Saturday, 15 November 2008

Let me count the ways

2am Friday 14th November (an email from me to my best friend)
'I can't come tomorrow (today!). I'm so sorry, really I am. I really meant to let you know earlier. I really, really did, I was going to phone, I really was.'

7.55am Friday 14th November (her reply)
'You never need to apologise to me. I only wish I could give you a big hug.'

Wednesday, 12 November 2008


I am currently marking essays. Good god, what a job. I haven't come up for air for a week. I can't believe that those marvellous Americans have elected a new leader of the western world and I haven't even managed to pass comment on it. My husband has managed to secure some freelance work and all I've been able to say is 'that's nice dear' before getting back to writing in pencil on some poor first year's effort 'you must support your claim' or 'how does this connect to your argument?' and, thankfully, sometimes 'good point!'

I had no idea how difficult marking essays would be. It involves trying to assess to what degree the student answers the question. This is nowhere near as easy as it sounds; I've had to read and reread every single one and some are clearer than others. Some you really have to put in a bit of effort to extract their argument, these are first essays after all, and you really don't want to demoralise anyone. Is demoralise the right word here, cripes words are beginning to look and sound terribly alien? And do you know how much it pays, this essay marking malarkey? Two pounds and five pence a piece. I've had twelve to do and it's taken me over a week. Some have taken longer than others but on average it probably takes about two hours an essay. Giving useful, positive feedback is the hardest thing: I have to be able to support my claim. It's been like sitting the worlds most arduous exam. I've even pulled a muscle in my upper right thigh from sitting down too much. There are good things about it though, and I'm glad I'm doing it. Most of my students have managed some moments of brilliant insight and one or two of their essays have been a joy to read. I hope my comments have made that clear and they'll all feel uplifted when they get the essays back in tomorrow's class. I also hope they'll challenge me if they feel I've misunderstood them. After all I'm not the goddess of academic writing. If I get a moment I'll let you know how it went, once it's been that is.

Now I have to write a CV and a covering letter for that job I mentioned. Will I ever get time to write fiction and poetry again?

Anyway, well done America, and I'll be over to visit all my American (and other) cyber pals as soon as I can .

Sunday, 2 November 2008


This seems to be a time of bad news. Unemployment is rising. People are losing their homes and all they have worked for. My husband has been officially unemployed for a month now. It's the first time we've been in this position for years. But after umpteen interviews, one by one, companies have got back to him to say all recruitment has been suspended for the time being. Some say they will reassess in the new year, others can't even bring themselves to be that positive. The industry magazine that is usually bursting with advertisements for positions arrived through the post the other day ghostly in its thinness. There was the odd ad for consultants in Dubai but bugger all else. It's time to look out the old bradawl I picked up in a flea market for the beauty of its handle. Yes, the news is bad and we're getting used to hearing it.

Without an income we risk, like so many others, losing everything we've worked for: our house, our cars, and for me most worrying of all my post graduate degree. I could live in a council house and take the bus. I've been poor before. I grew up with six of us in a two bed terrace in industrial Kent. We had no heating, we just had to put on an extra jumper and wear thick socks when it was cold. After my father died (when I was thirteen, the oldest of four) my mother worked as a hospital cleaner. Every evening she would come home from work and cook supper from cheap cuts of meat and seasonal vegetables. I didn't have time for homework I was too busy looking after my siblings and watching my mother for signs of breakdown. I went to a school where you got the shit kicked out of you if you showed even the slightest inclination to do well, anyway. So I left school with one CSE (a long since defunct qualification in which, it was joked, you only had to spell your name correctly on the exam paper to pass) in English. My first job was as a checkout operator in a supermarket.

So I can be frugal with loo paper, I can do menial work, and I can make a chicken feed all three of us for a week. But I will struggle if I have to give up my course. It's taken me years to get to this stage. Twenty years ago I wouldn't even have thought it possible. Thirty years ago I thought people who went to university were freaks. Really. They were a different breed. They talked about theories and used words like paradigm, they wore old people clothes, they didn't seem able to do anything. I had a friend whose parents had gone to university and they were really nice, but I thought they were exceptional. Her sister was an artist who had gone to art school in London and she was, quite frankly, scary. But as I got older, and wiggled out of the confines of the world I'd grown up in, my view point changed. Stevie, when I met, him was doing his A Levels and planned to go to university. His mother was a teacher. Through his family I was introduced to several members of the 'breed' and they were all nice, even if they did use odd words and wear unflattering clothes. I still thought they were different to me, that they were born different, and merely entertaining thoughts that they were not would have been akin to heresy. Stevie didn't get the grades he needed, so got a job. I thought nothing of it, he was like me after all, and we got married. But his younger sister did well and went off to read English. So the boundaries blurred.

