At play

The thot came to me: EUSAS HEAD IS DREAMING US.

1ce I said that I knowit there were a many in it only I had to wait for the diffrent shapes of it to shif a part so I cud work be twean. Which they done then I did work in be twean and seen the shapes of it. I wer going to tel the shapes but that seamt foolish all I had to do wer show them when they movit pas. Which I done I poyntit to each 1 the woal thing wer as plain. I dint even bother to say it to my self I knowit I cudnt lose it out of memberment.

When I lookit agen it wernt there. I thot: At leas it ben all ready showit. I lookit roun and every body looking at me. I said, ‘At leas it ben all ready showit’.

They all said, ‘What ben showit?’
– Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

I’ve been sketching a division between reality (the day job, criminology, funding applications, the present) and fantasy (Cambridge, legal theory, pure research, an imaginary future). Perhaps a sense of not being good enough, learnt – and ultimately inherited – from my mother, has been leading me to disengage from the reality and seek compensation in the fantasy, while making sure to keep it unreal. Perhaps. It’s a plausible scenario, but it’s not entirely true – almost by definition. A critique is only ever a model; there have to be aspects of reality which don’t fit the model, or there’d be no growth points, no potential for change. To say that my life actually consists of a reality of self-thwarted dull office-workerdom alongside a fantasy of academe would be to restate the very attitude that I was criticising in the first place, under the guise of critique. (Tricky business, self-criticism.) And, although I have consciously been telling a story of self-sabotage and under-achievement, there are quite solid assertions – and solid achievements – all through this series of posts, from the original Cambridge admission to the publications in journals with the words ‘Criminology’ and ‘Law’ in their titles. The things I’ve achieved, and the interests I’ve pursued, haven’t just been solitary, fugitive diversions from some broader and better-lit path.

And this goes for the law, too. Frankly, I haven’t finished with the law yet; I certainly haven’t finished with Hart. I haven’t even finished with Pashukanis: nothing I’ve written citing the blighter has seen print so far, and I have got an argument to develop which uses his analysis of (bourgeois) legality. It’s an argument that’s been brewing for some time now. I’d got the shapes of Pashukanis’s model of liberal subjectivity under law before I had any grasp of the detail (something similar happened with Williams and cultural materialism, many years ago). A lot of the reading I’ve done over the last few years has been an attempt to fill in the blanks, grounding the model in some kind of understanding of the law by way of Fuller, Simmonds, WolframWaldron and Hart. Several years later, however far I’ve travelled from my starting-point – when I find I’m reading Epstein on strict liability, Michael Moore on interpretation, Nicola Lacey on character and responsibility – there’s still a question to be asked, having to do with the rule of law and the legitimacy or otherwise of un-lawlike forms of regulation.

I’m talking about questions like these. If my social environment is structured such that I know I personally am liable to be penalised for activities that are generally lawful, am I free? What about if the environment is structured such that I have no idea whether I will be penalised or not; or such that I know I won’t be penalised, because I will have had no opportunity to break the law? I’m certainly not free, in any of these hypothetical situations, to shape my conduct to remain within the law – or knowingly to break it. Building on this argument, if we accept that effective freedom is circumscribed by unlawlike forms of regulation, how far are we from living in a free (and law-governed) society? Has such a society come closer or receded, become more or less feasible, over recent years and decades? What, to us, would such a society look like? Conversely, are there situations in which (as Pashukanis himself argued) individual freedom should be restricted in unlawlike ways, or structured out of existence – and what are the conditions of justice of these situations (other than the withering away of the state following the period of socialist construction)? What light does our society’s treatment of legal non-subjects – prisoners, young people, migrants – throw on these questions? There’s something there, I think. (One of the great regrets of this part of my life is not discussing all of this with Barbara Hudson when I had the chance. But the thing with regrets is not to compound them.)

So, although I feel as if I could happily read nothing but legal theory from now on – and although this does seem rather worryingly removed from the things I write about, let alone the subjects I teach – I don’t think the answer is to abandon law, along with crossing Cambridge off my list. On the contrary. The point about the dream of academe – deep baths, well-stocked bookshelves and all – is precisely that it is a dream: a consoling fantasy, an alternative to recalcitrant reality. As such, to invest in one is to invest in the other. If you dream of a well-furnished Library of Babel of endless solitary research, you will wake to a reality of being merely and dully someone who works in a busy office (in a university): they’re two sides of the same coin. “The call to abandon their illusions about their condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions”; the call to abandon the jurisprudential fugue (or at least to get some work out of it) is also a call to stop sitting at my desk like a disempowered lump of recalcitrant me-ness (or at least to have some fun while I’m there). In short, the task is to keep hold of those ideas and take them seriously – and, in the immortal words of Peter Blegvad, “when I say ‘serious’, I mean like children are at play”. I need to wake up and start bouncing those ideas around.

