It’s not all about realising you can get 10% off at Topshop again (although my ID photo is so bad this year I’m no sure I can brandish it in public). I didn’t know what to expect, going back to uni after a year out. It all happened so fast. Working for over a year as a full time waitress, doing 35-55 hour weeks, I didn’t really give myself the headspace to prepare myself for what uni entails. Despite knowing for several months that I had secured my place, a Masters in MLitt Modernities at Glasgow Uni just seemed something far in the distance, the uncertain plane which I would embark upon after an endless summer.
No matter how it feels at the time, summer is never endless. August was a strange old month, and horrible, tragic things kept happening around me. Amidst all that, it didn’t seem real, making my way through the infernal labyrinth of MyCampus; applying for scholarships, spending inordinate time staring at screens again, making lists of things to be done. I found myself in a room up high in the Boyd Orr building, listening to the inimitable and infectiously enthusiastic Rob Maslen give a speech about the strange history of these hallowed walls; being introduced to the university as if it were the first time all over again.
It is weird going back to the same university after a year out, especially if you’ve not gone far. I walked up the hill listening to Tigermilk feeling blissfully like a total Glasgow cliché and it was like nothing had changed at all; it was my first seminar of the semester and I felt bright and hopeful. Glasgow gifted us with a particularly gorgeous autumn, trees bronzing languidly into darkening violet as twilight fell and I was still sitting by the fountain, making notes on poetry. I tried to take walks in Kelvingrove as often as possible. Quite quickly, however, the daylight ran out. Nights drew in. Still stuck in waitressing mode, such thing as a sleeping pattern proving an elusive remnant lost somewhere back in 2015, I found myself going to sleep at 5am every night, often staying in the library till everyone on the floor had left and the lights kept going out automatically. There I was, alone in the dark in front of a dull-glowing screen (though one must note the upgrade in PCs at Glasgow Uni Library, which are much preferable). It’s easy to spiral into that maddening routine, trying to do all the reading, make notes on everything. I’ve never been a meticulous note-taker, not by a long shot, but I like to handwrite things and have a tangible record of ideas and theorists and possible avenues for further study.
I would walk home at 2am, stumbling tired-eyed through Kelvinside, hoping for a glimpse of the river, some tangible reminder of nature. How long had it been since I’d seen the sea? During reading week, I allowed myself a cheeky day trip to Arran, which felt so unreal it was almost magic. The days passed and ideas started to percolate in my head. The power of procrastination unleashed itself again. I did more creative writing in the past three months than probably I’ve done all year. I guess the more you read, the more you want to write. I sat on level 11 and watched the sunset over Park Circus, making airy, vague notes about queer temporality and thing theory on a 60p sketchpad. I went to seminars and was reminded of how nice it is to listen to people share a subject, to listen to experts talk with passion about something they must have covered a thousand times before and yet still they can find fresh things to say about it. To actually talk to said experts about such interesting topics (instead of merely serving them glasses of wine and plates of fish, as the Oran Mor waitress will often do for GU academics). Although a bit scary at first (not least because I had a screenwriter and published author in one of my seminars!), it was nice to actually have proper formal discussions about books again. Often we veered slightly off-topic, with Trump becoming the proverbial wall against which we hit our heads in frustration, but everything felt prescient, useful. I went to visiting speaker seminars with the likes of Stephen Ross, Graeme Macdonald and Darren Anderson, who talked about all manner of interesting topics: Beckett’s invention of the teenager, petroculture and the politics of space and architecture. Having been at Glasgow Uni four and a half years now, I was still struggling to find half the rooms and buildings I needed to get to.
I went to a couple of nights at The Poetry Club in Finnieston and actually read poems aloud to real humans. Got a few wee things published here and there. Went to a ceilidh. Realised that I want to do lots and lots of creative writing and really try and learn from people. Started writing music reviews for RaveChild which has been really rewarding, not least because it’s encouraged me to broaden my musical horizons and go to more gigs. Started tweeting again. I managed to go to a few Creative Writing Society workshops, wrote a collaborative sonnet and played around with tarot cards. Went to Creative Conversations at the Chapel and saw very smart and fascinating people talk about writing: Amy Liptrot, Liz Lochhead, Mallachy Tallack, for example. Developed many creative crushes on various academics.
My stress levels tend to rise in tandem with the library’s rising busyness and so I stopped going altogether about a month ago. I’ve more or less forgotten what sunlight is, except for the wee slant that comes through the window of the building in Professors’ Square where every Thursday we had our Modern Everyday seminar. I sit in bed everyday and try and write and write. I spent the first four weeks of this semester trying to read a section fromThe Derrida Wordbookeveryday, until my brain started to melt a bit too much and I was thinking in riddles. One day I was so tired I woke up at 10.46 for an 11am seminar but somehow still made it on time, looking like something the cat had dragged in. I tried to get my head round Blanchot, and even went to a reading group where we poured over The Space of Literature and maybe I came out with some sense of the link between writing and death. I wrote reflective journals for my core course seminars and every time came back to Tom McCarty references. The man and his ideas are just so seductive.
Coming to the end of my first semester as a postgrad student, I’m not sure how I feel. I didn’t wash my hair for nearly four weeks. On the one hand, my brain feels heavier, I’m exhausted, probably much less fit; I’ve lost contact with a few friends. On the other, I’ve got ideas all the time, I’m meeting new people, I can understand a little bit of Heidegger. I’m extremely lucky to be able to study at all, especially on such a well-run, exciting course like Modernities.
Things I miss about waitressing:
Being on my feet all day. Coming home feeling like an honest hard day’s work has been done, that I really earned that massive block of chocolate.
Gossip. Constant streams of salacious stories.
The visceral fuck-strewn quality of hospitality patter.
Unlimited access to coffee at the point of need.
Making strangers happy through simple acts of kindness.
Being with friends all day and plotting grand schemes.
Telling ghost stories to tourists.
Having a reason to put makeup on in the morning/having a reason to get up in the morning before 10.
That amazing post-coffee rush feeling when you know your break is due and you’ve got a good book on you.
Finishing a shift and leaving it at the door for a Netflix binge.
Meeting new people more or less constantly.
Having actual muscles from plate carrying.
Playing the game of concocting life stories for strangers.
Teamwork! (which is sorely missed on an English Lit degree…)
Solving completely unsolvable problems, like trying to find and polish 50 champagne flutes in five minutes, or sourcing pathologically evasive salt shakers, or convincing the kitchen not to slaughter you because your table’s arrived 45 minutes late, just in time to clash with every other function in the building.
Unexpectedly deep conversations about love, life, literature, music, family, mental illness, travel, astrophysics, the ethics of illustration, Tumblr, queer theory, feminism, television, childhood memories and sleep deprivation all while polishing cutlery.
The thrill of days off.
Going part-time, I still get some of these fun things, and less of the bad things. Maybe that’s a nice balance. The Christmas period is always a test for our sanity and endurance. Still, hopefully the feeling of handing in my essays will get me through the rest of the season, and if not god knows I have enough books to read to escape into! Maybe I should tidy my room first.
ONE need not be a chamber to be haunted,
One need not be a house;
The brain has corridors surpassing
It seems silly to write about one’s love for a house. After all, houses are inanimate things; they can’t feel or think, can’t love you back. It’s a bit materialistic, a bit capitalist perhaps, to love one’s property. Still, houses aren’t just houses. We are brought up in this world to experience ourselves through things. Not only is this the sociological and psychological consequence of living in a world where we define ourselves through the symbolic order of possessions, but it is also the personal, lived experience of assigning meaning to that which surrounds us, the structures and spaces in which we spill our being. What’s more, the very act of dwelling is charged with the problem of desire. We constantly pursue ownership and control over that which we occupy; constantly assigning possession, marking territory. As Karl Marx said, ‘the felt need for a thing is the most obvious, irrefutable proof that the thing is part of my essence, that its being is for me and that its property is the property, the particular quality peculiar to my essence’: we are, through and through, the things that we own, desire, lose. Maybe it is our seemingly irrevocable need for things that dooms us to a certain emptiness, a loss that prevents the fulfilment of the self.
