Et in Academia ego
I’m not entirely sure exactly when, but I do know that by the time I reached my 16th birthday I already knew who I was – in the sense that I had a good idea of what I wanted to do with my life. A promising draughtsman devoted to the best of storytellers, I was heading for art school where I would study to be a children’s book illustrator. I was confident I could succeed – and marry, have children and live in the country. In there somewhere I was either venal (or realistic) enough to suppose there might be a securely-employed husband.
My only other talent (if you could call it that) was for acting. But the stage – love it as I did and do – was too precarious for me. I had taken a long, cold look at myself and concluded that I couldn’t cope with the insecurity involved. And I wanted to work.
Illustration it was. And it was a splendidly portable career, affording the possibility of working abroad. In France, for preference, where I’d discovered in early girlhood what it might be like to be among people who accepted me as I was. A revelation.
So there it was: sorted.
Excellent grades plus a good portfolio meant entry to the art school of my choice. Then down went the parental trotters, and the choice I was given was between university and a secretarial course.
University it was.
What a huge mistake. I wasn’t on the right path and, not following the one I knew was right for me, I was no longer – well, myself. Also Kingsley Amis, Robert Conquest (married to one of my rellies at the time) and Co.’s view that more undergraduates meant ‘worse’ was spot-on in my case. Inevitably I was rapidly rumbled as a non-academic by the Reader in my subject. “Thing, er, Millie … has a very [sigh, grimace] personal approach to lit-er-a-tew-ah,” she opined dismissively. No, really that’s how she spoke: ‘lit-er-ah-tew-ah’ – horrible. But you’ll be telling me this is nothing but sour grapes, and you may be right.
You see, she was right. And yet so was I. How the hell else is a non-academic supposed to respond to literature? To stories, poems, operas, paintings, sculpture, cathedrals and the whole cultural kit and caboodle – how, if not personally?
I can see why she levelled the criticism, and what it meant regarding objectivity, literary theory and all that malarkey. Still, I think in general it is invalid. And now, of course, I am free to respond just as I wish to whichever cultural artefact I choose. Which is heaven, not least because it means making up your own mind in your own sweet time and without interference from anybody. There it all is – lit-er-ah-tew-ah – in all its glory, spread out for you to cherry pick as and when you please. And if you don’t like one, there’s always another …
I can see her now, the Reader in X, sitting before us on a high stool, hitching up her designer skirts to show her legs, which she then crossed. Most male students’ eyes were automatically transfixed. Most of the girls looked away, including me – after I’d had a quick shufti to confirm my initial impression. That being this woman had the worst case of Duck’s Disease I’d ever seen in a human female. Bandy, to boot. (And, yes, she often wore those.)
Perhaps she’d given up on acting, too?
Then she’d ask me something. Oh, God: I hadn’t been paying attention. I rarely had. Except when allocated as a single tutee to the Worst Bastard in all of the Arts Schools. A vile seducer of young women, and reducer of strong men to tears; a notoriously destructive critic. I quaked before my preliminary meeting with him at the end of term. There followed several weeks of Fear and Trembling and The Sickness unto Death before classes resumed. Ah, but he turned out to be the best teacher I was to encounter in my inglorious university career. He kept me up to the mark without being remotely unpleasant or patronising. He challenged, encouraged, listened and treated my jejune opinions sensitively. I adored him. The pair of us got on like a house on fire, striking sparks off each other – mental ones (he was then involved with a close friend of mine). He was the ideal tutor, I thought, and I looked forward to his tutorials.
‘Minnie Thing-Person is clever and has an independent mind. She works hard, showing great promise. I am awarding her a First’ he wrote on my report card for submission to my tutor at the end of the term.
“Fuck me!” responded my astonished personal tutor (responsible for overseeing my ‘moral welfare’ as well as my academic progress). “You?” He waved the offending report at me, trying not to laugh. Then a sly expression stole across his bearded face; he leant forward. “You, erm, you didn’t, er, you and him, erm, did you? Wouldn’t have, erm, you … he … er …”
I threw a Penguin* at him. Hard. He ducked.
“What do you think?” I snapped.
“Well, I think no, obviously” the Brissle burr getting broader by the second now. “Thass ter say, youm a noice, country gurl, lurk – so ‘im? No – blige!”
Armed neutrality satisfactorily established, he unwrapped and ate his chocolate biscuit.
At the time I resented the ‘nice country girl’ phrase he kept trotting out, even – to my shame – in public. Now I recognise it for the compliment it surely was. Especially as I did eventually revert to type, returning to rural bliss with huge – albeit too brief – relief. But the rest of my personal tutor’s commentary constituted an appalling lapse. The only way I could achieve a higher grade is …? And when considering the contrasting views of my two tutors, I’m inclined to agree with David Cecil’s suggestion in The Young Melbourne (1939) that personality is like a prism, showing different facets to different people at different times and in different circumstances. What do you think, dear reader?
* Not the publishing house; the chocolate biscuit sold in individual portions, moderately addictive.
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