The Lost Thesis

A couple of months ago I was introduced to the new Chair of the Camberwell Society, who also teaches Modern Languages at a local school. It turned out he had studied Spanish at Exeter University; we talked about the former professor, Maurice Hemingway, who had examined my MLitt thesis many years ago. A few days later I found myself reading an email 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 knocking around the house somewhere. For the first time in three decades I read the whole thing, expecting it to be deadly boring. In fact it was about as lively as the subject-matter could allow. As for the scholarship, it sounded convincing but I can’t say for sure.

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 Spanish tutor at Queen’s suggested a research subject and I said OK, as long as I can get a grant. In October 1978 I left my job in Upminster and moved back to Oxford.

***

I felt a bit of a charlatan since I was surrounded by extremely intelligent people who were (or appeared to be) more motivated and productive than I was. The years rolled on and the finishing line was still not in sight. The more I found out the harder it got. It may well be different for science post-grads but I saw a lot of humanities students pack it in. They had lost interest in their subject and faith in academia, with its cliques and bitchiness; their grants ran out and they needed a job; they became neurotic, depressed or plain bored. It wasn’t just me who’d lost his way… but I was never totally committed in the first place. But I refuse to give up on something once I’ve started on it so I carried on, like an actor in a play he already knows is a turkey. I was now 28 years old.

By hook or by crook I had to finish the damned thing and get away

By early 1983 I was, at long last, working flat out. At night I wrote; at noon I delivered a sheaf to my typist, Stephanie, and she handed a sheaf back to me; in the afternoon I corrected it; at night I wrote some more. I hardly had time to eat and I was running hither and thither like a lunatic. 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 meeting of minds with my two distinguished examiners, conducted in academic dress: one of them had never examined a thesis while the other had never passed one. The inquisitors decided to “refer” mine over a few minor infractions. My supervisor was furious and made a complaint. But I had to rewrite two paragraphs (I can’t remember what they were about) and have it retyped, photocopied and rebound, and then resubmitted. I could ill afford the expense at the time, and it took me six months to get round to it. I felt very sorry for myself. But whatever.

Post-graduate study may be the hardest thing I have ever done, although that is not saying a lot. It’s not the thousands of hours of research and the laborious writing process; it’s the fact that you have to do it on your own. The people who are doing what you’re doing aren’t part of your team. If anything, they are in competition with you. Some people may love it, but I wasn’t one of them.

Was it worth it? Financially… no, not at all. It did little to help my subsequent career, but I suppose it all worked out OK in the end. And, 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 passion 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 everything.

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, and I even got paid at the end of every month. I never stopped being grateful for that.

So there it sits, back on its shelf: unloved and unread… but maybe of some use to someone, somewhere!

Enjoy Yourself, it’s Later Than You Think

Jools Holland’s Hootenanny closed, as ever, with this simple ditty. (As regards the show itself, I didn’t enjoy myself very much. Very few plums among the duff. George Ezra? Please explain his popularity because I don’t get it. Who buys this stuff? Even the Teletubbies’ songs were more interesting.) The “enjoy yourself” bit is important, but it’s the “memento mori” that people should ponder… very medieval.

One of the reasons I retired three and a half years ago is that, after a couple of close friends of mine died I realised that it could just as easily happen to me. In fact it was going to happen to me, no question about it.

I’d been at the same place of work for over 25 years. To many people it must have seemed like a very good job, and I used to feel the same way about it. There was no-one I worked with whom I disliked, and many colleagues had become friends. I’d met my wife there. I seemed to be popular and respected for my knowledge and skills. I wasn’t paid a fortune but it was more than enough to get by, once the mortgage was paid off. But I had stopped enjoying going to work – the feeling crept up on me. Of course I could have gone out and got myself another job, or at least made an effort. But I was getting on for 60 and I had done my pension calculations. It wasn’t my job as such but working for other people that was losing its magic. I wanted to take back control.

The previous year I’d been ill myself.  I went to see the doc because my urine was the colour of tea. She looked lovingly into my eyes and said I had jaundice. No alcohol, go immediately to King’s for an X-ray and blood tests. A week or so later I was in a liver ward being tested for everything that has ever given anybody hepatitis. I spent nine days and nights there. It wasn’t cancer, which is nice, but my liver was collapsing.

King’s College Hospital is a fascinating place, if you’re in the mood to appreciate it. Every day I would walk briskly up and down the corridors for exercise, but also because lying in bed with no TV or internet is extremely boring. But sooner or later you have to go back to your ward. If you manage to nod off, day or night, it won’t be for long. A constant stream of nurses and auxiliaries make you get up and wash, stick needles in your arm, take blood pressure tests, clean the bed and mop the floor, change your sheets.

What do you want for breakfast? Would you like a cup of tea? What do you want for lunch? What do you want for dinner? Would you like another cup of tea?

