Monday, June 27, 2011

Mods (and Rockers)

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.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

June ends


Yesterday was Midsummer, the longest day of the year; over sixteen hours of light mostly masked by the rain. In coming to England I imagined that the day before, Midsummer Eve, would be my high festival. We’d go into the woods to do the rites with twigs and herbs and light a fire and dance around it wildly and yell full-throated, and drink nettle-tea, or sweet wine, and watch the smoke rise. Out on the meadow, or in a copse. Instead I was preparing for Mods. Yesterday, Midsummer’s Day, was spent writing theory in a post-apocalyptic hellhole in Summertown.

I’m going to pretend today is Midsummer’s Eve. There’s a garden party in the quad, and the wind turns a fierce corner. The sky is alternately sullen and gleeful. We might be rained out, or hear the night birds.

I will midsummer-ly console myself with my favourite part of my favourite book: Midsummer’s Eve in I Capture the Castle, which is pure indulgence to include here (but which I will do anyhow):

There wasn’t a breath of wind as I climbed the mound. The sun was down – usually I begin the rites by watching it sink, but trying the scent had taken longer than I realized. The sky beyond Belmotte Tower was a watery yellow with one streak of green across it – vivid green, most magically beautiful. But it faded quickly…

When the fire was blazing high again I felt we had better get the rites over. My self-consciousness about them had come back a little so I was as matter-of-fact as possible; I must say leaving out the verses made things rather dull. We burnt the salt and the herbs…and shared the cake with Heloise; Simon only had a very small piece because he was full of dinner. Then we drank the Vicar’s port…I hoped we could leave things at that, but Simon firmly reminded me about dancing round the fire. In the end, we just ran round seven times, with Heloise after us, barking madly. It was the smallest bit as if Simon were playing with the children, but I know he didn’t mean it, and he was so very kind that I felt I had to pretend I was enjoying it myself – I even managed a few wild leaps. Topaz is the girl for leaping; last year she nearly shook the mound.

And suddenly knew that I had been right in fearing this might be my last year for the rites – that if I ever held them again I should be ‘playing with the children.’ I only felt the smallest pang of sadness, because the glory of supper at Scoatney was stretching ahead of me; but I said to myself that, Simon or no Simon, I was going to give the farewell call – a farewell for ever this time, not just for a year….I called – and it echoed back from the castle walls as I knew it would. Then Heloise raised her head and howled – and that echoed, too. Simon was fascinated; he said it was the best moment of the rites.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Sober sub fuscing

‘It is farely easy to be topp in English and sometimes you may find yourself even getting interested. If that happens of course you can always draw junctions and railway lines on your desk
- ‘How to be topp in English’, Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, How to be Topp

The culmination of three terms: Mods, my first-year examinations, begin this afternoon. I am to take a taxi north to Summertown – we are taking them at Ewert House rather than the Exam Schools – for the next four days until we finish in victory, or at least exhaustion, on Friday. Intro to literature, Victorian, Twentieth Century, Medieval, finis.

Wearing, as per instruction:

(for women) white blouse, black ribbon tie, dark skirt, dark tights, both mortar board (or soft cap) and gown are worn

with the white carnation that signifies today's the first exam.

Most important is my wall of secular saints above my desk, watching me suspiciously to see if justice will be done to their work. I must say that Beckett looks the most suspicious, but Woolf looks a bit wistful, as though she rather likes the idea of timed handwritten essays.

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Just learned of Sir Patrick Leigh Fermor's death. Am somewhat heartbroken, though death at the age of 96 is not, I imagine, unexpected. I have been waiting for the third volume of his autobiography, and the news that he had decided to learn to type a few years ago just encouraged the possibility that it might appear. And now never got the chance to crash his Grecian villa. A sad day.