The old Lacanian equation of desire as relying on lack. Maybe we love things more when we lose them. We start to think if we ever really had them in the first place; we question the possibility of possession altogether. In the void we clasp at meaning, like a baby blindly seeking nourishment.
When I was just three years old, my parents, my brother and I left a cramped cottage in leafy, small-town Hertfordshire for a three-bedroom, two-garden semi-detached house in Ayrshire, Scotland. Land of agriculture, Burns, Buckfast and teenage pregnancy. My first day at school, a couple years later, and I did not understand why everyone kept saying aye, still thinking they were making bizarre expressions of the first person pronoun, rather than simply saying yes. Ken was another strange one. Scotland was foreign and I was even more foreign. I spent most of my childhood trying to grapple with my Englishness, working out who the hell I was and what’s more, who did I want to be? Toning things down to avoid being bullied…but really, deep down, did I want to be different from anyone else? Slowly, the older I got, I felt the bright Scots words trickle into my vocabulary: hanek, gads, glaikit, wee, Ned, jakey. When my cousins visited, I found myself wishing I had the purity of that sweet, Hampshire accent, instead of my own brand of weird hybridity. When friends at school made jokes about Scotland’s superiority, their hatred of the English, the need for their country’s freedom, I felt that wavering sense of otherness, an instinctive need to protect my ‘origins’. As a child, England meant family; it meant going home and being ‘free’. Days out in the summer holidays to the sun-sparkly cities of Brighton and London; the suburban beauty of Milton Keynes in autumn. I liked how I was the only one in my primary school class who wasn’t born in Irvine hospital. When you’re a kid, you kind of like to be special.
Maybe it’s terribly ironic that I would grow up to become a pretty staunch supporter of Scottish independence; someone who works in a whisky bar and identifies more with the social milieu of Kevin Bridges’ standup than that of Austen novels, who cut their teeth drinking Frosty Jacks instead of White Lightning, who fell in love with a wasted seaside town instead of London, and spent inordinate amounts of time listening to endearingly miserable Scottish folk bands over whatever was ‘hip’ in Hoxton. When did the change happen? At what point did I stop mourning my lost English childhood, with its (probably false) promise of sunny summers, middle-class comforts and extra bank holidays? It was long before I started to associate much of England with the heartlands of UKIP and Brexit, long before I realised that Scotland did things differently (socially and politically) to the rest of Britain, and that this was a very good thing.
I guess part of it was realising I didn’t really belong in England either. I couldn’t play the cool and demure English rose, not all the way. For one, with the lack of sun up north, my naturally blonde hair faded, and I’ve now settled on a Celtic shade of copper red. Back then family members would point out queer things I said, like when I relayed stories about folk ‘battering’ each other at school, or how it was ‘pishin’’ it down with rain, or my periodic and derisive expressions of ‘haneck’ whenever anything unfortunate happened. My brother and I would amp up our ‘Scottish’ banter whenever we were down south, cracking jokes and putting on our rough Ayrshire accents the same way any Brit does abroad. I started to realise that I sort of loved the strangeness of Scotland: the Ceilidh dancing we had to learn in P.E, the pervasive aura of folktales, of haggis and kelpies; bottles of Irn Bru that I was forbidden from drinking as a kid, the stern broad Scots of the man on the tape who announced the beginning of every French Listening paper. I wasn’t sure how well I fit in, but I liked it anyway. It started to feel like home.
In my hometown of Maybole, there is a strict policing of difference. The smoke plume of neds at every bus stop will be the adjudicators of any risqué fashion you choose to indulge in. If you wore black and a slick of thick eyeliner, for example, they were sure to enquire whether you ‘shagged deed folk’; if you wore a miniskirt you were a ‘wee hoore’; if you were a guy who had slightly long hair you were a ‘poof’; skinny jeans made you – perhaps the ultimate insult – ‘an emo’. In our school, there was the Mosher’s Corner, the Farmer’s Corner, the Smoker’s Corner, to name just a handful of territories whose policing often bordered on the militant. In first year, I witnessed a friend being shoved headfirst into a spiky hedge because he tried to ‘invade’ the Farmer’s Corner. At the Mosher’s Corner, which took a couple of years to gain full acceptance, you were pelted with stones by bored and angry first years, or scolded by irate P.E. teachers, who had to pass through the area and always liked to pull you up on inane details of uniform. Don’t tell me I can’t wear my stripy knee socks to school when that guy’s cutting about in a tracksuit.
In the midst of this battlefield of identities, is it any wonder I loved my house? The one place where I could be whatever I wanted? Whenever we had to write our address down at school, I relished scribbling down the house name, Daisybank, with all its pastoral resonance. Compared to all the places I have lived in Glasgow (room such and such, flat 1, 2, 3 etc), having a house name is a proper luxury. It was on the road to Turnberry Golf Course; ten minutes walk from the Ranch caravan park. I had a pal who owned a dairy farm nearby, and the woman a few doors down bred collie dogs. For some reason, we always seemed to live beside ministers. In a way, Maybole is the epitome of rural quaintness: it is famous mostly for its former glory as a cobbler’s paradise, for being the meeting place of Rabbie Burns’ parents, for having a relatively crap golf course, a sixteenth-century castle and once upon a time a couple of lemonade factories. You’re ten minutes drive from the sea and surrounded by vibrant green hills studded with pretty villages. The air is fresh and the water tastes great. There’s even a train line.
Still, it’s difficult to appreciate all that stuff as a teenager. I started to dream of Glasgow as this mythical solution to all my problems: a place of cosmopolitanism, where people read poetry, played in bands, and didn’t care what anyone thought of them.
It was only when I moved away from home, got a flat in the city, that I realised the extent of my weird sense of belonging to this silly wee town where technically I had no roots.
The last time I properly cried was the day I said goodbye to Daisybank and Maybole for the last time. I paced round the empty rooms, hearing the silent creak of the floorboards, memories passing by me as fleetingly as moths, leaving me with this overwhelming sense of grief. It was like saying goodbye to the entirety of childhood, the last eighteen years of my life, all at once. Unlike most people, we didn’t move around much and this was our home all that time, through thick and thin, good times and bad. I realised how protected I had felt by the presence of the house, its strong sandstone walls, the elaborate latticework of memories that had wove themselves into every structure, every smell and texture and object.
I sat on the train back to Glasgow, staring at the late summer scenery pass behind me, feeling like I had severed a limb.
I don’t know what it is that made me feel that way. Maybe it was the garden: the pond we made with water reeds and frogspawn pinched from the lake at Culzean (the pond in which at my sixteenth birthday party, my friend lost his Buckfast bottle), the faint scent of the lilac tree and its treasure trove of bluebells in May, the memories of bonfire nights, Easter egg hunts, performing original plays; the August weekend when a friend and I climbed the rowan tree and picked every red, gleaming berry – each one to our childish eyes as precious as a ruby. Maybe it was the peace sign my Mum’s ex-boyfriend mowed into the front lawn. The lingering whiff of failed baking experiments that still haunted the kitchen, popcorn burnt to the bottom of the pan, bowls dissolved in liquid heat, vague explosions in the oven (the door of which had to be constantly propped open by a chair). The mice that lived in the piano, the washing machine that shook so violently we had to put a brick in it.
The bike rides up into the Carrick hills; the hysterical impersonations of bleating sheep, chasing chickens and pheasants off the roads. Feeding lambs in spring, horse-riding and jumping off hay bales. Long walks with friends, where we deconstructed the universe as the sun bled its final light behind the Kildoon monument.
The summer we painted the wall of the den at the back of the garden, purple and orange, and I got black floor paint, thick as molasses, on my brother’s leg. He was about six and it didn’t come off for weeks. The concrete steps I fell down once and grazed my side so badly I could hardly move. The cities we drew with chalk on the patio, until the rain came the next day to wash them away again. The nights of mild teenage trauma, when I crawled into the space beneath my bed to calm myself down. All the people that came and went, who knocked on the back door or else rang the bell at the front. Afternoons alone in the corner of my room, hunched over chord sheets and trying to play Paramore songs on guitar. Parties with gin served in secondhand teacups, with contraband vodka smuggled in Coke bottles, with the perpetual background flicker of my frozen iTunes library, which everyone cracked a shot at.