Which, rather more than incidentally, will also mean bouncing them off other people. Part of the appeal of the academic dream has always been that it validates solitary brilliance – think of the Professor in his upstairs flat. But it’s incoherent – who, after all, is doing the validating, and why? I think, from my teenage frustration with difficulties in communicating, I took a wrong turn into outright refusal to communicate, buttressed by an unrealisable fantasy of being perfectly understood and correctly valued. The dream of an academic berth fitting me like a leather armchair has only ever been a dream – the twist being that I’d designed the dream in such a way that it never could be made real. Which is not to say that I can’t feel reasonably comfortable and pretty well accepted, doing what I do at work, but that this is something I’ll need to work towards; something I’ll only reach in that big mundane, unredeemed space that is neither uniquely wretched failure nor uniquely acclaimed brilliance. And it’s going to mean working with other people, doing things that other people (also) want to get done – or finding ways to do what I want to do which will also help other people get things done.

I suppose the final and most blindingly obvious revelation is that this – working with other people in settings that pre-existed me – is what I’ve been doing all along; it’s just that I’ve been dreaming of being somewhere else.

Maintenant c’est joué. L’hacienda, tu ne la verras pas. Elle n’existe pas. Il faut construire l’hacienda.
– Ivan Chtcheglov, Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau


The softness of sleep

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all the lives we have lost.
– Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

I was 52. I was in Cambridge again, and it was wonderful. (I remembered Tim Curry in Blue Money, phoning his partner in crime from the bath in a hotel suite. She says, “Where are you?”; in reply he sings “Heaven, I’m in heaven…”. It felt exactly like that. There was even a bath.) That afternoon I’d spent a happy half-hour in the college library, or rather the Law annexe of the college library; I never got as far as the University Library. Half an hour was about enough time for a quick look through the books in the ‘legal theory’ section of the Law annexe of the college library. I noticed that they had (among much else) a complete run of the Oxford Essays in Jurisprudence (my own university’s library was one volume short the last time I looked). That evening I’d worked my way through some of the more interesting beers in the Maypole, a pub I remembered with some fondness from thirty-odd years before, and which more than lived up to my memories. Now I was in bed in a (rather cold) guest room in the medieval heart of the college. And – it was an extraordinary feeling – I could sense the college around me, enclosing me both materially and figuratively; I had an almost physical sensation of being taken in, being welcomed back. Lying in the red-brick embrace of my alma mater, I’m slightly embarrassed to say, I felt utterly at home – with an intensity of feeling that I rarely feel when I am, actually, at home.

The next day the clouds of glory had dissipated, leaving me feeling a bit silly. After all, nobody actually was welcoming me back to the old college; apart from the college porters, nobody even knew I was there. More to the point, I wasn’t actually going back to the old college: I was going straight home that afternoon. (I’d had a guest room booked for one night; my son had an interview at a different college, and I’d come down to keep him company.) But I’d felt at home as soon as I got to Cambridge – the moment I was among those beautiful, ancient buildings, I knew my way around without having to think. The experience of actually being in college had affected me even more intensely, tapping into something quite deep. I have still got some career ambitions, but a position at Cambridge isn’t really on my list; I’m resigned to the fact that my old college is never going to offer me a fellowship, or pay me to read legal theory and think about doing a bit of writing (if that’s not the same thing). But, for those few hours, there I was – in college, using the college library, sleeping in a college room; I was living the dream. It was wonderful. Brief and unreal, maybe, but wonderful.

Alternatively: it was wonderful, but it was unreal and brief – and it was a dream. But here’s the question: what was it telling me? I’d been a lecturer for several years, but I was still dreaming dreams of academe (or at least, that’s the way it seemed). Apparently the idea of the University was still a home for something lonely and unaccommodated – a home which, for that one night, I could actually inhabit. My actual career – actually being a lecturer, at a university – wasn’t quite doing the job.

Why not? The simplest answer would be that my job doesn’t scratch the academic itch, or not as effectively as some others do. (If they still do. We’re certainly not in Unseen University any more – any of us. Soon after I started my MA, I remember a tutor trying to dissuade me from my half-formed plans to make an academic career: It’s not like it used to be, you know. We have annual performance reviews! I pointed out that I was working as a database administrator for an insurance broker, and that we also had annual performance reviews.) There’s also something about my isolation, in that brief return to the old college – I was free to read and think, but with no danger of having to do so much as explain my ideas, let alone justify them. Although I was alone, I didn’t at all feel lonely. For a day and a night I was the lone scholar I’d imagined myself becoming, and I was rewarded – in a form which was both sheer fantasy and vividly, tangibly real (there was nothing imaginary about that guest room, or indeed the bath). Heaven, I’m in heaven…