Then the medical students arrive for a chat and a prod. Actually, that is the only good bit – you get to meet young, healthy people and at least you are making yourself useful. In the afternoon the visitors arrive: Job’s comforters, bored teenagers, cute twins, snivelling wives… What do you say to your own visitors? “Tomorrow I’m having a biopsy, with a wire pushed down my jugular vein. Could we possibly talk about something else? But thanks for coming.” Hug.

Every night some fellow inmate was off his head on (prescription?) drugs and shouting the odds, while another was phoning his cousin in Jamaica. You can’t concentrate on your book for long. Without earplugs you are done for. It is a miracle anyone gets better and goes home. There’s all this racket and disruption but also – let’s face it – you’re scared because you might be dying. They may put a screen round the bed but there is zero privacy. Worse than your own condition being broadcast is having to hear about someone else’s – especially when it’s bad news. Stay there for a week and you’d easily have enough material for three episodes of Casualty.

Eventually, and without any medication, I started to get better and was able to walk the mile and a half home. It remains a mystery. If it really was a virus, I’ll have it named after me. I never want to go back there again – lovely though the staff are. I still get queasy seeing King’s from the 68 bus.

Anyway, I digress.

Not going to work won’t stop you from dying, or even getting ill. But you might come to admit to yourself how frustrated you were getting. How you were getting less opportunity to use your skills, intelligence or initiative than you would have liked. I saw myself becoming ever more restless and grumpy. Time to go then.

Some of you who retired early may agree with me. Others may have felt pushed out, and would rather have carried on a bit longer. Or of course you may be thinking, “Well, bully for you. I wish I could afford to retire at 60”. I understand that going to work is a necessity for most people. To be paid (and even respected) for what you do at your place of work is great… but it is not the whole story and you should not be regarded as useless, lazy or selfish if you are not out there adding to the GNP for your entire adult life.

As it is, I am working almost as hard as I did before, but I haven’t earned a penny. I do what I want to do, when I want to do it. I’ve been able to become a publisher, manage a research project, give talks and write this blog. I see my friends and my parents more often. I play the guitar, read more books, go to more museums and do more thinking. If the weather is good I can go on a day trip, or just walk round the park. And there’s still not nearly enough time to do all the things I’d like to do. If I don’t do these things now, when am I going to do them? I am nearly 64; how many good years do I have left?

Even so, I would have been prepared to work fewer hours for another couple of years – if that option had been offered to me. Maybe you, and your employers, can make do with just four days a week of your valuable time. But if not, enjoy your life, make more of an effort to get out and see old friends, pick up that guitar or watercolours or whatever it is you’ve pushed to one side, and don’t leave it too long to find your voice. It’s 2019 – and probably later than you think.

The Joy of Essex, 1978

One night, at about half past 10, Hilary rang. Mrs H had already gone to bed. I kept my voice down but the damage had been done. The following day my landlady announced that she hadn’t had a wink of sleep all night and she was going to put a lock on the phone. I pointed out that this wasn’t really going to help, as I’d been answering a call, not making one. Anyway, I was sorry and I’d make sure it didn’t happen again. The old bag went ahead anyway and fitted the stupid lock. Over the next couple of weeks I was told, more than once, that I was the most selfish, inconsiderate person she knew. On one occasion I put tap water, rather than de-ionised water, in her iron, thus risking a major environmental incident. I’m surprised Panorama didn’t run a special on it. Not that she’d ever mentioned it before; I was just expected to know.

capri

The penny dropped: I’d overstayed my welcome. I ventured into Romford the first chance I got to look for a flat to rent, and found one I could just afford. For good measure I treated myself to a leather jacket at the market. I duly moved into a maisonette in Gidea Park, which I shared with another young man called Doug. He was a chemistry graduate who worked for Berger Paints and drove a Ford Capri. We had a bedroom each, and a spare, a kitchenette, bathroom and a decent-sized living room with a swirly carpet. My work colleague and new best mate Barry – a cheeky chappie with a moustache, a perm and (yes) a Ford Capri – drove me back to Elmhurst Drive so I could collect my post. There wasn’t any, apparently. I knew Hil had written at least once and I was sure the old bag was lying. I could forgive her almost anything but that. I gave her a hard stare and walked back to the car.

* * *

In February my boss sent me on a short educational trip to the Algarve. It was a treat to get a free winter holiday, even if I would be going on my own. The company had a resident rep who bore the aristocratic name of Manuel de Castro. Previously, he had been a milkman in Leeds. He referred to every Algarvian businessman as “a bloody peasant” – and not in a nice way. His demure and pretty wife worked at the Hotel Alvor, a magnificent establishment. Manuel was what used to be called “a ladies’ man”. He boasted of having squired every stewardess on TAP’s books… except for one whose photo appeared in our winter brochure. She had a small mole on her left cheek. Yorkshire’s Don Juan had sworn a solemn oath to track her down and add her to his conquests. After two years of meeting 707s flying in and out of Faro and taking at least one speculative flight to Funchal, the mystery woman continued to elude him, and it was becoming an obsession. 