Halloween parties with ersatz cobwebs strung from every surface, bowls of punch and fistfuls of body glitter; dubstep thundering from the upstairs study.
The secret room next door to the bathroom which we never discovered, because you had to knock the wall through. Sometimes, when I was lying in the bath, I liked to think about what was on the other side. What wild and weird stories I could fathom from that dark place of possibility? You could see the skylight in the garden and I thought maybe someone had died in there and the previous owners had decided to seal it in.
Previous owners. It’s strange, when you settle so deeply into a house, you think you are the only person to have ever lived there. I remember being about six years old and finding a little plastic doll under the gas fire once and thinking how disturbing it was to think of another young girl playing on the floor of the living room, as I was. The mere thought of her presence could only be a ghost to me, as transient and fantastical as the people on tv.
There was the man next-door who thought we were dirty hippies, but still gifted us with various vegetables grown in his greenhouse, and murmured a gruff hello when we were in the garden.
The long grass meadows out front across the road, where once we made snow angels in winter and walked the dog, where now there’s an estate of houses.
The home videos from when we first moved in: plastic toys scattering the grubby carpet, school friends garbed in 90s fashion (lilac or orange crop tops, white peddle pushers and velvet hairbands) draped over the ugly, velcro sofa. The dent in the wall from a misfired golf ball; the scorch mark on the carpet where someone dropped char from a shisha pipe. Places on my bedroom wall, behind the plaster, where I scrawled Green Day, then Cat Power lyrics; ‘star pupil’ and various Kerrang stickers that couldn’t be peeled off the wardrobe (also the Metal as Fuck sticker we stuck on the lamp, which I’m sure still lingers, irrevocably); the cupboard under the stairs with the camping gear, the old washing machine and the pervasive smell of must. As soon as you opened the door, you were simultaneously attacked by a falling hoover, a bag of tent pegs and a canopy of jackets.
Whole evenings and afternoons, lost to playing Sim City on the old computer. Waiting patiently for dialup to connect, doodling on wee notepads that my dad brought back from hotels on his business trips. Sifting through stacks of Standard Grade artwork, band posters, electric guitars, music stands, golf clubs, tennis rackets and folders of homework.
I could go on forever listing details. I guess it’s the nature of missing something that you link things together, this endless concatenation of memories. You think it would be claustrophobic, living in a small town, but one of the things I’ve always missed since moving out was the space. You could run up and down the stairs, pretend the floor was lava and jump from sofa to sofa in the living room, stare out the big bay windows not at a yard of bins and more buildings but at the rolling, sprawling countryside. Hear the jackdaws in the chimney, watch the butterflies flutter around the Buddleja, the sunflowers bloom in June after the dying of the tulips. Life had a rhythm; you paid more attention to nature: the creeping in of the spiders in September, the wasps in August that nested constantly outside my mother’s bedroom, to the point where her windowsill was a nasty holocaust of their dying bodies.
My childhood home was flawed. There was the icy drafts that blew in through the floorboards, the lack of a shower, the grit that sometimes spat out the taps, the sound of lorries trundling past, the toilet that struggled to flush, the kids out back that belted JLS songs as they bounced on their trampoline. Sometimes the roof leaked, we had to clean the gutters, the hot water stopped working, the carpet always slipped on the top step of the stairs. Somehow though, despite their irritation, these flaws were endearing. It’s different, I think, when you own a property compared to when you rent: when you own it, the flaws are just something you sort of live with, rather than demand your landlord to fix. When you explain them to guests, you’re only ever semi-apologetic. The embarrassing parts (the Alan Partridge lap dance postcard on the fridge, the broken oven, the cracks in the kitchen tiles which our friends and I used to take apart and reassemble like puzzle pieces, the precarious stability of the garden wall) become something you’re sort of proud of. It seems kind of absurd now to think that one time, in the middle of the night, our garden wall literally just collapsed, blasting bricks across the patio and shattering the wooden bench, sending its splinters as far afield as the neighbour’s garden.
Maybe it’s that shambolic charm that drew me again and again to Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle, as a preteen. I wasn’t just obsessed with the lucidly beautiful voice of the young heroine, her story of unrequited love and the struggle to grow up amidst slightly meagre and crazy circumstances, but also her descriptions of the crumbling castle which her family called home. She describes her first impressions thus:
How strange and beautiful it looked in the late afternoon light! I can still recapture that first glimpse – see the sheer grey stone walls and towers against the pale yellow sky, the reflected castle stretching towards us on the brimming moat, the floating patch son emerald-green water-weed. No breath of wind ruffled the looking-glass water, no sound of any kind came to us. Our excited voices only made the castle seem more silent.
The image is imprinted on her memory, relayed back through her diary; as still as a flower pressed between the pages of a book, as the motionless water, a reflection of a very specific and idealised point in time, the fresh perception of this place that would become the crumbling though romantic ruin of a poverty-stricken home. It is clear that much of Cassandra’s descriptions of the castle are filtered through the discourse of fairytale, though in a knowing, reflexive way, that recognises the flaws of such fantasies. Her sister, Rose, will not be the perfect princess, English Rose though perfect she is; neither will she be the perfectly objective narrator. I just adore the scene when they are drinking outside the village pub: cherry brandy for Cassandra, bright green creme de menthe for Rose, to bring out the russet shades in her hair.
Sitting outside in the comparative paradise of my own garden, I enjoyed the traditional Scottish though equally vibrant liquor of Mad Dog 20/20 to season my youthful palette (unlike Rose, I don’t think my choice of tipple ever worked very well to seduce rich and handsome American suitors). I had the smell of woodsmoke in my hair, the wind coming in off the near-distant sea with a faint and familiar saltiness, the taste of health. There’s something so lovely about that nostalgia, when you can see yourself outside of yourself, picturesque in your childhood surroundings.
In a way, I guess I sort of thought as Daisybank as my castle. We didn’t have a mote, or a crumbling turret, but we had a garden of long grass and dog daisies and a steep drive that kept the floodwater out and the crazed night dwellers away (once, my mother parked the car on the road and some random jakes literally tipped it on its side, so she woke up in the morning to it pouring oil all down the street, like it was weeping sadness and blood). It’s hard to recreate that sense of absolute safety, of home — where all your memories have long seeped into the walls, where you first wept at a book, kissed a boy, got blackout drunk on whisky. All the birthday cakes and candles, the mean words said and the reparations. It’s like the house has witnessed the sweetest and darkest parts of ourselves and god knows it must be a burden to bear those secrets.
It’s kind of impossible for me to imagine the house with new people living in it. It’s even difficult to imagine Maybole without my family living there. You sort of stay in touch via Facebook pages, you have the odd dream about walking down the high street or buying a roll in the deli or sitting on the swings at Miller Park, but you can’t really imagine it just going on being. Like a kind of clockwork village, it stops in your mind when you’re no longer there; when your roots are sort of severed. When people I’d known a long time found out we’d sold the house, they talked about it with the almost the same level of sadness and compassion they would on discovering a close relative had died.
It was a bloody good house; I don’t think I’ll ever live somewhere as nice and homely again – or at least it’ll never be quite the same. There’s just something about the place you grow up in, a magical and elusive quality. I can start to describe it, the pink and orange light seen from the patio on winter mornings, the daffodils on the kitchen table, steam from the iron, the flicker of Sonic the Hedgehog games on the old television, the space under the desk where my dog used to hide on fireworks night; but then here I am again, slipping back into details. You can’t grasp it; it’s in all of these things. Like love. It’s supplementary, in the Derridean sense that it has no inherent presence or meaning: it’s just all the things you try to hold in place for a moment, the mesh of connections and space of interplay that forms, pliably, impermanently, when you try to grasp at the meaning.
Houses are, perhaps, more than houses. Every writer, every intellectual discipline under the sun has spent centuries debating the meaning of ‘home’, but perhaps houses themselves are equally strange and uncanny. What does a house mean to us after we have vacated it, stripped it of all the stuff that made it personal to us? Can it still be a home? I must admit, I don’t imagine myself living in my old house anymore; I can only see it as it was before. I can recall myself standing in particular locations: the feeling of waking up in my bed, or standing at the sink, washing up on a Sunday evening, watching the birds out the window. Yet when I try to think about how it might be decorated now, what the people inside are doing, I draw a blank. You can’t picture it like in the the Sims; can’t just imagine the drama of the lives within.
