International Nuclear Services update
I wrote this for my former employers in the nuclear industry. They were - very kindly - interested in how my first year as a postgraduate had been.
It was a year ago, on a cool Saturday morning in early October, that I set off from Cockermouth with a car full of my belongings. Mist was evaporating in the fields along the A66 and the purple heather on Skiddaw was reflected in a stone-grey Bassenthwaite Lake. I was heading for Coventry and the University of Warwick, to start the MA in Writing course. I couldn’t help wondering if giving up my job at INS was going to be a good idea or perhaps the foolishness of an (early) mid-life crisis. When I got to the end of the M6, the Midland’s air was warmer, Coventry was two weeks further into autumn and the trees were exploding into yellow, orange and red. I felt like I was entering the Dead Poet’s Society.
I studied chemistry at Warwick as an undergraduate and the methods of learning were as formulaic as the course’s content: students go to lectures, perform lab research, and sit exams. Creativity doesn’t tend to work the same way, so my first year of the MA has been a steep learning curve in thinking differently.
I’m studying part-time and I have another year left. My initial plan was to get paid work, but I’ve used my extra time to take additional courses. This included a writing course with first year undergraduates, which was where I felt a culture shock; while the bleary-eyed 18 year-olds tried to avoid the 9 o’clock seminars, I would go early to share work with my tutor.
The MA has a mix of students on it, from new graduates to those who are retired. I’m nowhere near the best of the bunch, but I’m pleased with the progress I’ve made and the grades I’ve achieved. For me, though, the course is more about how I can continue to develop my writing once I’ve left. I have studied biography (looking at Virginia Woolf and Ted Hughes), travel writing (Joseph Conrad and V S Naipaul) and a course looking at how writers use their lives for stories (Zora Neale-Hurston and V S Pritchett). China Mielville has tutored weird fiction (H P Lovecraft and A Blackwood) and A L Kennedy is a regular mentor on the course. I meet people from the publishing industry and, as a year-group, we’ve produced an anthology of short stories. Surprisingly, I’ve enjoyed writing poetry, using it to experiment with words and language. A few of my poems have been published in pamphlets and I post them online at www.blogs.warwick.ac.uk/ntipple.
The year hasn’t been without its challenges and my move into a student house turned out to be one culture-shock too far. Fortunately, I got a role as a warden in university accommodation and moved into a rent-free flat after a couple of months. I had the interesting task of looking after 75, mainly international, post-graduate students. There were challenges, of course, such as breaking up a party of ten Thai girls at 4 am, despite their insistence that their ‘sleepover’ was not contravening hall regulations. And one girl declared to me that, had she not been returning to Taiwan the following week, she would try to make me her boyfriend. We haven’t kept in touch.
I recently moved again, this time off campus and into a house I have bought with a friend of mine (no romantic link there, either). It’s a ten minutes cycle from campus where I can live with few overheads – and an open-fire – for the next couple of years. (I have cycled since my first week, when my car decided that 156 000 miles were enough and gave up the ghost – there’s a poem about it on my website.) Next year, I have two remaining course modules on writing fiction, and I’ll be working on a book about my family’s life in Ghana. We lived there between 1978 and 1982, when there were two military coups, and I’m hoping it can be substantial enough for me to develop after the course.
I’m very grateful for the experience of working in the nuclear industry; it’s given me skills to discipline myself in my work, and to deal with the upheaval this career break has caused. I’ll need the experience even more when I return to the workplace, but these years at Warwick are really precious so, for now, it’s carpe diem, as the saying goes.