That Was The Year That Was

It’s customary around these parts to review the year when I finally reach the fag-end of it. And sure enough, today seems the most opportune moment to do so. 

The beauty of this exercise is that I am aided in my assessment by looking back to the post I made on January 1st in which I set down what I expected to happen this year.

This year started coldly, in the same way as it’s finishing coldly. The weather made me dread going back to Hull after Christmas, and it was even worse this year because I had exams awaiting me there. But back I went, nailing the buggers, and getting on with the rest of university life. 

The months ticked by, not a lot happened with me other than ploughing on with my university work. After all, it was my final year and I had a dissertation to write, an absolute monster spanning 15,000 words. But I did it…

Winter gave way to Spring, and yet more exams appeared over the horizon. But all of a sudden I had a new goal. Away had went my previous expectations of being able to get a 2:1. All of a sudden I’d done so well in my previous exams, essays and the dissertation to know that I could, if I pushed myself, get a First. 

The exam revision was hellish. It would be another two months before I finally got the answer I was hoping for.

In the meantime, I moved back home and began preparing for life doing a PGCE. My plan was to become a primary school teacher, as it was something I had found interesting when I did lots of work experience for them. But as the months went by, I found myself backtracking from this commitment. Somehow, it just didn’t seem right any more. Each day another seed of doubt was sewn. I felt like I was just doing it because I didn’t have any other plans.

Days later there was the joy of the graduation result, a First, and the day itself, which was a very happy moment. Then my brain began to think up alternatives. If not teaching, what else? 

Unfortunately, to this day there is no answer to that question, made worse by the fact that the recession seems to be seriously damaging my prospects. I tried and tried, but ratcheted up just two interviews, one of which was a disaster not worth repeating, and the other was a long journey to London which ended with the same result. In any event, I soon learned that a First in politics is not really that useful. 

And so the remaining months of the year have been spent here, where I’ve lived out a rather odd existence as a houseson, spending my time looking after the house while my parents aren’t here, helping my brother and sister with their homework, and generally mooching around watching DVDs or reading books. 

Not good, basically. 

Because of all this, I am, for the first time in a while, not going to label this as a Good Year. Though it started well, and the middle bit was pretty sweet, the end has been a disaster. So this is a Neutral Year. 

For the rest of my family, I have been fortune that the sadness I feared was going to happen with my grandparents has not yet arrived. In fact, things are pretty much as they were at the start of the year. So that is some comfort. But I am still worried about what might happen in the near future. 

Meanwhile, my younger but elder of my brothers has gone to university, and seems to be enjoying it. The other brother has begun his GCSEs and is turning into a right scally. But he’s still my brother, and as amusing as ever. And my sister has gone all girly-girly, but has turned into a massive couch potato, watching soaps, reality TV and endless Nickelodeon shows. Not good at all.

My elder sister didn’t keep up with her nurse training, but now has a job for the first time in a long time. Her son, my nephew, has, unfortunately, become very naughty and very thick, a change which has upset me a lot. I suspect it’s related to the beginnings of a long and tedious legal battle that will kick off in 2009 as his useless father tries to score some points over my sister. 

As for my parents, well, I can’t help but feel that living here has changed the dynamic of their relationship. Some times I feel like I’m the referee of their silly conflicts, like they appeal to me for a judgement on who is to blame for things. I don’t like it, and hope I don’t have to put up with it for much longer. 

So, sorry 2008, but I’ll be glad to see the back of you. Things just haven’t gone anywhere near the way I thought they would. A shame, but we move on…

Sorting Myself Out

Some time ago there was an incident involving me which I forgot to write about. It was nothing bad, but it was surreal and most definitely leaning towards humourous. It’s stuck in my mind for some reason, and I remembered it yesterday, giving me a great excuse to write about it when there’s not much else to say…

It was back in Hull Times. Those long dark days and nights slaving away for a degree that was going to change my life (yeah right). 

I have always been a bit fussy over clothes. But then, I guess most people are. Everyone likes to think they have their own personal style. I know what mine is. Jeans/cargo pants, t-shirt (short and long-sleeve), with optional hoody or jumper in the event of cold weather. Brands are mostly out, unless they’re small and mostly obscure. Matalan, Primark and ASDA George are most definitely in. 