Many authors have anthropomorphised the houses in their books. They become characters in themselves, or at least acquire some kind of emotional or physical sensitivity to what goes on in and around them. Toni Morrison, in Beloved, describes the house, from Denver’s perspective, as ‘a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits’: the domestic space is as much a character as Denver herself, it takes on the qualities of and indeed reacts to the events which take place within it. You know that eerie sense of dust settling, of silence and weightiness that falls upon a house after an argument? There’s something to it. An ethereal feeling, a kind of knowingness; as if the house itself could somehow be conscious.
Perhaps the most famous instance of an anthropomorphised house is that of the Ramsay’s holiday home on the isle of Skye in Virginia Woolf’s novel, To the Lighthouse. Woolf takes a hefty chunk out of her narrative to describe the process of decay that unravels the household in the Ramsay’s absence. Significant family events, such as marriage, childbirth and death, are confined to parentheses, while intensely lyrical descriptions of the details of the changing conditions of the household are given centre stage:
[Prue Ramsay died that summer in some illness connected with childbirth, which was indeed a tragedy, people said, everything, they said, had promised so well.]
And now in the heat of summer the wind sent its spies about the house again. Flies wove a web in the sunny rooms; weeds that had grown close to the glass in the night tapped methodically at the window pane. When darkness fell, the stroke of the Lighthouse, which had laid itself with such authority upon the carpet in the darkness, tracing its pattern, came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again. But in the very lull of this loving caress, as the long stroke leant upon the bed, the rock was rent asunder; another fold of the shawl loosened; there it hung, and swayed. Through the short summer nights and the long summer days, when the empty rooms seemed to murmur with the echoes of the fields and the hum of flies, the long streamer waved gently, swayed aimlessly; while the sun so striped and barred the rooms and filled them with yellow haze that Mrs. McNab, when she broke in and lurched about, dusting, sweeping, looked like a tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters.
I just adore this passage for several reasons. It’s full of poetic devices which bring the house itself to life: all the personification which renders objects and shadows and light into living, breathing things. The recurring consonance of the l sound which leads us, liltingly, through all sensory encounters; as if we, occupying and flying through the sentences, were as light as air, a travelling dust mote, surveying the situation. L is a flickering kind of sound, fluttering, leading onwards, somehow soporific. A line like this sends tingles up your spine: ‘the stroke of the Lighthouse […] came now in the softer light of spring mixed with moonlight gliding gently as if it laid its caress and lingered stealthily and looked and came lovingly again’. The sentences and descriptions flit between movement and stasis: the loving caress and the sudden shift of a rock, followed by a hanging, a loosening, a suspension. Everything seems to be swinging, swaying; the material of the house unfolds and unravels like a shawl. The zanily surreal image of the housekeeper Mrs. McNab trying to control the chaos in the manner of a ‘tropical fish oaring its way through sun-lanced waters’ is deliciously both amusing and vivid, conjuring a sense of the beauty of this interplay of order and decay. It’s a clashing sort of image, the vibrancy juxtaposed with the dulling surroundings, but the effect is to exoticise, just ever so slightly, the whole scene. We are invited to look closer, as if peering through a fish tank. This is more than just a house laying to waste in its owners’ absence. Real empathy is stirred for the house itself:all the ghosts that inhabit the walls, the absence that tears at everything. Objects and noises, the vacant trails where once human footsteps made their passage. Mrs. McNab, in all her matronly cleanliness, is but a colourful fish, pulling itself fleetingly through the reeds. All our efforts to clean up the world, to annihilate its disorder, are perhaps similarly slightly futile.
Throughout Time Passes, Woolf contrasts and holds together opposites: day/night, abstract/specific, growth/decay, movement/stasis, beauty/waste, absence/presence and life/death, to name a few. At once we lament the abandoned house, while also marvelling at the ‘power’ of nature’s ‘fertility’ and ‘insensibility’: the way in which dahlias, giant artichokes, cabbages and carnations continue to flourish amongst the house’s decline. She might as well be describing the inconsistencies and tensions within the psyche of an actual human character. Time veers between eternities and instances; the sheer significance of a death (here, Prue’s) is passed by fleetingly, another stain upon the already well-blotched backdrop of war, a different trauma to the slow, inevitable decline of the house. The writing here is both photographic and cinematic: moving through the stillness of random snapshots to the build-up and unravelling of a time-lapse. Isn’t that like life, like memory itself?
‘Some days in late August at home are like this, the air thin and eager like this, with something in it sad and nostalgic and familiar’
— William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury
Maybe home is all about the seductiveness of boredom, the comfort of merely occupying space. Maybe its familiarity is what contains an inherent sadness: a sense of loss stemming from that which we cannot regain, despite our close spatial proximity. Like someone you love but who has changed, irrevocably, drifted out far beyond your reach. Like lost innocence and joy, the way we were before we knew certain things; before life happened, in all its terrible narrative beauty. Quentin’s reflections in The Sound and the Fury have a degree of universal application. Late summer and early autumn; the turning of the seasons, the fading of the year. We spend more time indoors as the air thins to a coolness; we retreat into the safety of houses. Each year, we think back to blackberry picking in gardens, cooking soup on the stove, going back to school. One of my favourite (and pleasantly simple) opening lyrics, from Stornoway’s song ‘Zorbing’: ‘Conkers shining on the ground / the air is cooler / and I feel like I just started uni’. It’s details like that that send us home. Reminders that time moves in loops; that constantly we are living through our memories, mixing the strange and new with familiarity. You don’t necessarily need a specific physical location to be ‘home’. Maybe it’s more complex and slippery than that. Sure, I miss Daisybank like hell, but it’s the details I miss most, and like everything else, with age they acquire that golden, treacly glow of nostalgia. Maybe I don’t need to be Scottish or English or anything at all. I just need to find home. Then I can begin again.
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Belle & Sebastian are one of those bands that give you a warm, fuzzy and nostalgic feeling. As much as they’re often lazily attributed to the cultural realm of the ‘indie kid’ or the ‘Glasgow hipster’, this neglects the fact of their wider popularity. They are, after all, a band who’ve been around for over 20 years now. I’ve played their tunes in the restaurant where I work and witnessed middle-aged folks who look like they’re off to a Springsteen concert humming along to ‘The Boy With the Arab Strap’. Their songs have popped up on plenty of popular tv shows and films (‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ on Girls, ‘I’m a Cuckoo’ on The Inbetweeners, ‘Piazza, New York Catcher’ in Juno – to name just a handful).Like a sweet, familiar honey, their music just sticks to you, whether you wanna spread it on your toast or not. Sure, they get a lot of hate: their songs are cloying, the singing a bit too saccharine at times, the lyrics silly, the sound the same on each album. I’ve heard them being called ‘beige’ music.
For me, Belle & Sebastian make pastel coloured music. I don’t know, maybe it’s a touch of the old synaesthesia but I’ve always imagined their songs awash in delicate shades of blue and pink, green and yellow and orange – a bit like the colours of sorbet. They’re just the perfect summer band. Some bands it’s easy to have a colour for, or even a texture: Mogwai are deep deep green and black, LCD Soundsystem are bright, shiny white, Mac DeMarco all denim blue and dirty mustard yellow, Kate Bush is a luscious kind of cherry red, Bjork is all the hues of a pearl, Tame Impala are psychedelic greens and blues and oranges, Aphex Twin is ink black, but sometimes yellow, blue or bubblegum pink. In the same vein, Belle & Sebastian to me are all about pastels, sometimes a wee bit brighter but never beige, except when it’s that classy kind of chino beige that you might see paired with a yellow blouse and pink ribbon. I want to be dressed up with a funny hat, a mini skirt and retro sunglasses when I listen to them. Something lilac, a stick of ice lolly. Hell, maybe even rollerblades. I find myself immersed in the stories of the songs; I sort of want to be a character in one of them – a lost twenty-something with her school days long behind her, figuring out how to deal with the world and enjoying living in the city.
