A couple of months ago I was introduced to the new Chair of the Camberwell Society, who teaches Modern Languages at a local school. It transpired that he had studied Spanish at Exeter University; we talked about the late professor there, Maurice Hemingway, who had examined my MLitt thesis many, many years ago. A few days later I found myself reading an email from him in which I was described as “Colin Wight, who has done much work on Pardo Bazán”. Had I really?
Last week I found my thesis on Emilia Pardo Bazán. It wasn’t actually lost; I knew it was around the house somewhere. For the first time in three decades I read the Thing, expecting it to be deadly boring. I’d obviously made an effort not to make it sound like a parody of an academic study. It was readable, albeit in a style that I wouldn’t choose to employ today. As for the scholarship, it sounded convincing but I can’t say there was anything startlingly original in it. Nothing to be particularly proud of.
It was another life in another world
I had been living and working in Essex, and not really enjoying it. I had no burning desire to do postgraduate research, but for personal reasons I wanted to return to Oxford. My former tutor at Queen’s, John Rutherford, suggested a research subject and I said fine, as long as I can get a grant. In October 1978 I left my job with the Travel Club in Upminster and returned to Oxford.
So it was back to The Queen’s College.
I felt something of a charlatan since I was surrounded by very intelligent people who were (or appeared to be) more motivated and productive than I was. Of course I had other interests but so had everyone else and I wasn’t idle. Yet despite the study trips to Spain and the long hours spent in libraries the finishing line was never in sight. The more I read and discovered, the harder it got. The years rolled by.
It may be different for science post-grads but I saw a lot of humanities students pack it in. They lost interest in their subject and faith in academia with its bitchy cliques; their grants ran out and they needed a job; they became neurotic, depressed or plain bored. It wasn’t just me who was losing his way… perhaps we didn’t care enough. However I refuse to give up on something once I’ve started so I carried on, like an actor in a third-rate production of a play. I was painfully aware that I was now 28 years old.
By hook or by crook I had to finish and get away
By early 1983 I was, at long last, working flat out. At night I wrote; at noon I delivered a sheaf of hand-written A4 to my typist, Stephanie, and she gave a sheaf back to me; in the afternoon I made corrections; at night I wrote some more. I hardly had time to eat and I was running hither and thither like a madman. In the end, like so many before me, I just managed to meet my deadline. By the time I’d handed in my thesis and managed to get a couple of job interviews I was pushing 30 and pretty well skint. Then came my viva: a gruesome grilling from two distinguished scholars conducted in sub fusc: one of them had never examined a thesis whilst the other had never passed one. The inquisitors decided to “refer” mine over a few minor infractions. My supervisor was not pleased and made a complaint, to no avail. I had to rewrite two short paragraphs (I can’t remember what they were about) and have it retyped, photocopied and rebound, and then resubmitted. It was no big deal but I could ill afford the expense, so I took a year over making the changes. Not for the first time I felt quite sorry for myself.
Post-graduate study may be the hardest thing I have ever done, although I confess that is not saying much. It’s so not much the thousands of hours of research and the laborious writing process as that you have to do it almost entirely on your own. The people who are doing what you’re doing aren’t part of your team. Indeed they are often in competition with you. That might suit some people, but not me.
Was it worth it? Financially… no, not at all. It did little to help my subsequent career, but I suppose it worked out fine in the end. To be honest, it wasn’t all bad at the time either. I spent a lot of time in Spain and I was able to indulge my passions for film, books, music and girls. But the worry about how and when I was finally going to earn a living cast a shadow over life.
When I finally moved to London, to begin work on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder (starting salary £6,000 per annum), it was with an enormous sense of relief. My colleagues were sociable, normal human beings; I was learning new things every day, and I even got paid at the end of the month.
So there it sits, back on its shelf: unloved and unread… but perhaps of some use to someone, somewhere!