Then, when Bob went to school, I found myself on a Woman Returners course in Paisley. We were broke, I needed to get a job, but jobs were hard to come by, especially if you had been a housewife and mother for years. The course was great, full of women just like me. I had the self esteem of a rotting potato, having done nothing but follow Stevie from career move to career move. We moved so often that I never got the chance to make friends (twice in one year wasn't unusual). He worked so hard I never saw him. My only company was a five year old and now he had been seized by the education system and had made friends his own age. So meeting a bunch of women who were in a similar position was like coming into the air after being locked in a coal bunker for years. They were even meeker that I was. Some had spent thirty years looking after others with no thought for themselves. Hearing some of their stories, of utter servitude to parents, children, and, often bullying, men had me spitting bile. And then watching them, with the help of two patient caring tutors, as they grew in confidence and learned to assert themselves was a joy. They all got jobs at the end of the course, even though the country was in the grip of a recession. But the thing that made the biggest change to me was the aptitude tests.

I'd always thought I had nothing more to offer than good dress sense and nice hair. I dreaded the day of the tests. This was when all my worst fears were going to be confirmed: I had already found my place, and should be grateful. I almost didn't go. I still don't know why I did. The tests were explained for a good half hour before we started, and they were to take the rest of the day. I can't remember what they all were now, there was verbal reasoning, maths (which I failed dismally), and other things to do with pattern recognition and the like. I went home that evening feeling very flat, and quite exhausted. In two weeks time a woman from Dundee university was going to come and interview us all about our results. Oh god. I can't tell you how long it took me to decide what to wear for that meeting. I don't think I slept for a week beforehand. I got to the centre late and in a flap, that's one of the main problems with relying on buses, but the tutors only smiled at me and made me a cup of tea. When I had drunk it they told me I could go in and pointed to the office door: 'don't worry!' they said in unison, seeing the look on my face. So I stood up as straight as I could and knocked.

Sitting in the office was a pretty young woman in a floral dress. She smiled and beckoned me to sit down beside her:
'What's your degree in?' she asked me.'
'Your degree, what's it in?'
'Um...' my head was a buzz, what on earth was she talking about, degree?
'You did go to university?'
'Oh! no.'
'You didn't go to university?'
'No, I didn't go to university.' I thought she was confused.
'Well you really ought to consider going now.' She was smiling but she didn't seem to be joking.
'I don't... I don't, um... OK.' I said to keep her calm.

She went over my test results, I can't remember what they were, didn't actually quite understand them: she talked about things like percentiles. But the gist was I did jolly well in everything except maths, and she thought I had a mental block with that, probably due to unfemale friendly teaching. She recommended that I go and enroll on a maths evening class and then apply to university.

We moved shortly after that and it was another four years before I got the opportunity to go to evening class. I didn't do maths though, I wanted to see if she was right, that I wasn't an idiot, so I chose English A Level. When I passed that I then enrolled for maths (as well as history, law, and french) the next year. I had to get a private tutor to help me with the maths and I still only got a 'c', but I did well in all the other subjects. Then I applied to university to read law and got in. And then, just as I was finishing my first year, we moved again. It was another seven years before I got a chance to try again. And now I am here: my primary degree bagged, and half way though my masters. If only I had opted to do it full time instead of part, I would have it by now. But I chose the route of luxury. Two whole years of tutoring instead of one. Two years of having my writing looked at through a microscope. Two years of constant feedback and evaluation. It seemed economically sensible too. Two years to pay the course costs rather than trying to pay them in one. But perhaps I am a fool after all. Because now we don't have the money to pay the fees and it doesn't look like we'll get it any time soon. The university have given me till the end of this month to pay the first installment of just over six hundred quid. That could probably feed us, will probably have to feed us, for three months. But all is not yet lost.

Yesterday I got a letter from the Crichton Foundation. They are a charitable body whose aim is to encourage education in this region. The letter told me I have been awarded a bursary of five hundred pounds for academic excellence. The money is meant to allow me to concentrate on my studies, buy extra books, travel to places that would help me with my work, now it will go towards the first installment of my tuition fees. So it may just have provided me with a lifeline until a job comes along.

Also, as luck would have it, a job I would definitely have applied if I'd already got this degree has come up locally. It's in the arts, in fact it's all about promoting literature in the region. I have asked a few people I know who work in the arts if they think I could do it and they have all said they see no reason why not, and given me lots of tips. So I will apply. It's a full time position, which means I will have to be very organised in order to do it properly, and continue with my studies. I expect the house will get very dirty. But, if I am actually deserving of the bursary, that is if I am academically excellent, and haven't just managed to fool people, I should be able to pull it off. It feels like it's worth trying. And worrying isn't helping my writing at all, I spend far too much time staring at nothing at the moment; then chastising myself for not having achieved a damn thing.

Another piece of good news, before I stop wittering, is that the man came to fix the roof yesterday (yes, the man), so hopefully it won't rain inside the house any more. And the bathroom ceiling hasn't fallen in yet, so with luck it now won't.

So, although in terms of great strides the news seems bad all the time, when it comes to small ones it ain't necessarily so. It's unlikely that we will be able to turn the heating up, or order pizza when I'm too tired to cook, or buy new books, for a while. We may lose our house. I may never be able to buy Eve Lom face wash again. But some of the hard work we've done over the years has given us more than any of those things, and that still seems to be paying off incrementally. There is still good news, we just need to know where to look for it.