Listening to them involves a kind of camaraderie: you’re sharing the world with them, with all the voices of each song’s narrator; sharing Stuart Murdoch’s hazy, romanticised version of Glasgow, the lives of the quirky characters he writes into his lyrics. The musical arrangements in their songs vary between stripped back and fragile, sometimes very much Smiths-influenced (inherently, B&S are an ‘urban’ band, right?), with pretty melodies adorned with piano, acoustic guitar, maybe a bit of bass (‘We Rule the School’, ‘It Could Have Been a Brilliant Career’, ‘Dress Up in You’ – these are some of my favourites), to zany and fun and maybe even lovably chaotic, with some of the earlier songs sporting surf rock guitars (‘La Pastie De La Bourgeoisie’) or (in the early days, Cubase-arranged) electronic numbers (‘Electronic Renaissance’, or, later on, the near seven minute ‘Enter Sylvia Plath’ which frames its tribute to the late great poet inside a Europop epic), as well as the Beatles-influenced ‘chamber pop’ (of which they share the influence mantle with Camera Obscura) – see, for example, The Life Pursuit. Their songs are often self-conscious, writing about the importance of losing yourself in books and songs (the final song of Tigermilk, ‘Mary Jo’, references the fictional book that titles the album’s first song: ‘You’re reading a book, “The State I Am In”’), referencing themselves, other ‘indie’ bands (Arab Strap being the most obvious), creating this whole dreamworld of literary and musical references which itself becomes the fantasy world of the songs. When you listen to them, it’s impossible not to lose yourself slightly to this pastel-saturated universe. It’s not just twee; it’s bittersweet happiness, nostalgia, personal and cultural reflection – they began making music in the 90s, after all. That’s why I smile when I see someone sporting a wee Belle & Sebastian tote bag or t-shirt: you know there’s someone else out there who shares that sweet and silly, slightly sad but hopeful little world.
In a way, they’re a band for the underdogs. They cut their teeth on the Glasgow open mic circuit, with its crowds veering between adoration or ruthless indifference. Every Saturday, under the guise of various band or solo arrangements, Stuart and his pals would appear in the Halt bar on Woodlands Road (sadly it no longer exists) – you can read all about it in bass/guitar player Stuart David’s memoir, In the All-Night Café, which geekily delves into early musical experiments, the songwriting process and all the crazy moments that brought the band together in their formative year. So yeah, it’s worth a read if you’re a B&S fan or even just a musician. It’s important to remember that the band produced and recorded all their early songs (came together, essentially) at Stow College’s now slightly legendary Beatbox course, which at the time was more or less a course that unemployed musicians in the area took to ensure they kept receiving the dole: ‘From what I could tell,’ Stuart writes of his first impression of the course, ‘[Beatbox] was a total shambles. Just scores of unemployed musicians sitting around in a dark, airless labyrinth, doing nothing. […] I wandered around on my own trying to work out what was what, while people scowled at me, or just stared blankly into space. A thick cloud of cigarette smoke pervaded the place, and something about the absence of daylight and the lack of fresh air made me wonder if the place was actually a detention centre set up by the government to incarcerate all the people they’d caught using Social Security benefit as an arts bursary’ (In the All-Night Cafe, pp. 10-11). This is probably an impression of college hallways and classrooms that most young adults of Generation X or millennials growing up in Britain can relate to: the flickering strip lighting, the apathy amongst both staff and pupils, the sense of suffocating bureaucracy, of life in suspension. And yet out of that dark and maybe even Kafkaesque environment, sometimes the magic happens. People come together and make the best of things – it’s inspiring.
For me, it’s also inspiring that Stuart Murdoch is actually from Ayr. The only other celebrated artist I can think of off the top of my head that hails from Ayr is none other than Robert Burns, so yeah, it’s been awhile since the place has been put on the map, artistically speaking. Belle & Sebastian are usually associated with Glasgow (especially the West End), but for me it’s important to remember their humble beginnings. Ayr still has a pretty cool music scene in terms of acoustic nights in local pubs, but there’s definitely a dearth of actual decent gig venues, especially when it’s producing so many talented musicians through, for example, the well-respected Commercial Music course at the UWS Ayr Campus (see for example Bella and the Bear and the wonderful Shanine Gallagher).
ANYWAY, back to Belle & Sebastian. I wanted to talk about Tigermilk as an example of their oeuvre in general – as the raw, often forgotten diamond. It’s their debut album, though I actually came to B&S first through If You’re Feeling Sinister, having picked it up from Fopp when I moved to the West End for university and decided a B&S CD was a good way of immersing myself in local culture. Tigermilk reminds me of that lost and lonely summer feeling, walking around the city killing time before going to work, worrying about all the books I had to read before September, the people and things and memories I was in love with, that paranoid and desperate desire to write myself and indeed keep writing. It’s a lo-fi sort of album; it feels sweet and magical in that simple way, and you can tell that it marks the moment when the band discovered they had something special going on.
Sometimes the lyrics are a wee bit strange and surreal; the cast of characters Murdoch evokes in his lyrics can be pretty bewildering. The band’s slightly surreal vibe is indicated by the cover art for Tigermilk: a black-and-white picture of Murdoch’s then girlfriend, Joanne Kenney, apparently breastfeeding a toy tiger. Then take a look at the lyrics to ‘My Wandering Days are Over’ for example: ‘Six months on, the winter’s gone / The disenchanted pony / Left the town with the circus boy / The circus boy got lonely / It’s summer, and it’s sister song’s / Been written for the lonely / The circus boy is feeling melancholy’. You’re never sure if the characters are metaphors for existentially pained middle-class indie kids (lost in the job market/lost in the adult world circus of mad capitalism??), or actual protagonists in B&S’s musical universe. That’s the poetry of it – you get to decide. It all sort of makes sense, this girl with spiky black hair nourishing a toy tiger; sure, you can take it as symbolic, but it’s also just intriguing and slightly controversial enough to draw attention to a debut album.
One of B&S’s unique selling points is the whimsical fictions they weave through their ‘brand’ as a band. Take, for example, the sleeve notes to Tigermilk: they detail a cute little tale about Sebastian and Isabelle, the namesakes for the band.
Sebastian met Isabelle outside the Hillhead Underground Station, in Glasgow. Belle harassed Sebastian, but it was lucky for him that she did. She was very nice and funny, and sang very sweetly. Sebastian was not to know this, however. Sebastian was melancholy.
He had placed an advert in the local supermarket. He was looking for musicians. Belle saw him do it. That’s why she wanted to meet him. She marched straight up to him unannounced and said, ‘Hey you!’ She asked him to teach her to play the guitar. Sebastian doubted he could teach her anything, but he admired her energy, so he said ‘Yes’.
It was strange. Sebastian had just decided to become a one-man band. It is always when you least expect it that something happens. Sebastian had befriended a fox because he didn’t expect to have any new friends for a while. He still loved the fox, although he had a new distraction. Suddenly he was writing many new songs. Sebastian wrote all of his best songs in 1995. In fact, most of his best songs have the words ‘Nineteen Ninety-five’ in them. It bothered him a little. What will happen in 1996?
They worked on the songs in Belle’s house. Belle lived with her parents, and they were rich enough to have a piano. It was in a room by itself at the back of the house, overlooking the garden. This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara. If Belle’s mum had known this, she would not have been happy. She was paying for the guitar lessons. The lessons gave Sebastian’s life some structure. He went to the barber’s to get a haircut.
Belle and Sebastian are not snogging. Sometimes they hold hands, but that is only a display of public solidarity. Sebastian thinks Belle ‘kicks with the other foot’. Sebastian is wrong, but then Sebastian can never see further than the next tragic ballad. It is lucky that Belle has a popular taste in music. She is the cheese to his dill pickle.
Belle and Sebastian do not care much for material goods. But then neither Belle nor Sebastian has ever had to worry about where the next meal is coming from. Belle’s most recent song is called Rag Day. Sebastian’s is called The Fox In The Snow. They once stayed in their favourite caf’ for three solid days to recruit a band. Have you ever seen The Magnificent Seven? It was like that, only more tedious. They gained a lot of weight, and made a few enemies of waitresses.