So far, so silly, but harmless enough. The question is whether, when I got back home, I was still thinking of the Academic Life as a glittering prize: something to be embarked on somewhere else, in other conditions, in a future wholly separate from the present. Something I wasn’t quite good enough for, to put it another way; something I never would be good enough for, perhaps, as long as I continued to be me. The protagonist of Kazuo Ishiguro’s When we were orphans decides as a child that he wants to be the private detective of Golden Age crime fiction, and then grows up to become just that, by force of will and imagination. Perhaps I’d done something like that but in reverse – I’d grown up to not quite become the thing I didn’t quite think I was good enough to be (softened by a rationalising ‘(yet)’). I was employed as a lecturer, but at the end of the day it was a job, with the usual bothersome freight of intractable demands and wrong rewards – and the usual lurking suspicion that my unredeemed self was the one piece that didn’t fit. Academia as refuge, academia as the world that would fit me and validate me, remained a compelling fantasy; but it only gained any reality on visits to Cambridge – and, perhaps, in blog posts, where I get to play an academic online.

And here, perhaps, is part of the appeal of the law. I lecture in criminology, but in a department which has no overlap with Law and precious little contact with it. The danger is that the law, and legal theory in particular, comes to seem attractive because it has no actual connection with the day job: nobody is going to ask me to talk about it, or justify my interest in it, or demonstrate how studying it can help bring in funding. Law offers a pure academic fix – an unlimited supply of difficult books and long sentences; if the criminal law starts to pall there’s tort, and contract, and… Further up and further in! (Yes, I’m planning on doing something related to regulatory offences and mens rea, but did I really need to read all those papers about strict product liability?) From academia as excess to academia as fugue: keeping the dream alive by keeping it out of reach. Not an extension of my work but an escape from it: an out-of-office experience.

At the gate to the law

Author’s note: this continues to be all about me.

Damn braces: Bless relaxes.
– William Blake, “Proverbs of Hell”

I was 44. I’d submitted my thesis but landed in “revise and resubmit” purgatory; on the plus side, I’d got my first academic job. It was a twelve-month research contract; my job was to put together a database of sources of statistical data on crime, with the ultimate aim of building a much larger database of sources of social science statistics. This in turn was intended to support a textbook, to be written by my manager and her colleague. I remember worrying, one dark December afternoon, about the state of the project. The database was taking much longer and proving much more complicated than I’d planned: there seemed to be more reports to keep track of, and more agencies producing them, than we had thought. I’d also borrowed a few days to write some stuff, because there were some ideas that wouldn’t let me alone – ideas about crime statistics, that is: about the difficulty in measuring, counting or even defining crime, or at least certain kinds of crime. This was all interesting stuff, but it meant taking time away from the database – time we wouldn’t get back on the contract – and I felt bad about that. I went to see my manager with a heavy heart, ready to confess all, convinced she was going to give me a mighty bollocking and tell me that this job clearly wasn’t for me. Then I’d go back to work – and work would just be work, like it was before: it would just be me sitting in an office doing things I didn’t really want to do, to be judged by standards I didn’t really believe in, like it always had been. (O the recalcitrant me-ness of me!)

That could have happened, but it didn’t. My manager told me that my work was fine, that they had no idea how long building the database would take, and that it could take as long as it needed to. She asked to see what I’d been writing; a couple of days later she and her colleague called me in again and asked if I’d like to contribute it to the proposed textbook, as third co-author. One of my strongest memories of that first meeting is just how relaxed I felt as I left it; closing the door, I sagged theatrically against the wall of the corridor, only to realise that my legs actually were giving way. I had arrived beyond all dreams of arriving – or, perhaps more to the point, I had arrived in my dreams of arriving. This was my world! (Or: I was good enough!) This was my world and I was, finally, perhaps, in it.

The textbook never got written, sadly. What did happen was that I was encouraged to think more deeply about the problems with the database and come up with a solution; this ultimately turned into a grant application, although (for obvious reasons) not one with my name on it. This in turn led to another eighteen months’ work, developing (successfully) a database of concepts used in statistical data sources, tracing relationships between concepts and changes over time. I also got a book contract, and eventually a book, out of my doctoral thesis. Quite soon my manager was encouraging me to take on teaching work, initially on uses of statistical data but later on a whole range of topics in criminology and criminal justice. Despite my rather untheorised interest in norms normative systems criminalisation as social control ect ect, I was coming to criminology pretty much cold. To begin with I had a fairly steep learning curve; in particular, I found the instrumental, “how can we make these people behave?” tone of some of the literature rather hard to handle. Fortunately a colleague recommended Howard Becker and David Matza, and after I’d read some of their work I felt that I knew where I was. As time went on my colleagues (I had colleagues!) positively threw work at me: I ran seminars and gave lectures at all undergraduate levels, on crime prevention, terrorism, drugs, victims of crime… After my research contracts had ended I even scored a teaching contract a couple of times – fixed-term (and short), but still.

