Things heard on yesterday's train

Posted by September Blue Saturday, 30 August 2008 3 comments

Man on phone: "So I said, you know, he already takes her swimming, he takes her to school and everything, but she's not his kid, is she?" Pause. "Well of course he's going to get on with her, he's basically a kid himself."
Teenager #1: "George Lazenby, then... I don't know. Then Sean Connery?"
Teenager #2: "I'd say Pierce Brosnan, then Sean Connery."
Teenager #1: "Oh, yeah! George Lazenby, Pierce Brosnan, then Sean Connery."
Teenager #3: "I'm going to have to ask you both to leave this train right now, while it's moving."
Mother to small child: "Look at all the cows!"
Small child to mother: "Mummy, what happens when you die?"

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Insta-post! Just add water!

Posted by September Blue Monday, 25 August 2008 2 comments

1. My [great-]uncle once saw a ghost in the Australian outback. A man in a dusty coat, some time near the end of the First World War. Maybe he was walking home.

2. Never in my life have I ever managed to skim a flat stone more than three jumps over water.

3. When I was five I planned to marry my friend Fiona, live in a cottage in the woods we would build out of the stones from an old sheep-pen (we'd settled on the plot already), grow a small garden, have horses instead of cars, and heal sick animals for a living. I've had worse plans.

4. Secondary school was, as I always suspected at the time, not in fact the location of the best days of my life.

5. I will never forget being caught right underneath sheet lightning on top of a hill during a storm. The whole world froze blue-white.

6. Once I met Timmy Mallett. I was absolutely terrified and begged my parents to take me away.

7. There’s this boy I know who once knelt down and sang 'Words' to me in a public place, then didn't speak to me for two days before complaining about all the spectators that now thought he liked me when he totally didn't and what had I said to them, then got drunk and spent a whole party following me around begging me to kiss him, then denied even thinking any such thing because "God, why would I?", then started going out with a girl who looked eerily like me. Eleven years later, he's a very good friend and my intermittently on-call translator for Screwed-up Boy.

8. Once, at a bar a massively bearded alcoholic vagrant called Railway Dave asked me to marry him.

9. By noon, I’m usually wishing I could go home and get some teaching preparation done, these days. Sad, but true. (Note: do not mistake my total panic for conscientious devotion to the job, here. I've got a terrifying amount of unfamiliar stuff to teach this semester, and it's giving me nightmares.)

10. Last night I dreamed about a tornado, as I have been doing on and off for about six months now. I haven't looked up what tornados are supposed to symbolise in any of those dream dictionaries because I'm guessing it won't be good.

11. If only I had a large reef aquarium of my very own.

12. Next time I go to church I will once again catch myself wondering who thought outlining the large picture of Jesus in glitter was a good idea, even if the large picture of Jesus could be defended on aesthetic grounds in the first place, which, truly, it can't. Reformations have started for less.

13. What worries me most is thinking about who I want to be when I grow up. I'm 28...

14. When I turn my head left I see some of my fish, Disraeli and four of the PRB (who are neon tetra and as such don't have individual names).

15. When I turn my head right I see my other fish, Orson, and the bubble nest he built. I am so proud.

16. You know I’m lying when I say anything about how much I liked working on my PhD. For some reason I tend to say this a lot, maybe so I don't have to turn every polite enquiry into my academic life into one long wail of agony, but it is all lies.

17. What I miss most about the Eighties is the way I could wrap myself up in a book like a blanket, to the total exclusion of the rest of the world, for hours and days on end. I can't read like that now.

18. If I were a character in Shakespeare I’d be killed off in Act I.

19. By this time next year I will have an academic job if I have to sell my soul for it.

20. A better name for me would be Beth, according to two people who don't know each other but both picked the same name unprompted. And then told me about it in a slightly disappointed way, as though I really should have been called Beth and the world is slightly out of joint because I wasn't.

21. I have a hard time understanding how people can stop and ask for directions when they're only a little bit lost. That's like admitting defeat!