Belle is sitting highers in college. She didn’t listen the first time round. Sebastian is older than he looks. He is odder than he looks too. But he has a good heart. And he looks out for Belle, although she doesn’t need it. If he didn’t play music, he would be a bus driver or be unemployed. Probably unemployed. Belle could do anything. Good looks will always open doors for a girl.
You’ve got it all here: the playful and ultra twee imagery ‘(she is the cheese to his dill pickle’), the hint of queer culture and crossdressing that sometimes runs through B&S songs (‘This was where Belle taught Sebastian to put on mascara’), the DIY elements, the spatial immersion in Glasgow’s West End as a kind of leafy wonderland where people own pianos in airy rooms overlooking gardens. It’s honest and cute and totally unashamed, totally uninterested in being cool. Compared with the stylised, rock’n’roll swagger of Britpop, this album (originally released in 1996 then rereleased in 1999) is so refreshing. The tale of Belle and Sebastian is a short story, more than an explanation of the album’s lyrics or ‘concept’; it’s a bit ambiguous, a touchstone for all the other B&S characters who populate later LP – it’s perhaps, most importantly, an indication of the band’s consistent literary bent.
‘Sebastian was melancholy’. Well, melancholy is probably the overriding emotion on Tigermilk. Melancholy being that feeling of sadness, yearning and inexplicable loss. An indulgent feeling, a languid and probably narcissistic feeling that is almost pleasurable despite lolling around in the negative. Freud, in Mourning and Melancholia (1915) famously distinguishes mourning and melancholia thus: ‘In mourning the world has become impoverished and empty, during melancholia, it is the ego itself’. Mourning is about the loss of a specific object, whereas melancholia is a vaguer feeling, a depression with no apparent or obvious source, a swallowing up of selfhood into narcissistic darkness. One of the reason’s I really like ‘I Don’t Love Anyone’ is its in-your-face rejection of the Coca Cola style let’s-all-hold-hands-and-be-happy version of love, the assertion of personal endurance and the often denigrated value of independence in a world where we’re all supposed to follow the crowd: ‘But if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still a child / It’s to take a hiding / Yeah if there’s one thing that I learned when I was still at school / It’s to be alone’. I was that kid who sometimes liked to walk around the playground alone, making up stories in my head – adults just assume it’s because you’re being bullied but there’s a golden value to imagination and it’s easier to forget that as an adult, easy to forget that sometimes you need time out from your friends to be in your own mind.
A lot of Tigermilk is about trying to negotiate personal identity in an often problematic adult world with few opportunities for anyone vaguely creative. It’s worth quoting a hearty chunk of ‘Expectations’ to demonstrate this:
Monday morning wake up knowing that you’ve got to go to school
Tell your mum what to expect, she says it’s right out of the blue
Do you want to work in Debenham’s, because that’s what they expect
Start in Lingerie, and Doris is your supervisor
And the head said that you always were a queer one from the start
For careers you say you went to be remembered for your art
Your obsession gets you known throughout the school for being strange
Making life-size models of the Velvet Underground in clay
In the queue for lunch they take the piss, you’ve got no appetite
And the rumour is you never go with boys and you are tight
So they jab you with a fork, you drop the tray and go berserk
While your cleaning up the mess the teacher’s looking up your skirt
We’ve all known (or been ourselves!) the weird kid obsessed with music, inviting abuse with every strange word spoken. Wear something black, a bit of eyeliner and you’re inviting folk to ask you if you “shag dead folk”. There’s always the one of many that has a whole collection of cool things to say, to contribute to the world, but ends up in retail, in a call-centre, maybe waitressing. Again, Belle & Sebastian are the band of the underdog, the folk (and there are a lot of them) who slog away at day jobs but don’t give up on their dreams – whether those dreams involve becoming a star of track and field, a model, artist, musician, writer.
Tigermilk, then,isn’t just a melancholy album; there are some feel good moments, such as ‘You’re Just a Baby’, which features handclaps and a nice rock’n’roll beat with a simple, serenading refrain: ‘You’re just a baby, baby girl’. Fundamentally, Belle & Sebastian are a pop band, and a damn good one at that. Stuart Murdoch recently wrote and directed his own film, God Help the Girl, which more or less demonstrates his near-religious philosophy of pop music, as the character James (fittingly played by the singer from pop/electronic band Years & Years) proclaims:
A man needs only write one genius song, one song that lives forever in the hearts of the populous to make him forever divine. […] Many women and men have lived empty, wasted lives in attics trying to write classic pop songs. What they don’t realise is it’s not for them to decide. It’s God. Or, the god of music. Or, the part of God that concerns Himself with music.
This is some fairly interesting religious imagery coming from a singer (Murdoch) who has always been openly Christian. And of course, the hyperbolic emphasis on music’s divine significance here is perhaps a cheeky dig at the ego of the pop star, but it also touches on the importance of universalism for pop. It’s easy to consume, it should transcend generations, it should be technically perfect – the satisfying work of a ‘genius’. But good pop, as Belle & Sebastian demonstrate, isn’t all bubblegum songs about loving your sweetheart – it also has that spark of something else. For me, B&S capture a very specific experience of existential bewilderment in the modern world, combined with the right amount of romance, comedy, storytelling and a healthy streak of cynicism. God Help the Girl is twee as hell, but it’s also a loving portrait of Glasgow, of the early days of being in a band, the freedom of summer days drifting down the canal with the world shining bright around you. It’s maybe also a portrait of unrequited love. And, crucially, it transforms that cliche, the power of music, into something sparkly and fun as well as serious and uplifting – it is a musical after all. Its ambiguous ending, with the heroine (significantly called Eve – more religious imagery!) finally leaving the city and on a train ride to London where she intends to try and make it ‘alone’ after her existential rebirth and artistic awakening in Glasgow, is perhaps its strongest point – it’s a feminist assertion of personal creative desire as opposed to remaining tied down to the things your friends want.
Once again, Murdoch puts complete faith in his slightly damaged protagonists; he encourages us to just trust our creativity. Maybe that’s why I love Belle & Sebastian so much, because sure, their songs are mostly golden, pastel-hazed pop, but it’s not that simple; they embrace that wavering, magical and sad place between warm dreams and cold reality, and represent all the poor souls who live there in that limbo, such as the eponymous heroine from ‘Mary Jo’: ‘Your life is never dull in your dreams / A pity that it never seems to work the way you see it’. And even though such songs are full of melancholy, you’re still treated, as in an Arctic Monkeys song, to some brilliant lyrical candy: ‘Cause what you want is a cigarette / And a thespian with a caravanette in Hull’. So maybe that’s the special element, the thing that makes the everyday divine, that elevates the ordinary into a valid subject for pop music. And maybe, pleb that I am at heart, that’s why I love it.
Springtime, 2012; first spring in the city. Living on Hillhead Street, with the cat, Miller, who used to mill around and curl his sleepy tail round your ankles at lunchtime, purring at the sun. It was sunny all through April and May. Early mornings in the library, level eight and nine with the light flooding the windows warming and pure, a dish of sun butter melting over sandstone buildings. The best seats, the computer screen a dull mist of unimportant philosophies. Walks along the Kelvin, tangles of fern and wild garlic and the solitaries who wander, sometimes stumbling, always clutching a spliff or a bottle of Bell’s or Buckfast. Coughing their pearls of greenish spit into the river. Summer of the Olympics, no care at all, sugar rush of coke and chocolate buttons and long evenings staring insomniac out of a tiny dorm window. The Decemberists, or Conor Oberst’s croon in the wanderings out to town, to the station or the Necropolis. Smell of cigarettes wafting from rooms below. So far, but not so far, from home. The red glow of the sun at dusk, the silhouettes of house plants, the sound of footsteps.
Exams and I have a fair degree of history together. From that fateful first day in third year when I waited anxiously outside a gym hall to sit my Standard Grade English, to desperately scouring the labyrinth that is Glasgow Uni, trying to find my Honours English Literature exams, or waiting in the rain outside the OTC building, trying not to get run over by passing cars as rain splashed onto my notepad, exams and I have gone through hell and back together.