It suits me… and I feel comfortable in it. But this one day I had to stop and think. I was wearing a rather old pair of jeans, combined with a rather old t-shirt and a rather old cardigan type thing. The whole lot was probably past its best, but I was a student and knew nothing else. The cardigan in particular had developed a couple of holes and was really starting to look decrepit.

I was walking along a path which was running at a right angle to the street. The path was leading me on to the street. I would be walking along this path for probably no more than 20 seconds, as it led straight from an alleyway which led from my house. This is an important fact as otherwise the following event would have been impossible.

Ahead of me, turning around the corner was a car. The car was on the opposite side of the street, so the passenger window was facing me. Out of that window was a man, looking stony-faced and somewhat, umm, let’s just say touched in the head. I happened to notice him instantly because that’s where I was looking. After his car had turned the corner, he was directly facing me. Worse, he was looking right at me in the eye.

I met his stare for the briefest of moments. I looked away immediately, and at that moment the man shouted, “SORT YOURSELF OUT!”. I looked back at him, to find he was looking at me, and carried on looking at me as he drove into the distance. 

Now, this made me consider. I’d definitely never met him before. And the fact that he was already looking out the window (and continued to after he’d passed me) either meant that he was deliberately looking for a victim or he really was “a bit special”. I had to stop and think for a while though. Was he telling me the truth? Was there something about my external appearance that made him say that?

In fact I couldn’t get it out of my mind. There weren’t many other people in the street at the time, and I don’t think anyone else noticed, but still… it felt like a personal affront to me!

I laughed a little bit, I had to in case anyone was watching. And the way he looked at me, it just seemed like the whole thing was either a wind up or the man had no control over himself.

But I couldn’t stop thinking. Maybe I did look a bit ridiculous that day. But no worse, I thought, than the dudes who wear tracksuits, or t-shirt and shorts even on a winter’s day.

In truth, I’ve never worn the same combination of clothes again. In fact, the jeans have been retired. I’ve let this bizarre incident stick in my mind, even though I laugh about it now. I’m not normally one for paying much attention to what others think about me, but this one incident seems to have stuck…

So perhaps I did take his advice and sort myself out.

Today I’m wearing a jumper I’ve had for four years that’s at least a size too big on me. 

Forget that. I didn’t.

Whither Degree?

In the past few days I’ve been thinking of things I can do with my life. The problem with every single one of them is that invariably my first doubt is, “Well, what was the point of the degree then?”

This is the question that, to me, killed off the prospects of the job I had an interview for. It was the question that said to my prospective employer that here is someone who doesn’t know what they want, has no focus and is indecisive.

But every time I think of the things I might want to do to get me out of this rut, my brain is very concerned about the wasted last four years. Because what was the point of my degree otherwise? Herein lies the warning to all future students: be wary of generic degrees if you’re only doing them because you don’t know what you want to do in life. The only purpose is certainly to delay taking a decision, and get away from parents, but at the end of it, when you’re trying to convince employers that your degree is relevant to them, you’ll regret the choice. And worse, when you finally get the job, you’ll probably think that you could have got the same job several years earlier, and be both without debt and several thousand pounds better off.

The only people who say, “We’ll take any degree” are the often suspiciously dodgy graduate programmes that some companies and the civil service run. I have friends and relatives in the civil service who say that the whole thing is shambolic at best, an exercise in avoiding responsibility by taking no decisions, usually because the senior managers are hopeless. And where do most of the senior managers come from? The graduate fast track programme, people with little to no experience of the real world.

But all of this feeling sorry for myself really has to come to an end soon. I’m trying, I really am, but it’s hard when you pick up the jobs section of the local paper every week, dismiss virtually all of them as being irrelevant (no experience, no qualification, no interest, poor pay, not enough hours), and in the final few that I could do I say, “Well, you could have done that job straight after A-Levels!”. I apply for them and get rejected… perhaps because of overqualification. And even if I managed to get one, they aren’t jobs with logical career progressions. I really don’t know anymore. Why take a job that I’ll want to leave within a few years, one that doesn’t lead me anywhere?

So there are two choices here:

1) Resume applying for jobs that are relevant to the politics degree
2) Give very, very serious consideration to the self-employment options available to me. I would love working for myself…

One day I’ll be able to report good news on here, that the cycle has finally been broken. But on the day the economy took its first step towards official recession, I don’t think it’s likely to be any time soon.