That university was pretty good to me, all in all. I worked there for five and half years, including two and a half years on research contracts and another year on teaching contracts; the remainder was all hourly-paid lecturing (zero-hours contracts, as they weren’t then called). In my hourly-paid periods I spent a lot of time (unpaid) in meetings devising research applications, which would have employed me for a bit longer if they’d been successful. (I’m eternally grateful to everyone else who contributed their time and effort to this cause; sorry it didn’t work out.) More happily, I spent quite a bit of (unpaid) time as a participant in a fairly high-powered seminar series on regulation and criminal justice, to which I’d been invited as an afterthought. (My paper didn’t make it into the anthology which came out of the series, but I’m happy to say that I’m in the index.)

As for regulation, it turned out to be right up my street. Anti-social behaviour and ASBOs fascinated me, and had done right from that first piece about crime stats; this seemed to be a clear example of an evolving system of norms which had labelled new kinds of behaviour as out of bounds, with new and rather ill-defined mechanisms of social control following on behind. The relationship between these new mechanisms and the law – a relationship which seemed to be rather loose – began to interest me. The criminal law’s aspiration to systematicity, and its tendency to anchor general principles in the idiosyncrasies of individual cases, had also caught my attention; when I was teaching on counter-terrorism, I got an entire lecture out of the Terrorism Act 2000 and its roots, going back to the Public Order Act 1936 and beyond (e.g. Thomas v Sawkins (1935) and Duncan v Jones (1934)). Around this time my eye snagged on a casual reference to “traditional societies which have little or no law (in the sense of governmental social control)”. ‘Law’ meaning ‘governmental social control’ – could this possibly be right? More importantly, if (as I suspected) it wasn’t right, then what did ‘law’ mean?

So I’d raised my head a bit in theoretical terms and started to take an interest in normative systems as such – and, more specifically, in the law, considered as a framework for defining problematic behaviours and acceptable forms of behavioural regulation. My (still unpublished) paper from the seminar series critiqued John Braithwaite in particular and regulation in general, from a standpoint informed by the Bolshevik legal scholar Pashukanis. (I should probably get back to it some time.) Of course, I didn’t have any legal background – but I haven’t got a degree in criminology, either, and I’ve never studied Italian at all. How hard could it be?

In the mean time, though, I needed a proper job; zero-hours teaching would only stretch so far. A permanent half-time (0.5) teaching job came up at a different institution; I applied and got it. Five years later, I’ve taught students at all levels from Foundation year to MA, I’ve published in journals with the words ‘Criminology’ and ‘Law’ in their titles, and I’ve developed a unit that lets me talk about my Italian research and even mention the Situationists. Happy ending!

No, too easy.

The strongest word in each belief

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlyn, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That is the only thing that never fails.”
– T. H. White, The Once and Future King

I was 30. After graduating I’d spent a year on the dole – you could do that back then – before getting a job as a computer programmer. (I’d been a member of the college Micro Society and spent many hours writing Atom BASIC.) Eight years after that, in my third job, I was getting rather bored and very demotivated: work just seemed to be a series of tasks to which I had no commitment, to be judged by standards I barely understood. (“Ennit all?”) I found interest elsewhere, as a member of the Socialist Society and the Socialist Movement, and as a writer for Tribune, New Statesman, Lobster and the SM’s short-lived paper socialist (grandparent of Red Pepper). In the pub one night, after a meeting of the Manchester Socialist Movement group, a guy I knew slightly mentioned that he’d signed up to do a part-time degree. It’s embarrassing to recall how transformative this tiny encounter was for me. It didn’t so much plant a seed as decontaminate the soil – suddenly, absurdly, there was no good reason why I shouldn’t do another degree. Or rather, suddenly there never had been. (So you can change the past!)

But what and how? I wanted to do something that I was passionate about, and that didn’t seem to be English any more. And was it an MA I was looking for? I considered going straight for an MPhil, or a doctorate at a pinch; I got as far as making a shortlist of two alternative thesis topics, one on the experience of UFO encounters and one on computing in business. (At least one dodged bullet there.) On reflection – and after taking advice from my former Director of Studies – I decided that an MA would be more straightforward and less lonely. It took a while to find the right course – it had to be part-time, for one thing – but eventually I embarked on an MA in Politics and Contemporary History at Salford. The course was modular, but in my case covered International Relations (which was awful), Nazi Germany, Resistance in Occupied Europe, Collaboration in Occupied Europe (which was fascinating) and Post-War Italy, with a dissertation on Guy Debord and The Society of the Spectacle. I graduated with a Distinction, and was encouraged by more than one of my tutors (finally!) to think about a doctorate. I made a second and more realistic shortlist of topics: resistance in Vichy France (with a particular focus on groups and individuals which (arguably) played both sides of the street, such as Emmanuel Mounier’s personnalisme movement); or radical movements in 1970s Italy (with a particular focus on those which (arguably) had a Situationist influence, such as Gianfranco Faina’s armed group Azione Rivoluzionaria). My tutors all agreed that, while both these topics were interesting and appropriately specific, one of them was pretty well mined out while the other was still honkingly obscure. So I set out to write a group biography of Azione Rivoluzionaria. Unfortunately they turned out to be just a bit too obscure, so I did this instead. (Looks pretty interesting, eh? Has your library got a copy?)

