Power Rangers, but when I was younger I was obsessed, with a capital U for unhealthy. When green/white ranger Tommy arrived on the scene, I was so smitten that I decided that, like him, I had to have a ponytail. However, my hair was nowhere near long enough (it tends to grow out rather than down), so I was forced to settle for what the hair-dresser affectionately referred to as ‘a rat’s tail’ (I can vouch from experience that the chat-up line, “Y’know, I used to have a rat’s tail because of the Power Rangers” does not go down well, especially in conservative market towns). Anyway, my mother sent me a Power Rangers advent calendar, although not, I should stress, the old skool version, but rather the new and slightly crass samurai version. I was not happy.

As a sign of passive resistance, I decided to leave the calendar untouched through the early days of December. Through marking, secondary reading and late-night sessions on the Playstation, the calendar sat on a shelf, glaring at me, daring me to peel away the first few doors. But I remained steadfast…until last night. In what can only be described as a Dionysian orgy, I scoffed without remorse the first few chocolates (by which I mean the first ten [by which I mean the first twenty-four]). Ten days into December, and I had seen off a month’s worth of fun in about twelve minutes.

Coincidentally, I am just priming myself to write a very difficult chapter. I have done the research, made the notes; in short, I have gone out and bought the advent calendar. But for a few weeks now, through marking, secondary reading, and late-night sessions on the Playstation, the chapter itself has been metaphorically staring at me, teasing and taunting me. I know what I must do. I must begin, I must dare myself to open the first door, see if I like what’s behind it. I suspect that once I start, I will not be able to stop. It won’t be easy, I know, but if I can eat one chocolate of slightly suspect quality every thirty seconds for twelve minutes (don’t let anyone tell you that Arts students are innumerate!), then I can find the wherewithal, the energy, the sheer nerve, to bash out a draft over the holidays. It may be more Apollonian than Dionysian (hello all you classicists!), but it will be, in its own strange way, fun.

However, if the advent calendar experience is anything to go by, I will feel slightly nauseous afterwards. Is it possible to overdose on writing? Come the New Year, I shall be sated, my body wreaked by PhD abuse. The sofa shall creak under the weight of my frame, and I shall fall asleep in front of re-runs of lacklustre holiday television. But in my hand, or, more accurately, on my laptop, will be the spoils of a holiday spent gorging myself on interpretations baked with analysis, feasting on assertions smothered in references.

And then, at the end, lying under the academic Christmas tree, will be a chapter. And I will give it to my supervisor, and he will stroke his beard and rub his belly (neither of which he actually has), and chuckle, ‘Have you been a good student this year?’ ‘Cause on the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me, a chapter in a PhD.

November 05, 2012

It's raining cats and monologues

Picture the scene: it is a drizzly Sunday afternoon, and I am walking back to my home village, along roads which I have trodden in sorrow and joy, the trees amongst which I played as a child now giving up the last of their leaves. My mother accompanies me; we are both taking in some dampened air whilst waiting for the roast to finish and the potatoes to turn crisp. Slowing her pace, my mother turns to me, and asks how the PhD is going. I give her some non-committal answer, something about working hard and going through the motions. Taking my arm, she says, ‘No Tom, it’s okay. You can tell me how it’s really going.” I thrust my hands deeper into the pockets of my winter coat, which is out for the first time this year, and begin.

“Hard to say, really, what with teaching and seminars and training and all that. I think I’m onto something, something important, I really think that it’s a project that’s worth doing. No, the project isn’t the problem…it’s me that’s the problem. I am throwing myself into the research, whole-heartedly, ten hour days spent in the archives, another two hours in the office planning and emailing and reading. That’s fine, though. The real problem is that I can’t switch off. Wherever I go, it’s with me. I’m burning my toast more often than I care to admit, simply because I’m thinking about words, all those words, thousands of words of notes and ideas and material. Is this what I’ll be like for the rest of my life? Can’t I just do something where I get to clock off for a while, watch some bad TV? I went to go and see Sam the other week, and he’s perfectly happy, living with his girlfriend, saving up for a house, and, y’know, beginning a career. I can barely save up for a bag of penny sweets, let alone a nice house in London! Am I even doing any good at this whole PhD thing? Am I anywhere nearer completion? Time’s ticking away, y’know, and I feel like I have to start taking it more seriously, but I’m already exhausted. If I had some indication that I was a good student, if I could score some postgraduate points or something, then I would be fine…but no, it’s just the same routine, read and think and write, read and think and write. Am I wasting my life away? Am I going to find myself in ten years’ time, no friends, no partner, but a nice doctorate, the chance to tick a fancy new box on application forms? Is that going to be me, the boring historian at the party, sipping squash and ranting on about the archives? Shouldn’t I be helping people? I mean, I’m teaching, of course, and that feels great, sometimes, but it also feels, sometimes, like I’m just wasting their time with my failure to understand, to understand them and what they need. Occasionally, just, like, once a month or something, I wake up in the middle of the night, and I am hit by the overwhelming realisation that I am forsaking a wonderful girl that I love, and good friends, friends for life, and you and Dad as well, of course, just so that I can wake up and spend my entire day, my entire year, working on something which I enjoy but at which I am hopelessly, irrevocably, laughably…well…useless…”

We were almost home, and my mother seemed deep in thought. I felt like I had plucked out every anxiety from the pit of my stomach and laid it bare for this woman who knows me better than anyone. She pushed open the gate, placed her hand on the door, but then paused, and turned, and looked me in the eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, then gave a tiny shake of her head, and then opened her mouth again, slowly, deliberately. My glasses were steaming up, and I was hungry, not just for food, but for reassurance, for a raft in these turbulent postgraduate waters.

“Well….,” she began, “well that’s, y'know, that’s nice, Tom. Keep it up. Sounds like you know what you’re doing.” And with that she walked inside, kicked off her wellies, and turned on the Antiques Roadshow. I was left outside in the rain, my glasses now opaque with moisture. “I can’t see my own front door.” I thought to myself. “There’s a metaphor here somewhere. Better yet, there’s a blog entry.” And so it was.

In other news, the potatoes were perfectly done. That, at least, counts as a win.


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