And they’re a funny thing, exams. Subject to much controversy too, especially in recent years with the dominance of technology over almost all other forms of learning and examination (who hands in a handwritten essay these days? is it even allowed?). Exams suddenly seem awfully old-fashioned. Individual (wobbly) desks, ink spilling everywhere, people writing with fury in an echoey hall. It seems a strange idea, to sit you in a room at the end of the year, thrust a piece of paper in front of you and force you to desperately pour out something resembling an essay in response to a set of unseen questions. I’ve thought about them long and hard over my time at school and college and uni, and come up with some pros and cons:
The fear forces you to study, to recap the information learned over your course.
The early stages of studying can be fun. You’re relearning and rereading, and in the process making interesting connections between texts, based on a more mature understanding of the course gained from reflection.
It can be an opportunity to shine, to show that you can come up with something original in a very short space of time.
You learn the value of concision.
If the questions are well-designed, the exam can be a true test of your analytical abilities and skill for quick-thinking – there are not many other times when you have the adrenaline necessary to formulate a coherent piece of writing in such a short period.
It’s nice to realise that you’ve learned chunks of poetry by heart. Even if they begin to slip away fairly quickly once you’ve left the exam…
Risk of being a memory test. While remembering and recalling information is important for lots of subjects from law to physics, English Lit and other humanities subjects is often about critical thinking skills rather than just remembering ‘data’ aka quotes. Lots of students memorise whole essays and go into the exam, then shoehorn and regurgitate what they’ve stored in their head. Sometimes this works, other times it ends badly. Either way, it isn’t testing much more than your ability to write fast and repeat.
Anxiety. This is a real problem for some people and can really hinder their performance in an exam, even if they’ve studied hard.
Breadth vs. depth. In an essay, with the advantage of time and access to material, it’s a lot easier to formulate a response which balances careful close reading and discussion of relevant secondary criticism and theory. In an exam, it’s too easy to fall back into the trap of plot summaries, even though you’re perfectly capable of analysis. Exams don’t always reflect your ability to synthesise material, or the extent of the research you’ve done.
Too much weighting. In my degree, exams are worth 50% of each course grade. There’s a lot of stake in those two hours, and if you have a brain freeze or something goes wrong, you can really drag down all that hard work you put in during the semester.
There are probably lots more, but here are the ones that immediately spring to mind. My solution would be not to scrap exams entirely, but to use them more effectively. Perhaps have mid-term close reading tests, which would examine your ability to respond ‘naturally’ to a text and your critical skills, rather than just your memory. Maybe also a 25% end of term exam, replacing the other 25% with another 3000 word essay. Maybe it will go that way in the future with credit standardisation; some universities don’t have exams for English Literature at all. The problem of course is that unlike subjects such as law and medicine and business, exam conditions are more unlikely to be part of any aspect of a future career sprung from a literary subject. While some jobs will require you to do set tests e.g. solving financial problems as part of the interview process, you are unlikely to encounter something like that in journalism, academia, publishing and so on. An essay with a deadline seems more akin to the work English Lit tends to lead to.
I can’t remember the worst thing that’s ever happened to me in an exam. There’s always that brief five minute panic when ‘your questions’ haven’t come up, and you have to radically rethink your answers and quickly choose a question; but usually in turns out in the end, and often the most spontaneous answers get the best mark. I guess one of the hardest exams I’ve ever done is Higher Music Listening. I mean, it shouldn’t be, but it just seems to be this horrible trail of riddles, where you have to discern different instruments out of tangles of sound in a very short space of time before the clip stops playing. Also, because you have to maintain concentration as a room of people listening to the same tape, your brain gets pretty muddled. And you can get distracted: I was so excited when the tape played The Strangler’s ‘Golden Brown’ that I made such a hasty decision about which rhythm change it contained that I put the wrong answer down. The coding sections of Higher Computing were also tricky, and writing four essays in an hour and a half for Higher Modern Studies is always the bane of your fifth year existence. Every student in Scotland who did languages will probably remember the terrifying voice that blasted the announcement about this being the STANDARD GRADE FRENCH LISTENING exam through the crackly stereo at the back of a gym hall, with all the aggression of someone holding you up in an armed robbery.
There was a golden moment towards the end of my last exam, when I realised there was less than ten minutes to go, and I was onto the conclusion, and soon that would be me – done forever. I definitely wouldn’t say that I’ll miss exams (hopefully, I’ll never have to do one again unless I decide to take up driving), but there’s something completely rewarding about the adrenaline rush and the nerves and the exhausting release afterwards that seems pretty unique. A bit like doing the Olympics, but for your brain (and your wrist). To anyone who still has exams to sit, good luck and remember it’s not the end of the world; and ultimately, they are always going to be a somewhat artificial test of your ability!
(Also, I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether exams are a good means of assessment or not for literature-based subjects).
So with finals approaching I’ve been spending nigh on every day in the depths of my university’s library. I thought, therefore, that it would be appropriate to report my observations on human life as it seems to occur in this environment…
I’ve identified 12 subtypes which emerge amidst the Darwinist conditions of computer shortages, desk squabbles, bright lighting and excess caffeine…
The sleepers: always a good start to a list, these types are keen on the trend for daytime napping. You will find them either tucked in a comfy chair, their legs propped on the nearest table, or else face down over their keyboard. Probably the source of much resentment, but perhaps it does increase productivity. Still, there could be beds provided, when desks are in such scarce conditions at this busy period…
The chatterers: they come in pairs. Often they arrive around 9-10 in the morning and stay till 5, interrupting each other’s study constantly and engaging in joint Facebook stalking and looking up photographs of famous people on Google Images and giggling without much hush. Tend to take 2 hour lunch breaks and leave all their stuff to hog the desks.
The fortress builders: you rarely glance a peek at these specimens, as they tend to erect large towers of hardback books on their desks. It is unlikely that the books themselves will be opened, but the careful assemblage of pens, paper, notepads and books is very important to their sense of zen.
The aggressive opportunists: to be found hovering about on every level, clutching their phones to their faces and occasionally hesitating an anxious glance around them, as if they were bird-spotting. These types basically scour every floor desperately waiting for someone to vacate their computer so they can dive in. You’ve got to feel sympathy for them, though there is something rather alarmingly aggressive about the way they rush to your desk as soon as you have clicked ‘log off’. It’s like they have super vision.
The stressor: he or she will either be a weepy type, or a sweary type. The weepy type invites deep sympathy, as it is awful to see a fellow human reduced to the state of tears or panic attack over university work. To be honest though, I have encountered more of the latter. In particular, it is common to see finance students sweating it out in the upper levels, swearing under their breath at a screen of what I assume to be frustrating figures, occasionally slamming their fist down upon a hefty textbook.
The gruesome eater: disappears for an hour, comes back with some disgusting excuse for a lunch gleaned from any number of surrounding convenience stores or supermarkets. They favour the more odorous of foodstuffs, and are inclined to make vile slurping noises as they lick their tub of oily pasta or packet of tuna sandwiches. The worst, perhaps, is the Monster Munch crunch.
The early bird endurance workers: these more elusive types tend to congregate in the upper floors with the segregated desks and rule of silent study. They arrive around 8am to get their favoured seat (the same one every day it seems) and are there for most of the day, working away like beavers. Will disappear occasionally for a coffee or cigarette, but rarely leave their desks, which begin piling up very quickly with masses of paper and scribbly notes.
The portable secretary: seems to get a phone call at least once an hour. Will either proceed to talk freely about a mate’s sex life with the entire floor listening, or else make a panic dash to the nearest ‘quiet zone’, leaping heroically over trailing cables. Sometimes is away and the phone will ring unanswered for twenty minutes until a brave stranger plucks up the courage to turn it off in his or her absence.
The rebel: turns up mid-afternoon and somehow still manages to blag a seat somewhere. Pulls the plug out of a PC to stick their laptop on charge. Doesn’t care. Eats trifle on level 8. Whose gonna challenge ’em? Snorts heartily with laughter watching silly Youtube videos in the middle of the day whilst anxious students rush around looking for a computer they can study on.
The drifter: seems not to ever do actual work, but to spend all day scanning every level for anyone he or she happens to be acquainted with, stopping, in an elaborate trail of procrastination, to gabber and pester said acquaintances. Tends to wear a school leavers’ hoodie, and very soft cotton joggers.