Clever Trevor No More

A long time ago back in school, I was a rather clever kid. In my primary school, there was absolutely no doubt about it – I was the most intelligent there. I got everything within seconds, and excelled in every subject, no matter what it was. I could apply my smarts to anything.

I moved on to secondary school – where the level was higher, and so was the competition. It took me a little while to adjust, but I soon got into my stride. However, I was no longer the best there. Now being one amongst 100, rather than one amongst 50, it was always likely there would be a challenge. And it came from all different angles. My enemies were from much wealthier families – which gave me a certain sense of “I may not beat them, but I’ve come a lot further than they have”. I was probably amongst the top 10 in terms of academic ability though. That showed when I came out with five A*’s and five A’s in my GCSEs.

I then moved on once more to a different school. Well, a college, to do my A-Levels. This time I was one amongst 1200, if not more. There was no way any more that I could make a fair comparison with my peers. I had a feeling I was pretty clever still, but it did seem to me that I was steadily being caught up. That those people who I’d left for dead in primary school were slowly coming back. I ended with three A’s. Still much better than most, but there were many other people who achieved the same (and even more today).

Hence to university – where, if statistics are to be believed – I achieved something that approximately 10% of other students did. But only just as I was on the edge of it. But to me, whilst I was there, I got the unmistakeable impression that of most of my peers, there was very little to choose between us. They were sharp and erudite too. Maybe I am just better at absorbing and retaining facts for later analysis? But essentially, we were all pretty damn good at that analysis.

The moral of this tale is fairly straightforward. It’s one that is not fully explored in society – though I was very pleased a few months ago when the C4 programme Child Genius looked like it was going to investigate it. Not that I’m trying to say I was a child prodigy, but I certainly was right up with the brightest of the bunch.

No – the purpose of this story (and what I expect Child Genius to eventually conclude) is to say that for most child prodigies, the promise of youth invariably ends in failure. Failure is relative, of course, because people set the bar extremely high. For some reason we expect our child prodigies to become consultant surgeons, research experts finding the cure for cancer, or, worse, the Prime Minister. But we should come to realise that there really are only an extremely small number of these people in the world. And there can ever only be one prime minister at a time! Leaving the rest of them to have a relative failure when they “only” become excellent administrators or creative designers/engineers, whatever.

This is sort of what I’m coming to terms with. What is success? What should I achieve? Where should I be relative to the extremely high expectations that have always been upon me? And if I don’t meet them, have I failed? In school and university, it was easy to measure success in terms of grades. In life, it is not that simple.

Unfortunately, there is a side of me that is saying maybe I am not succeeding. I haven’t exactly lost my intelligence… but what I have lost is the degree of advantage over others this used to give me, because everyone else has caught up – and also because there are many other ways to have a talent, not just through booksmarts. It’s my belief that childhood intelligence is mostly a product of earlier development, which one’s peers will catch up with eventually. And then those peers will probably end up with better “people skills” or something.

Then you really are up shit creek.

BA (Hons?)

There is some debate about whether or not people with undergraduate degrees in the UK can legitimately put “(Hons)” after their degree award… largely for the reason that almost all degree courses are honours degree ones, and you only get an “ordinary” degree if you fail a lot of modules in your final year.

I suspect it’s just another part of the general devaluation of everything academic in this country, if not this planet. As I’ve grown up, every qualification I’ve ever received has always been panned by the media at just the time I got it. This is true for GCSEs and A-Levels, and now it is even becoming true of degrees. Great timing, as always. Just when I stop to think “hey, I’ve done all right!” – the world bleats out its usual message of “you haven’t, try again”.

So people have started adding on “Hons” to make it sound better than it actually is. I look at the requirements to get an honours degree in other countries, and thus legitimately call yourself “Hons” but they seem so much harder. But this is where it gets ridiculous because of how low the grading is in the UK for arts based subjects. It virtually impossible to get above 80% (I haven’t heard of it)… whereas this must definitely be possible in Australia. Well, my only source on this is Wikipedia, but still…

The reason why all this is in my mind is because in the past week I’ve had my graduation ceremony. I was up at 6am, and I finally got back at 11:45pm. A very long day, but a memorable one. Me and my parents, plus my sister and my gran came with me. Unfortunately, my grandad couldn’t because he’s not well at the moment, which he was disappointed about. It makes me a little sad too… I know full well that I could have graduated last year had I not took a gap year or did a three year course. Then he could have been there.