Manuel took his educational duties seriously, trying – and failing – to set me up with a busty middle-aged housewife from a Mancunian hen party. However he failed to warn me about the manager of the Sol e Mar, a confirmed bachelor, who had worked for some years at the Adelphi in Liverpool. We chatted for an hour or two about the old country. After treating me to an excellent dinner he invited me to stay the night, as he had a few empty rooms. I’d put away far too much Dão and bagaceira – suddenly I thought I could see his game and panicked. I said até logo and staggered off into the night to look for my Mini. Somehow I found my way from Albufeira back to my apartment at Praia d’Oura. I needed a mind-clearing dip in the freezing Atlantic.

Back at Travel Club HQ in Upminster, my birthday had come round yet again. Barry sent me a witty card, which he had personalised with some verses of his own. They began thus:

Bloody Nora! He’s 23
Fresh from university
His mind is full of birds and ale
It’s enough to make a xxxxxx black man pale

Mere doggerel, dashed off at his busy desk? Not so! A close textual analysis reveals multiple layers of rich semanticity.

With his opening words the poet calls upon his muse for inspiration, thus “setting out his stall”, as he might put it, in the epic mode. But here the Classical convention is given fresh life. Who is the dread Nora he apostrophises? No gentle nymph, she. A Celtic warrior queen? A Hindu demiurge, decorated by the skulls of her victims, like Kali? (I scoured The Golden Bough, but without success.) 

After the caesura, we come to the subject of the work. Arma virumque cano: but of whom does he sing? Was not Alexander but 23 when he conquered the world? The hero is in the prime of life. He is not just aged 23; he is 23. Here the poet evokes the Pythagoreans. We have arrived at the crucial moment in this young man’s life. In the third line his profile is filled out, as it were. He is “fresh”, original, vibrant, vigorous: a man of action. But a man of learning notwithstanding. “University” is a typically brilliant play on words. He is universal: an Everyman.

We now proceed to the essence of the hero. “Birds and ale”: what bathos! And yet… “birds” – the fair sex, obviously, in the vernacular of our age, but also his winged thoughts, like eagles, soaring high above us. As for “ale”: a clue that this Sindbad, this Vasco, this Aeneas, this Ulysses de nos jours, is a no  Mediterranean hero but, rather, an Anglo-Saxon, the heir to Beowulf. Then again, will “birds and ale” find him out: his hamartia? Is the seer warning of premature decline and extinction?

Finally we come to the fourth line: a mere cliché, casual racism? Something far more subtle! This awkward phrase with its ludic pentimento challenges our taboos but also invites us to consider the transformational powers of our scholar-warrior-king-magus. As the lame shall walk, so shall men change the colour of their skin. A firm nod to the Messianic tradition.

Not since T.S. Eliot has such talent lit up the literary world. With admirable economy, this new Earl of Essex – or shall we call him the Duke of Capri? – claims his throne in the most exalted company: Dante, Spenser, Ariosto, Góngora, Camões and (dare I utter his name?) the divine Virgil himself. Ars est celare artem. Neither Carol Ann Duffy nor Andrew Motion has equalled the Parnassian ambition of this opening stanza. Moreover, it both scans and rhymes. If only he’d had a crack at Poet Laureate! What could Barry have done with such material as the Royal Menopause?

In Tudor Ave, the purpose of our unallocated third bedroom became apparent when the landlord (never before seen) rolled up in the small hours with a floozy. It transpired that it was his midweek love nest. The flat reeked of Aramis. I doubt that his missus was aware of how their investment property was being employed. During the working week Barry, who was in his thirties, used to take me to see our fellow office-worker Sue, a teenage blonde with pointy tits, perform in local pubs. Nothing like that! She was a talented singer who was trying to break into show business.

Love ageless and evergreen… 

Barry used to complain about Sue’s unreasonable sexual demands — ironically or not, I wasn’t sure.

Doug was often working late or staying at his equally shy girlfriend’s flat, so I had the place to myself most evenings. We didn’t have a telly. I wasn’t much of a cook, although I thought I was fairly enterprising. I got by on a diet of grilled sausages with tinned tomatoes, cheese on toast with tinned tomatoes, and chicken casserole (inc. tinned tomatoes) with overcooked rice. Dessert might be digestive biscuits with chopped stem ginger, or ice cream with tinned pineapple. It was still a lot better than I’d got at school. There was the occasional “Ruby Murray” in Upminster or Romford. Delia Smith was waiting in the wings.