The library lightweight: most likely in first year, though the trait can continue up into honours sometimes. Tends not to venture beyond level 3. Dips into the library between classes and sits on Facebook for an hour or so whilst gobbling a sandwich loudly.
Lastly…(perhaps the worst) the foot shuffler: Need I say more? – Takes 10 minutes to walk 10 metres, owing to the way he or she drags their feet across the carpet. Pick your feet up when you walk, for God’s sake!
Well yesterday I handed in my final essays: the last pieces of coursework ever in my undergraduate degree. I expected to feel triumphant but instead I felt a little empty and sad and probably nostalgic. After all those years and sleepless nights and thousands of words painstakingly wrought out on laptop screens, it all boils down to two more essays and three exams. And then it’s over.
It’s difficult to know where to begin with reflecting about my university experience. Everything is usually divided between academic and social life. Employers and scholars, politicians and journalists all frequently debate which of the two is most useful for getting a job. Any careers event you attend will churn out the hackneyed refrain that ‘university isn’t just about academia’. They encourage you to get involved in societies, sports clubs, volunteering, student media. And all this is great, but we mustn’t completely neglect the whole reason we’re at university – some of us paying thousands of pounds a year to do so – to learn. And this learning isn’t all about getting a job (not for me at least), but about learning for education’s sake – for widening your perspective on the world.
The first essay I had to write was on Descartes for Level 1 philosophy. I believe the question was something like ‘Should we be worried by Descartes’ scepticism?’. This kind of question was a whole new ball-game for me. I was used to plain old terminology like ‘Discuss’, ‘to what extent’ and ‘examine/evaluate’. Not should we be worried? Should we? Are philosophical thought experiments really that important? Of course, the essay question was roundly subjected to confusion and piss-take amongst my fellow first year students, but I suppose it was a good way into a career in philosophy. You know, it was the kind of question that makes you think, that challenges your assumptions about what an essay should do. It’s easy to say that now, but at the time I was pulling my hair out. I remember maybe the worst library session I’ve ever had was one rainy Saturday afternoon, where I stared at a blank screen for four hours straight, glancing from book to book and desperately Google searching everything I meticulously typed up, in case it was similar to something else that had been written.
First years are constantly subjected to sermons on the sins of plagiarism. Whilst this is of course a vital academic lesson, it also makes essay-writing for the paranoid nigh on impossible. I remember for my English Literature essay, I decided to scour the internet for every form of critical interpretation available on my primary texts, just to check that I wasn’t repeating the same arguments as everyone else. I had still to learn that plagiarism is more about intellectual integrity, about learning to reference properly and using existing sources in an original way, than coming up with something that is wholly unique. One thing you learn from English Literature – in fact, probably any arts subject – is that the notion of pure originality is somewhat a myth. And that’s actually liberating, because it takes away the equation of creative genius; you’re suddenly allowed to see how authors frequently influence/borrow/steal/subvert one another’s ideas, and you no longer have to imagine essay-writing as an outpouring of wonderful, effortless analysis. It’s allowed to be a difficult process, built up from hours of reading, planning and collated note-taking. Not just something you fire out in an hour at the back of a high school English class.
To the eighteen-year-old me, that Saturday in the library, I wasn’t quite acquainted with all this. I was sitting next to a boy who was typing away furiously, producing what looked like three essays in the space of a few hours (the time it took me to write one paragraph that I eventually cut from the essay).
Philosophy, to be fair, is a subject notoriously confusing when it comes to essays. It shouldn’t be; it’s just that a philosophy essay is distinct from other kinds of critical analysis that I was familiar with through my hitherto social-sciency background. That tutorial we had, waiting to get our essays back, was really hellish. Everyone was telling each other how badly their friends in other tutorials had done. How harsh the marking was. Nobody knew what a philosophy essay was meant to be. We all expected D’s.
When my tutor read out my student number and I went up to collect my essay, I have never been so pleasantly surprised at a grade. An A3! I can tell you, that was the first and hardest earned A3 I have ever received at university.
Looking back, I think I probably spent most of my first two years at university in a vague state of panic. The thing is, most of the time you have no idea what you’re doing and what’s expected at you (I still don’t, but that’s now a good thing – again, liberating). There are rarely any rigid guidelines, especially in a subject like English Literature, and initially that seems terrifying. You are suddenly surrounded with all these people who went to better schools, all these people who’ve read The Complete Works of Shakespeare and can quote Byron and Shelley off the top of their heads. I would spend whole days in my little dorm room trying to get my head around basic terminology like iambic pentameter, chiasmus, ode, Ottava Rima, trochees, lyrics. I’m still terrible at counting metre in poetry, even though I have a background in music and am perfectly capable of keeping time when there are notes and staves involved. But I like to think that I’ve finally found some kind of ‘footing’ in the mountainous landscape of centuries of literature that I was first confronted with that sunny September in 2011.
As with anything, a big part of university is trial and error. You are going to do better under the guidance of some tutors more than others. You are going to write essays that you aren’t very sure of, and sometimes this will pay off, and sometimes it won’t. There are essays that you feel genuinely proud of, not even for the grade but because you know that all the research that went into them widened your intellectual horizons, and all that editing really did pay off in terms of style. It’s nice when you can read back an essay and not cringe at your choice of phrasing, or all those hiccups in grammar and punctuation. There are going to be nights in the library where you get the fright of your life from the tannoid telling you the reception desk is closing. There are going to be times when the library makes you sick, stressed, exhausted. Like when I had to sit next to a man who was eating raw, mud-covered mushrooms straight from the punnet and dipping them in hummus; or the time when the only computer I could find was next to someone who was licking and slurping the oily remains of his spaghetti from the bottom of a massive plastic tub. Times when there are tears involved; either yours or someone else’s. Fights witnessed and blows exchanged; where else but in the sleep-deprived environment of a university library would two people start brawling over a grubby old Dell with a greasy keyboard?
But then there are the best times, the late nights and early mornings and holidays when the library is lovely and quiet. You are free to roam the endless shelves and pick the desk on level 11 that looks out over a beautiful city view. When you finish an essay and print it and the paper is still warm in your hands as you leave to hand it in. When you stumble across a book that you weren’t exactly looking for, but it’s on long-term loan and looks very interesting.
I guess the semesters go so quickly that you hardly notice the time slipping. Sometimes, they seem like little footnotes to a long and formidable summer, with nothing to do but work and plough through the reading list and wish you had more money. If I could go back and do one thing I guess it would be making more use of my time. But then, I don’t regret all the evenings I spent immersed in journal articles and books, because that’s what’s shaped my mind. Sure, I might not have a degree with immediate career prospects beyond journalism or teaching, but I wouldn’t swap my education for the world. And I’d recommend Glasgow Uni English Lit to anyone, especially because it’s so steeped in critical perspectives and literature beyond the obvious canon. Where else would you start off a second-year semester reading Martin McDonagh’s gruesome play The Pillowman, or have a fourth-year seminar on Gone Girl and a course on Urban Spaces which divides its programme under mysterious headings like ‘Airport’ and ‘Shopping Mall’ rather than the tired titles you see across typical course Moodles. My degree (well, let’s hope I actually get it!) hasn’t just been about Shakespeare and Dickens and Austen, though they have all quite rightly featured. It’s about expanding the canon, and helping you sharpen as well as complicate and reflexively challenge your critical approach to all literature.
On Tuesday morning, it was spring all of a sudden. I walked to campus feeling warm and happy, remembering the first spring I spent in the city. All those daffodils and the cherry blossoms around Hillhead, and the cheerful experience of the semester ending, everyone gathering for picnics at Botanic Gardens. Optimistically sleeveless, I sat on a stone by the Kelvin River reading Keats, feeling like this is what university is best at. The kind of magical experience unfortunately made cliché by campus films. When you’re in the sunshine reading poetry and you’re about to go in for one of your last tutorials. Sure, I still have three nasty exams to get through, but once they’re over, I’ll hopefully come out a little bit smarter, a little bit happier and a tad more employable. University, both at the academic, social and creative level, has definitely been the best experience of my life. I swear I won’t get sentimental; I’ll come back and do a Masters instead. (Let’s hope; if only).