Nevertheless, it was still a fairly proud moment. I realised just how few people get first class degrees, so that was a very nice moment. The ceremony wasn’t all good, however, as I was sitting next to two people I didn’t know, but unfortunately, they knew each other – so they spent all the time talking over me. It then got worse when the person sitting next to me kept bugging me to ask what the Chancellor had asked me when we did the little “stop and chat” (to use a Larry David-ism) that only people who get firsts are allowed to do.

It’s nice to get the recognition… but it has also given me pause for even more thought. The Chancellor gave a very good speech in which she said how delighted she was to hear (from her little chats) that so many people with first class degrees were going into teaching. That’s what I told her, cos I didn’t have anything else to say. I didn’t want to say I was drifting aimlessly. But she said how wonderful and noble the profession is and that it will be in safe hands with such high quality graduates.

Then, speaking to my tutors at the reception afterwards, they were all highly approving of my choice to do a PGCE. They believe it’s a very worthwhile occupation.

This is somewhat in contrast to my family. But worse, it is in contrast to most of the teachers I’ve ever spoken to, who take every opportunity to disparage their profession when I talk to them. They often say “You’ve got a first class degree and you want to be a teacher?”. I find this a bit weird.

The most disappointing part of the day, however, was the feeling I got from my gran, and I’ve got from the rest of my family in general. We’re all from very humble origins. I am the first to be a university graduate on both sides of the family. But they don’t seem to realise just how much of an achievement this is. Because my family don’t understand what it means, and a lot of them have a very working class attitude of “we stick together”, some of them think that going to university is just not the done thing for someone from a working class background. I definitely got this attitude to my gran. She has rather bizarre views that won’t let her speak to anyone who isn’t a Labour supporter…

This is all new to them, but they see it all as middle class, elitist and not something the normal workers would do. My gran deliberately went out to thank the people who’d built and were taking down the marquee as we left, (“the world doesn’t run without the workers!”) and told them they should take a bottle of the wine that was left over. It had nothing to do with her, of course.

I agree with her sentiment. But we are all workers. Class is a very sad state of mind, one that is absolutely useless and serves no purpose. But that’s politics, and best left out here…

Overall though, it was a very nice day. I know my mum and dad are proud. But now I’ve really got to get my thoughts into order to make this whole bloody thing worthwhile.

In A First Class Mood

Well, the day is finally here. The day of the exam results.

And, would you credit it, I only appear to have notched up a First.

How I’ve done it I don’t know. I do know that I worked myself into the ground for most of last year. Well, perhaps not that much, but I did do a lot of work, certainly far more than I did in second year. That may have been down to the dissertation, but I’m sure I also did more work preparing for tutorials and reading for essays.

Either way, it seems to have paid off. All that work to make the “21” sign turn into a “1” on the results website.

I still won’t believe it until I have a piece of paper in front of me telling me I did it. I haven’t even celebrated properly because of a terrible night’s sleep last night (too much dreaming about exams, sad bastard) and the anti-climactic nature of finding out my results before the designated time. The exam results website always releases the results much earlier than it’s supposed to, and it did so again today.

I’ve only just scraped home as a result of procedures allowing an average in the borderline (i.e. 69) to be upgraded if you have enough firsts in general (which I did), but if you’re going to get a degree classification then you might as well scrape home than be comfortable, for the simple reason that whether I get a first with 69 or a first with 80 it is still “only” a First. Would the extra work be worth it? Would it even be possible given the stingy marking of politics lecturers? Somehow, I doubt it.

In a way I’m relieved. After all this hype and all this expectation, and a string of good results this year (all of my essays, exams and the dissertation were firsts, except for one exam), I was beginning to think “I would be disappointed with a 2:1”. I hate saying that. It’s crazy, I know. At the end of second year I was ecstatic with being a solid 2:1er. I thought I’d worked hard that year and deserved a 2:1, so I was pleased with that.

Then I realised this year how hard I hadn’t worked. After all the effort I put it, I thought it wasn’t really worth it because there was no way I could reverse the middle-of-the-road result I’d got in second year. But no, it was possible.

And once things started turning in my favour I got an inevitable sense of “this is mine if I try hard enough”. And so I did.

And so it came to pass. And I round off my academic career (for now, anyway…) with the top grade possible.

It’s beginning to dawn on me what I’ve achieved over the past four years, but it will take a little longer to sink in.

What a day.

