I write this - ejected from my well-beloved room in the eves of Rathmel – from Jericho, the trendy wine-barred Victorian bricked suburb of Oxford, overlooking a narrow overgrown garden tumescent from today’s grim humidity.
Its ninth week and most first-years have started their prelims today. The ritual begins with the layers of subfusc, the pinning of the carnation, and the mortar-board carried (never worn) into the exam hall. Once you arrive at the place of examination, you’re directed to a marquee where candidates mill around like animals awaiting slaughter, black-and-white dressed penguins with marvelously English faces who tear through notes, select the correct amount of highlighters, assume superiority (if you take PPE) or exaggerate the expectation of certain failure (English). You delay nervousness (or increase it) by looking at the large seating chart. Then there are the announcements: no bottled water with screw caps, no carbonated water, no cellphones. There are more announcements inside: only one male and one female to the bathroom at any given moment. Invigilators swan about looking alternately like severe police officers and happy sadists who delight in the misery of the young(er). And three hours later you’re forced out blinking and nauseous, paranoid and exhausted, only to know exactly what lays in store for you the following day. And knowing that prelims are just a drop in the bucket compared to the rigor of three year Finals, which might require three times as many exams, and aren’t simply pass-fail.
There is the illusion that one feels like a day and night of debauchery following the last exam. Perhaps this only evolves in Finalists. I was glad for the confetti, but was ready to fall asleep before we hit the Turf. In re-reading this I become aware of how – and everyone says it – boring exams truly are. One forgets this fact in the rush of nerves, terror, and adrenalin, becoming a hand which tries to be an immediate extension of the brain, recalling facts, data, and quotes through the medium of automatic writing. And on the long walk home, tourists take pictures of you, and you walk in front of Young Literary Men who trade ingenious arguments (made up on the spot, of course) of what Beckett really accomplished in Godot.
But then summer begins: punting with a boat of Germans who speak about Hume (in English), and making plans to read Russians, and learn Anglo-Saxon (however much your tutors believe this is not something you are likely to accomplish), and the possibility of being a barista.