My interests for some time have been centred on the law. This clearly wasn’t the case back here, but perhaps there are some indications. Consider a couple of themes I touched on in the previous paragraph: the challenges to political normality represented by the Nazis on one hand and the Situationists on the other. My fascination with the Nazi period (I can’t speak for anyone else’s) stems from the regime’s effort to normalise inherently destructive and corrosive values: to build an enduring system based on aggression, competition and brutality, in all areas of life and at all levels, undermining and corrupting cultural and institutional survivals from the old regime. (In little more than a decade they managed to build alternative forms of politics, an alternative (anti-semitic) form of Christianity and – of course – an alternative criminal justice system. There were cases of blatantly political prosecutions being dismissed by the judge, only for the suspect to be re-arrested as he left the court and taken into ‘protective’ custody by the Gestapo.) By looking at collaborationists, in particular – and respectable Nazi sympathisers such as Douglas Reed and Arnold Wilson – I thought we could think our way inside the genuine appeal of what is to us an obviously vile and unsustainable project. The Third Reich had a life span of less than a generation, so inevitably most Nazi supporters came to the Party as adults: did they all have 180-degree conversions, or were there areas of overlap between the National-Socialist project and other, legitimate political ideologies – and, if so, what could those overlaps tell us? In short, I was very interested in alternative normative systems, and in the idea of treating our own norms as just one set among others. At the other political extreme, the Situationists were a classic example of a radical group whose intellectual ability and self-confidence enabled them to develop and maintain a set of political norms quite distinct from those of the mainstream (to the end of his life Guy Debord was proud of a line of graffiti he’d written as a teenager: NE TRAVAILLEZ JAMAIS). The question here was less of overlap than of availability. May 1968 suggested that, given the swift kick of a general strike, entire towns and cities could jump the normative tracks and exist, at least temporarily, in a universe where spontaneous co-operation was the norm and wage labour was an aberration. I remembered Henri Lefebvre dismissing the Situationists as a band of dreamers: why, they even imagined that there could be a spontaneous general strike, in France, in the 1960s! The question of what makes a good normative system – one, potentially, better than our own – seemed to be a live one.

Those late-70s Italian movements, for their part, had it all: the dawning dreams of a world made new and the queasy horrors of political violence, plus a conflicted relationship with an uncomprehending official Left – which itself embodied an alternative system of values, in more or less compromised form. The law does start to show itself here as a field of contention: I was very struck by the legal amnesty achieved following the Hot Autumn of 1969, such that offences committed during the strike wave ceased to have been crimes. I also remember a debate in the Italian parliament as to precisely what happens when a Molotov cocktail goes off: if the explosion had been classed as a mechanical process rather than a chemical reaction, Molotovs would have been classified as weapons of war and their use would have carried much higher penalties. Politics, as Green Garside never said, is prior to the vagaries of the law – but those are some interesting vagaries.

Although I’d hit a dead end with Faina and Azione Rivoluzionaria, material on the broader topic of the radical movements of the 1970s (and their interaction with the Italian Communist Party) was surprisingly abundant. A couple of years earlier I’d taught myself Italian by brute force (reading a book about the Situationists with a dictionary next to me); I now took my Italian to the next level by much the same method, using Nanni Balestrini’s wonderful novels Gli invisibili and L’editore. (The first page of Gli invisibili took me most of a day: “the… the corridor was, was lined with… with what which whatly did what and made it look like a what?”. The entire book’s written without punctuation, which didn’t make it any easier. But I got there.) I discovered Primo Moroni a matter of months after his death (damn it), and corresponded more or less briefly with Steve Wright, Steve Hellman, Dave Moss, Donatella della Porta, Nanni Balestrini, Olivier Turquet and Gennaro Barbarisi (the writer of an opinion column in a 1976 edition of l’Unità). I carried out research in Colindale (Corriere della Sera on microfilm) and at the University of Reading (l’Unità in hard copy – the only place in the UK which held it) and presented my work in Edinburgh and Milton Keynes; I didn’t get to Italy, though (no budget).

