A couple of months ago I was introduced to Nick, the newly elected Chair of the Camberwell Society, who teaches Modern Languages at a local public school. Over a pint he mentioned that he had studied Spanish at Exeter University; we talked about the late professor, Maurice Hemingway, who had examined my M. Litt. so many years ago. A few days later I was copied into an email from Nick in which I was introduced as “Colin Wight, who has done much work on Pardo Bazán”. Well, had I really?
Last week I found my thesis on Emilia Pardo Bazán. It wasn’t, strictly speaking, lost; I knew it was lying 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 employ today. As for the scholarship, it sounded half-convincing but I can’t say there was anything startlingly original in it. Nothing to be proud of.
It was another life in another world
I left Oxford in June 1977, with no intention of returning. A few months later I found myself living and working in Essex… but after a while I realised I was not enjoying it. I had no burning desire to do postgrad research, but for personal reasons I wanted to return to Oxford. My former tutor at Queen’s, John Rutherford, suggested Pardo Bazán as a research subject and I said Fine, as long as I can get a grant. Which I did. So in October 1978 I resigned my job with the Travel Club in Upminster and returned to Oxford.
So it was back to Queen’s, almost as if I’d never left.
I felt something of a charlatan since I was surrounded by fiercely intelligent people who appeared to be more motivated and productive than I was. There is now a term for it: imposter syndrome. Of course I had other interests – but so had everyone else. Yet despite the study trips to Spain and the long days in the Taylorian and the Bodleian, the finishing line never seemed to get any closer. 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 several of my friends lose 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. Some packed it in. It wasn’t just me who was losing his way. But I refuse to give up on something once I’ve started, so I carried on, like an actor in a third-rate production. I was painfully aware that I was now 28 years old.
By hook or by crook I had to finish and get away
They had granted me enough extensions. By early 1983 I was, at long last, working flat out. At night I wrote; at noon I delivered a hand-written sheaf to my typist, Stephanie, and she gave yesterday’s 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 lunatic. In the end, like so many before me, I just managed to meet the deadline. By the time I’d handed in my thesis and had a couple of job interviews I was pushing 30 and pretty well skint. Then came my viva: a gruesome grilling from two distinguished scholars in sub fusc: one had never examined a thesis and the other had never passed one. My inquisitors decided to “refer” my effort 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 honestly can’t remember what they were about) and have it retyped, photocopied and rebound, then resubmitted. It was no big deal but I could ill afford the expense, so I dallied for a year. Not for the first time I felt quite sorry for myself.
Postgraduate study may be the hardest thing I have ever done, although that is not saying a lot! 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 other people who are doing what you’re doing aren’t part of your team. Indeed they are often your competitors. That might suit some people, but not me.
Was it worth it? Financially… no. It did little to help my subsequent career, but it worked out fine in the end. And to be honest, it wasn’t all bad. 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 going to earn a living cast a shadow over everyday life.
When I finally moved to London, to start on the bottom rung of the publishing ladder (starting salary: £6,000 a year), it was with a huge sense of relief. My colleagues were sociable, normal human beings; I was learning something every day, and I even got paid.
So there it sits, back on its shelf: unloved and unread… but perhaps of some use to someone, somewhere, someday!