22. If I ever go back to school, I’ll expect my friends to stage an intervention. Do I look insane to you?

23. You know I like you if I describe you as 'interesting'.

24. If I ever won an award, the first person I would thank would be the foolish awards committee, because what on earth would I be getting an award for? My PhD acknowledgements narrowly escaped being a bitter and vitriolic list of everything that conspired to make my life more difficult over those four years ('and special thanks go to Estates & Buildings, for planning that major noisy renovation work all around my office for the last few months of writing up! Love you!')

25. Take my advice, never get tabasco sauce in your eye. Trust me. I feel so strongly about this one that I want to tour schools warning the next generation.

26. My ideal breakfast is
made by someone else.

27. A song I love but do not have is Steve Earle, 'Number 29'. It reminds me of my dad.

28. If you visit my hometown, I suggest you go and get some of my friends who've been saying for years and years that it's a dump and they're getting out as soon as they can, grab them by the collar, and say 'This is your chance. There will never be a better time to leave than today.'

29. Why won’t people leave better newspapers behind them on trains? Guardian and Indy readers, you are stingy, stingy people.

30. If you spend a night at my house you will likely be woken by pigeons in the morning.

31. I’d stop my wedding for a sandwich, to be honest. I don't have any principled objections to marriage, but I find it difficult to imagine myself in a position where I'd get that enthusiastic about my own.

32. The world could do without war, infectious disease, bad coffee, bus drivers who pretend they don't see you and keep driving, that proposed remake of The Lady from Shanghai with Nicole Kidman in Rita Hayworth's role, wasps, the gritty debris that gathers under sofa cushions, and men who do not know what they want.

33. I’d rather lick the belly of a cockroach than eat an oyster.

34. My favorite blond(e) is my friend and undergrad flatmate James, whose hair has been described as 'polluted beach colour'.

35. Paper clips are more useful than swearing at vending machines when there's a money-jam that needs dislodging.

36. If I do anything well it’s building flat-pack furniture.

37. I can’t help but stay awake as long as possible, just to spite being tired.

38. I usually cry only when something is really shaking me up. Films, books, sad songs - nope.

39. My advice to my [hypothetical future] nephew/niece is that your grandparents rock, and you should remember that.

40. And by the way, I was just listening to the Richard Marx song 'Hazard' (shush, now) and how did I never notice that he's responsible for the girl's disappearance? She 'went out walking all alone', but he 'left her by the river'? He did it! Him! The townspeople were correct: the boy's not right!

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Posted by September Blue 3 comments

On a date last week in a sidling-up-to-trendy bar, the man I was with asked if I'd always planned to go into academia. Not really, I said, which is both true and not that unusual; lots of young academics seem to wear the same faintly confused expression, as if they'd closed their eyes for a second and woke up somewhere they didn't even know existed. I wanted to be a doctor. And then before that, I wanted to be a palaeontologist. And then before that, I wanted to be a vet. And then before that, a writer, I think? And before that a Jedi. Although, to be honest, I still want to be a Jedi.

"Well," he said, "you must have been quite academic at school, right?"

And three hundred miles away, all my old teachers clapped their hands over their faces and shrieked as one through their twitching fingers.

I was academic in the sense that I was clever and liked reading, yeah. I got good GCSEs and decent A-levels, and I didn't set fire to anything on school property. But from the time my dad called me downstairs after a parents' evening and said "I think your German teacher wants you dead," my future in higher education was, let's say, somewhat uncertain. It would be nice to claim that my teachers didn't appreciate my true genius. Really, though, I was just a brat, and a brat I remained for the rest of my time at school. Clever enough to get good grades without putting in much effort, and reluctant to put in any effort at all so long as there was something - anything - better to do with my time. What were they going to do to me? Put me in detention? Detention was half an hour of standing outside the staffroom, at lunchtime when I had to be at school anyway; homework was two hours of pointless busywork in my own time. This wasn't a difficult choice.