Along the way I also discovered Alfred Schutz, read a lot of Rorty and a fair bit of Dewey, and sketched out a reconciliation of Bhaskar’s critical realism with Schutz’s social phenomenology; as well as blowing Rorty out of the water, this theoretical synthesis was going to give a definitive non-Foucauldian account of the relationship between power and truth. I should probably get back to it some time. Or maybe not. One of my first tutors on the MA had pointed out that I tended to take on too much and range too widely; clearly, I still had that problem. I began to realise how much of a problem it was a few years later, when a friend who was launching a new journal asked me for an 8,000-word paper and I turned in 16,000. (To his great credit, he spotted a way of turning it into two separate papers – and took both. Most editors wouldn’t be anywhere near so accommodating.) It’s a familiar pattern, recurring in a slightly less disabling form. The unique me-ness of me! All right, so I could play with ideas, but I wasn’t going to play with other people; I mean, I couldn’t, really. I’d do it over here, in my own way; it’d be brilliant, but nobody was going to see it till it was finished. I’d be uniquely brilliant! (Ta-da! Sixteen thousand words! How good is that?) Or, if necessary, I’d be uniquely useless; that would work, in its own way. (Eight thousand – eight, not sixteen! How can I be so stupid?)

While all this was going on, I was freelancing as a writer and researcher – I’d left IT for a job editing a computing magazine shortly after starting my MA, and left that job after three years to start work on my doctorate. Lots of writing to a deadline and editing to a word count, lots of instant research, lots of playing with sources and story-building – ask me anything about Wallis Simpson, or Jasper Maskelyne, or Helen Keller… What I didn’t do, while I was a postgraduate, was teach; I did sound out one of my tutors about the possibilities of teaching work, but I rapidly concluded that the day rate for technical journalism was better – I mean, much better. (Plus I could do it without leaving the house, or interacting with anyone except by email.) This was probably a mistake.

In silent stead

What do you do when the old man’s gone?
Do you want to be him?
And your real self sings the song,
Do you want to free him?
No one to help you get up steam
And the whirlpool sends you way off beam…
– Ian Anderson, “Thick as a brick”

I was 21. For some years now I’d had a morbid fascination with the idea of thinking yourself to a standstill. My sense of being confined to my own thoughts had a darker side: a fear that I might lose myself, or lose contact with the real world. I hadn’t read Christopher Priest’s The Affirmation at this stage (which was probably just as well), but Arthur Machen’s Under the Hill was a touchstone, as was Alan Garner’s TV play To Kill a King. I was also listening to Sudden Sway, whose EP To You, With ReGard seemed like a marvellous but ominous bulletin from a perilously attractive dreamworld, and to Scritti Politti, who were in their early “am I having a breakdown or is it the capitalist system itself?” phase.

Meanwhile I was in my third year, I was writing a dissertation on Wilkie Collins, and I’d been assigned a postgraduate student as a supervisor. We didn’t really hit it off. Something about his manner – and his rooms, and his friends, and the poetry on his bookshelves… it all seemed detached, somehow; self-enclosed, unreal. I began to have the horrible suspicion that the academic pursuit of authentic insight led to yet another isolated world of the mind. This one was a world you could share with other aspiring academics, admittedly, which would make it much easier to inhabit – but this, by the same token, made it even more seductive. Academia as furnished oubliette: if this was the Life of the Mind, I should flee it. Or so I reasoned, at 21. And so I put higher education behind me, a sadder but a wiser man; I left Cambridge under a sombre cloud of ‘Twas Not To Be, with occasional flashes of ‘Twas Nice While It Lasted. The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved.

And that’s why I didn’t go on to do an MA. Don’t worry if you didn’t follow the argument, it’s not a very good one – but it didn’t have to be; I had others. In fact I had four different arguments, mostly incompatible with one another and all of them, frankly, bad. There was the argument that I shouldn’t do it for my own sake: if I carried on studying I’d get lost in the chartless expanses of my own inner space and go crazy, not to put too fine a point on it. Obviously(?) I didn’t have any evidence for this; I’d made it through three years reasonably unscathed, apart from anything else. There was the argument that, all things considered, I didn’t want to do it: as I’d already concluded, idea-juggling without a solid foundation of achieved personal insightiness was shallow and pseudy, and I wouldn’t want to be part of that. Alternatively, there was the argument that I couldn’t do it: other people might be able to do the idea-juggling thing in an authentic and meaningful way, but I hadn’t laid my personal-insightiness foundations deep enough (as witness the fact that I’d only got a 2.i). I wasn’t there yet – if I ever would be – and I should be honest enough to admit that. (Oh, honesty, honesty – it’s such a waste of energy…) Lastly, there was the argument that I shouldn’t do it, because basically nobody should do it: what I ought to do was to get a real job, getting my hands dirty or at least encountering a bit of social friction, like ordinary people did. I remember being quite convinced of this one, even though it’s probably the weakest argument of all.