Abnormal Service

At the moment my mum is on holiday with her job, away until Friday, so the atmosphere of the house is a little different. My dad is having to be the one who thinks about what we need in the house, keeping a check on supplies. Which invariably means we run out of things.

The poor old dog has also been having to rely on other people feeding it. I’m not sure it’s been fed yet this morning. I’m now going to have to e-mail my dad to ask him if he fed it. And if not, it will mean I have to because my brother who is here at the moment is useless. In any case, he has an exam this afternoon, so it’s just easier not to disturb him…

Unfortunately, me and my brother don’t talk as much as we used to. We used to be really good friends but now he’s older things seem to have become a lot more awkward. I don’t really know what that’s the case. I don’t know whether it’s connected to me going away to university. Maybe not. We just don’t know what to say to each other any more, averting eye contact…

At the same time too, my other brother is away with his school on an overnight trip, but he’ll be back later. It has made the house incredibly quiet. Except for when my sister comes back, who is still spending most of her time torturing the dog.

In my life very little is happening. I’ve spent the past couple of days doing the odd bit here and there for my football team, which I am really looking forward to being an integral part of for the first time this upcoming season. On Sunday we were all at the final event of the season, a football tournament, and though we didn’t win (or come close to it), we did better in it than we have ever done before. Plus the sun was shining all day. Absolutely glorious.

Of course, it’s a far cry from football on a big open, near frozen field in December with the harsh north wind blowing. But we do it because we love the game. And I certainly do. Though a couple of the Euro 2008 games have been incredibly boring in the past few days… Romania v France anyone?

Meanwhile, the days tick by… and in 19 more of them I will find out what I got for my degree. Now that is exciting!

18, 24 and 72

Last night marked the official “Last Supper”. We all went out for a meal and had a reasonably good time, better than the last time I went out for a meal with the miserable Happy Couple.

It was not without its own controversy though, and it brought to the fore something that I find quite annoying in people.

I am a tipper. I like to leave something for staff in restaurants, and taxi drivers and barbers. I’m not as generous as the Americans are (their tipping culture is amazing to us Brits) but I will leave something. 10% or thereabouts is pretty standard.

I see it as a special thank you. Yes, they do get paid for what they do, but they are invariably on the minimum wage, and the tips are an extra special thank you. When someone has personally provided you with service, you should feel a little guilty, and as an act of humility you show your appreciation. It’s fairly standard.

But it seems in the past couple of years my friends have generally not shared this view. Yes, we are students, and yes we are pretty poor most of the time. But the fact remains that they wouldn’t give a second thought to paying £3 for a pint, so neither should they do so when providing a tip.

The problem is simple though – they just don’t tip. I hear stuff like “I don’t believe in it” and “I didn’t think the service was that good” but these are just excuses.

And sure enough, they were all wheeled out last night. We had a meal, 11 of us all together (some of them were friends of friends, alas, my friendship circle is not that big) – and as always large meals are a particular challenge for the staff. People don’t listen to the waiters (or can’t hear and others don’t pass the message on). People forget what they ordered. Lots of meals on the serving tray that all look the same (e.g. lamb korma, chicken korma).

I thought they would automatically add the service charge on. Normally they do if it’s a large group. I almost wish they had because it would have made people pay it. But sadly not. The £180 bill arrived, and most people studied it carefully to work out what they owed. I insisted people put in an extra £2 each to take us up to £200, but it wasn’t happening. The excuses were wheeled out.

In the end it was quite embarrasing to hand over just £185. My meal came to £15, and I ended up putting in £18 (a tip of 20%!) so it meant that just one other person had offered a tip.

Very disappointing. And it left things on a bit of a sour note. We went the pub afterwards and the situation was somewhat awkward, but enhanced too by the fact that the Happy Couple were having one of their typical zero-sum games, where one enjoyed pissing off the other and we all had to sit in the crossfire.

It continued when we got home, when one half of the couple (the girlfriend) decided to go out to a nightclub with her friend, leaving the other half to stay here miserable, and soon went to bed. Urgh. At least it’s over in 24 hours.

And meanwhile, to complete the trilogy, I received my final essay mark yesterday, which was another 72. That’s three 72 marks this semester. Something is very odd about it. In any case, it hasn’t really affected my chances of a first because the exam performance is still the most critical bit of the equation here.

Anyway, let the long, slow and tedious process of packing begin!