After a while, it took on the form of a semi-principled stand, and I stopped claiming I'd just forgotten to do the homework yet again in favour of protesting that I had to do it in the first place. It couldn't be about helping me to do better in exams and coursework, because I was getting excellent marks for those anyway; it couldn't be about improving my understanding of the subject, because if that needed improving, I wouldn't be doing as well at the exams and the coursework anyway; so what was it about, if not just jumping through hoops to justify the hoops being there? My teachers told me that there would come a day when I wouldn't be able to sail through on minimal effort, and come that day I'd be grateful for developing a work ethic. I shrugged, and went back to pointedly reading Solzhenitsyn in detention, which was where I spent most of my lunchtimes. I'm fairly sure I still have outstanding detention, come to think of it.

There were a few of us who took the same approach. Kate got into an argument with our biology teacher about whether or not she should improve her presentation ("but you already marked me down for it, and I still got an A - so who cares?"). Vicky proudly showed her GCSE grades to her French teacher on results day - excellent, despite predictions of failure, shame, and a life on minimum wage on the Morrisons tills - to be met with "Vicky, I don't even want to look at you right now." We talked through classes, put our feet on the tables, competed with each other about how many different store cupboards we had been sent to sit in to Think About What We'd Done. All of us got threatened with suspension at least once; during one incident, all of us got called in individually to be interrogated by a very angry head of IT, who told us all without reservation that if he ever managed to prove we'd done the thing he suspected we had then we were gone, that minute, and it was going to take some pretty impressive grovelling if we even wanted to be let back in to sit our exams. (He never did prove it.) We were brats. We were awful. We were the reason I couldn't ever be a secondary school teacher.

When I was thirteen, after several weeks of not doing any homework at all, my English teacher reached over my desk, grabbed me around the throat with both hands, and shook me. The whole class went quiet and stared. He let go, we looked at each other in stunned silence for a moment or two, then he told us all to read up to page 53 and left the room. I'm not sure in retrospect what's more surprising: that one of my teachers tried to strangle me, or that the rest of them never gave in to the temptation.

So, no, I wouldn't say I was particularly academic at school.

"So why did you decide to go into academia?" the man I was with asked, after a heavily summarised version of the above.

Huh. Good question.

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I take it back

Posted by September Blue Sunday, 10 August 2008 0 comments

I'm now up to 2,307 words of the article, including a couple of paragraphs copied over from the original draft I was working on back in March. I thought that these were all good words. But, no.

2,307 words, of which three are - and I quote - 'somethingy somethingy something'.

Why do I do this to myself?


Posted by September Blue Saturday, 9 August 2008 1 comments

The politics of sharing a desk, one moment among many:

"Have you got the bottom drawer? What's in the bottom drawer?"
"Middle drawer?"
"The other scissors."
"Top drawer?"
"Stolen stuff and crisps."

In the library, we are moving boxes of books. Heavy boxes of books. Seventy-nine heavy boxes of books. In the world below stairs, a strange land of Escher-like corridors stacked with faded posters, ancient dust-covered boxes of type, and something we think is a machine for binding books, I'm both the only woman and the only person under five foot nine. My colleagues have mastered the art of saying in a very gallant way "Oh, you shouldn't be carrying that! That's heavy!" as they neatly sidestep out of the way of me and the painfully heavy box of books I'm juuuuuuuust about balancing.

My forearms are bruised from carrying the damn things, and my forearms are not looking wonderful anyway after the bad sunburn I got a couple of weeks ago. Still pink, especially under the library lights, and still peeling off in little flakes of gruesome. It's gone beyond "ouch!" to "ew" to "Wasn't that an X Files episode once?"

In better news, I now have 1,624 words of the article I put on hiatus in spring while I was finishing some other stuff. At least 75% of them are good words. I feel very productive.

(I should add that the stolen stuff in the conversation above referred to stuff sneaked from the stationary cupboard, not, you know, actually stolen stuff. I firmly believe that most office-based work is one long drawn-out episode of stealth warfare over the good stuff in the stationary cupboard.)