What was really going on? It sounds feeble, but I think what really tipped the balance – or failed to tip it back – was the fact that I wasn’t getting any encouragement: nobody was telling me I should do another degree, or even telling me that I could. In fact I remember earnestly explaining to more than one person that I couldn’t take an MA, because having a Cambridge degree meant I’d get that title anyway; if I wanted to do further study I’d have to enrol for a doctorate, and of course I wasn’t good enough for that. I think I more or less believed it at the time, although – again – it sounds thin as hell now. (I never did collect my MA (Cantab), either. Haven’t got enough box-tops yet.)

But really, the damage had been done long before: I swerved doing an MA for the same reason I’d swerved idea-juggling in favour of personal-insightiness. In a weird sort of way, the evidence that this guy doing postgraduate study had a social life was the clincher. Further study was not only something I wanted to do, it was something I would have been good at and enjoyed, and which would have brought me together with other people who were doing it; and, precisely for that reason, I resolved not to do it. I wasn’t there yet: that world was my future, not my present, and it would only become my present after some unimaginable transition which would enable me to leave my present self behind. I wasn’t there yet, if I ever would be, so for now I should just get a real job. I couldn’t do it if I wasn’t good enough, and I knew that I wasn’t good enough because (a) nobody was telling me otherwise and (b) I was still the same person. We know by the sky that we are not too high…

A glittering prize

Authorial disclaimer: like the other posts, this is all about me. I think it’s quite well written, but it is all about me. Read on at your own risk.

About the university the pages let you down
It helps you find your way around in any English town
About the university the pages are in French
It helps you find your way around in any English town
– Scritti Politti, “Messthetics”

I was 18. I was applying to Cambridge to read English (at Raymond Williams’s college – which would mean a lot to me later – although I didn’t know it at the time). Our school offered a ‘seventh term’: in the autumn of the year after we’d finished sixth form, a couple of us met an English teacher once a week for extra tuition. At the end of the term we sat ‘S’ Level English and applied to our chosen colleges, then sat the college’s entrance exam. I remember reading Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained and Samson Agonistes, one after the other, and finding them all quite wonderful (Samson especially); I think I read some Shakespeare too. The entrance exam, as I remember it, consisted of two questions on Romanticism, two on Shakespeare and a separate language paper (I took Latin). The college didn’t know – and didn’t greatly care – precisely what we’d been studying, so the exam papers gave us a fairly free rein when it came to actual topics. I answered one of the Romanticism questions on Wuthering Heights, which I’d just read, and the other on the poems of Edward Lear, several of which I knew by heart (Orwell’s article on nonsense poetry was an influence here). As for the Shakespeare questions, my main resource there was Wyndham Lewis’s The Lion and the Fox, which I’d found in the local library and – again – had only just read (I finished it on the morning of the exam). I got in; in fact I did quite well: I was awarded an Exhibition, which effectively meant they thought I was in the 2.i bracket. This, I thought, was it: Operation Life Of The Mind (Future Tense) was go. This was (would be) my world, and I was about to come into it.

It didn’t really work out. One way to follow the previous paragraph would be to say that entrance exam fireworks were one thing, but I couldn’t hack it when it came to following an actual programme of study. But that’s not quite how it was; apart from anything else I don’t think I was faking it in the entrance exam, or putting on a show with nothing behind it. I mean, The Lion and the Fox is obscure for good reasons – it’s crazy, basically; but it is interestingly crazy. My arguments about Emily Brontë and Edward Lear weren’t glib either – well, they were glib (come on, I was eighteen years old), but they weren’t just glib. If I’d carried on like that I would have been fine; I would have enjoyed myself a lot more and probably done better work. In point of fact, some of the best times I had at university were spent in very much that kind of concentrated pursuit of serendipity. On the morning of my American Literature Finals paper, I remember, I read an article about Henry James by T.S. Eliot and one about Emerson by Henry James; then I thought “that’ll do,” put my notes away and went for a walk. (I quoted both those articles in one answer, and got a First on the paper.)

My problem was the opposite: it was that I didn’t feel that I could work like that all the time. Or rather, I did feel that I couldn’t work like that all the time (shouldn’t? mustn’t?). I spent very little time, over those three years, doing the fun and challenging stuff, gathering ideas together and bouncing them off one another (“Conrad – late nineteenth, early twentieth… what did Lawrence say about Conrad? what did Conrad think of Freud?”); I spent far too much time peering earnestly into my reactions to the text (“What was Conrad doing when he wrote this page? Why does it have that precise effect on me?”). Although playing with ideas came naturally, I somehow thought that fishing for authentic personal insights was what I ought to be doing. My Director of Studies would have been mortified if he’d known I thought like this – he regarded the whole “authentic personal response” approach as pointless narcissism, and made sure we knew it. (Mind you, he was witheringly sceptical of a whole range of concepts – including “concrete description”, “naturalism” and on one memorable occasion “reality” – so perhaps it’s not surprising that his impact on us was a bit hit-and-miss.)

