Thursday, May 07, 2020

He had to get a job

Michael had been incredibly lucky to spend seven years at university. First there had been three years at Exeter (1976-1979), where in the end he got a II.1 in English. In the second and third year of the Exeter course the students chose from various different specialisms, and Michael chose Medieval Studies. His teachers were Avril Henry (Medieval art), Marion Glasscoe (Medieval mystics), and Mike Swanton (Anglo-Saxon).

Perhaps he might have got a First; he always had the knack of doing well in exams. But he was also a confirmed procrastinator, and he struggled to focus on the coursework that made up a proportion of the final mark. His Medieval Arts folder, supposed to represent a year's work and actually thrown together on the last night before it was to be handed in, was a disgrace.

Wanting to continue at university but feeling a lack of confidence in applying for a PhD, he applied to do a one-year MA at Durham (1979-1980) in the Department of Medieval Languages and Literature. His tutor was Victor Watts, but he had other teachers too; for instance, he studied Dante with Hugh Shankland. At the end of the year he managed to forget to turn up for one of the exams, but amidst general consternation was luckily permitted to take the exam the following day, on the understanding that in the mean time he must not have any contact with his fellow candidate.

He wanted to carry on at Durham and do a PhD on that intriguing poem Piers Plowman.  But the Department of Education and Science, perhaps remembering that he hadn't got a First, didn't feel like committing to a further three years of postgraduate support.

In something like despair, Michael applied instead to do a PGCE and become a schoolteacher. He was accepted at Manchester, but the uncomfortable interview had confirmed his feeling that (in spite of a family background in education) he felt utterly unsuited to, and dispirited by, the thought of teaching the school curriculum to schoolchildren. He was painfully shy.

In a difficult phone call to his parents, he announced that he would refuse the offer to take a PGCE, and would instead leave university and take a job. He had no idea what. He was twenty-two, but the only careers that interested him were rock star, poet and academic, in that order.

A day or two later, his parents called back. His parents, together with his beloved grandmother Ruth (the family called her "Mutti"), would find the money for him to stay and do the PhD. He was overwhelmed with relief and gratitiude, at any rate all the relief and gratitude a boy could feel who had never known hardship.

He would, it was true, need to earn a little money on the side. He got a morning job in the Durham branch of Boots, unloading and shelf-stacking.

At the end of his first year of study for the PhD (1980-1981), another application was made to the DES. This time they saw it differently, since Michael had demonstrated his commitment (or rather, his family had). So the way was now clear, and Michael no longer had to show up at Boots at an early hour.

Michael read widely and variously, published a paper, and did a little teaching of undergraduates (very badly). He did many other things during these magical years, which aren't recounted here. He had a real friend, he had a little love-making, he watched cricket and snooker all day on the hall of residence TV, he joined a band in Leeds for a week, he discovered wild flowers and spent whole days in the woods. But when his grant money ran out in the summer of 1983 he had not written a single word of his PhD thesis.

So now it was really necessary to get a job. But only for the money. He looked for a fairly undemanding job, so he would have some energy in reserve to work on his thesis in the evenings. He went on the dole (somehow contriving to carry on living in university residence), and he took the civil service entry examination in Newcastle. He also ticked an innocent-looking box when asked if he might be interested in considering a post in IT. He knew nothing about computers and had often made mock of the bizarre computing terms that his best friend (a physicist) used to entertain him with: clock, bus, bootstrap ...

He might have gone anywhere in the country, but when the appointment came it was to the Department of the Environment administrative offices at Ashdown House on the back edge of Hastings, which was pretty much home territory for Michael. He began work there in April 1984, though at first it wasn't really work. In those days Executive Officers in the IT specialism spent their first six months being trained: he learned the main parts of a computer (Central Processing Unit, data in and out, peripherals); the programming language COBOL; and the proprietary ICL operating system, GEORGE 3.

It was a beautiful spring and summer in 1984, with fine weather from April onwards. Michael took more interest in the flowers he saw on the way to work (Blackthorn, Grass Vetchling) than either his IT training or the thesis work that lay in wait for him at home.

He lived for some colourful weeks in a Hastings doss-house, and then moved into the house that his parents (preparing for their retirement) had just bought in Battle, paying only a modest rent. (He shared this house with a university friend who was now based at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in nearby Herstmonceux.)


OK, I can't keep this up any more. I thought I would experiment with writing some memoirs in the third person, after re-reading an old post of mine about Xenophon. I wondered if it might give me a more objective perspective, perhaps lead to greater honesty and balance, or perhaps stir memories that I wouldn't have if I was just chatting away in my own voice.

And in some respects it did open up new channels. The need to give an account led me, for example, to wonder how it was that, while my grant money must have run out in June 1983, I didn't start work in Hastings until April 1984 (a date scored on my memory by all the CVs I've written over the years). But at the same time, I felt that this account contrived to miss out almost everything that was interesting about those years, all the people I met or loved, everything that really happened, that is to say, happened in ways that seemed important to me at the time. And the mask kept slipping; suddenly it was "these magical years"; this was not the tone of Xenophon, who never mentions his feelings.

There were a couple of other difficulties with a third-person account that I hadn't anticipated.

The first was, what was my name? To my family and myself, up until I went to university, I had always been Michael, occasionally varied with the familiar Swedish version Mika. It was at the Christian Union, which I joined in Freshers' Week when I arrived at Exeter, lonely and looking for companionship, that I was first called Mike. It was a name I enjoyed being called, and it was the name that has stuck, all through my university days and my professional IT days, and also within my various later families. Today even my parents call me Mike as often as Michael. But at the time of this memoir, they and Mutti would certainly have called me Michael. As for me, I thought of myself by both names, "Michael" evoking my childhood and my true identity from the perspective of history; "Mike" evoking the everyday person who walked around in the present day, drank Sunderland Draught Bitter and carted his record collection from one study-bedroom to another.

The second difficulty was, my memory was full of gaps, so if I was writing in my usual voice I'd have used a lot of metataxtual commentary like "as far as I remember" or "others whose names I've forgotten" or "I think it was in Newcastle". The third-person account simply has no way of expressing these things. The reader is to accept what is written as the only record of the events. The reader may wonder how complete the record is, whether something has been suppressed, whether such-and-such a statement is an error or a lie, but that's all speculation. This limitation has its good side. It forced me to try a bit harder, to retrieve Mike Swanton's name by looking up books he had edited; Hugh Shankland's name suddenly popped into my mind after I'd given up on it.

Still, I think it's back to the first person from now on.


Memoirs are usually interesting to close family, but I think they have to earn their interest to others. It's good to have done exceptional things, as Xenophon did, and to be the first to write about that kind of thing, as Xenophon was. Just being true isn't enough, but it's important, and I was surprised as I gradually became aware how many half-truths I had allowed to slip through the first draft (these have been corrected).

But for the author, writing memoirs is fascinating and can be transforming. They stir thoughts long asleep, with unpredictable consequences. Our buried memories are not complete, but they are rich. We recognize faces in old photos; not always, but often; I clearly recognized a photo of John MacKinnell (another Durham teacher), and though I'm puzzled to recall exactly what I studied with him, I've no doubt that those studies are still partly engraved in my mind. When someone reminds us of an event, we say (with a kind of wonder), Yes, Now I remember! For we don't just assent, we remember. Though (like me) you may find nothing less interesting than jokes, don't you always feel you know if you've heard a particular joke before?

But we don't remember everything, as I know from glancing through old university essays that I evidently wrote but haven't the least memory of. So it's a natural question, since we have only one life, How much do I remember?  And wasn't there something I was meant to do?  And are there answers there, to questions I'm only asking now?



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