Why did I think like this? It’s not as if the idea-juggling approach was being discouraged – other people in my year-group did it with some success. If asked, I think I would have said that working that way was a bit flashy and inauthentic, and I wanted to lay a good solid foundation of authentic personal insightiness first. Which is where, looking back, I get suspicious: if time is limited, committing yourself to tackle task A first can be a way to avoid facing task B at all. I think, in other words, that my dogged engagement with the Hopkinsian inscape of the text was a refuge. I was in retreat, but (weirdly) in retreat from doing something I found both challenging and enjoyable. The culprit, I think, was a genuinely deep-seated conviction that it wasn’t for me, or that I wasn’t good enough for it: I wasn’t there (yet). And this wasn’t just puritanical self-denial: I felt genuinely timorous and inadequate. (Yeah, I know – 18-Year-Old Feels ‘Inadequate’ Shock.) Cambridge hadn’t enfolded me like a leather armchair; I still felt incomplete or excessive, still felt as if I was waiting to be called into independent adulthood. To go out there and just pretend to be one of the grown-ups would have been absurdly presumptuous – and, somehow, a disservice to myself, to the emotional damage I’d carried this far.

In the mean time, and while I waited for Cambridge to show some sign of choosing me, I could at least hail my thoughts into the text and listen to the echoes. It’s striking in retrospect that confidence returned, and my idea-juggling streak woke up again, when it came to Finals: I could do it when I was being asked to excel on my own, and in particular when I felt I was qualifying for a transition into the future. But the world where I would be happily playing with ideas alongside other people was always the world I wanted to get into, never a world I felt I could possibly already be actually in. Once, when I was a contributor to the student newspaper, I bumped into one of the editors in the street; we chatted, and she teased me slightly about the piece I’d just submitted. I went straight home and never wrote for the paper again. It wasn’t the thought that she actually had a problem with the piece that disturbed me, but the thought that she seemed to like me. Not right. Not me. Not there yet. (I did have a girlfriend, on the other hand, so I suppose you could say it was just a massive over-reaction.)

And so it was that I spent most of my time at Cambridge in self-imposed confinement in the unique (but unredeemed and inadequate) me-ness of me, which I contemplated both as a source of personal insights and as a constant reminder of how much worse I was doing than everyone else. What a waste.

I’ll show you the life of the mind

Author’s note: I’m using this space to put down some thoughts on where I am and how I got here. I’m writing it properly – to the extent that you take an interest in the subject matter, you shouldn’t get confused or bored – but I appreciate that the subject matter is of limited appeal. Now read on, if you want to.

1) Necessity of excelling in order to be loved.
2) Failure to excel.
3) Why did I fail to excel? (Wrong attitude to what I was doing?)
– T. H. White, unpublished notebook

What happens if you excel at something and discover you are still unloved?
– Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

I was 16. I was in the Lower Sixth and I was walking to the bus stop after school with a classmate. He asked me what I was thinking of doing after university; I said I wanted to be a lecturer. He said, wouldn’t it get boring giving the same lectures year after year? I dismissed the question in a knowing sort of way – I was sure that being A Lecturer included a lot more than just lecturing. Basically I thought it meant living the Life of the Mind, full-time and for pay.

Perhaps needless to say, I didn’t actually know anything about being an academic; I didn’t even know anyone who was, apart from a grown-up cousin (and he was a physicist). Perhaps my role model was the Professor in The Story of the Amulet, living in an upstairs flat awash with papers, so solitary and neglected that the children downstairs take pity on him, and so absorbed in his work that he hardly notices either way. Or perhaps I wanted to be Professor Branestawm. (Both of those two had remarkably light teaching loads; I suppose that’s professors for you.) I think to some extent my imagined life as an academic was built around what I liked doing, and in particular what I felt thwarted in doing, at school as well as at home. I imagined really being able to let rip, in certain areas: areas in which I felt I could excel, and where excelling had somehow never quite been rewarded. Things like having more rather than fewer books on the go at once; writing more pages of notes indecipherable to anyone else; speaking in longer sentences, using longer words, taking more care over spelling and usage and etymology…

I imagined academia as a place of excess, in an odd sort of way. Certainly as an un-procrustean bed, one where I wouldn’t need to pull in or cut off the bits of me that didn’t seem to fit. A place where I would no longer feel either isolated or unaccommodated, in other words – a world that would fit around my sole self and give it a home. All I needed to do was to work the trick of transition, out of my current, cribb’d and confin’d state and into the freedom of adulthood. Or to leave my present self behind and become my future self, to look at it another way.