The Thick Of It

Oh dear, it’s been too long since I wrote in here. I got ill, then I got better, but then I got lazy. And then I got hooked on Twitter. Twitter is a real sapper of the writing urge: you have something to say? You Tweet it. There, all done. Except it’s no good if you have something to say that you want people to actually read. It goes, it vanishes, and on top of it all, it probably needed more than 140 characters. And yet, it’s the big party where people are always at – just a click away. Hard to resist.

(you can find me there on @dickon_edwards. Nag me to write a new blog entry if you do)

Well, I’m now a degree student of English Literature at Birkbeck College, University of London. It’s Week 3 of the Autumn term. As well as the proper classes on Monday and Tuesday evenings I’ve also signed up for workshops and mini-courses on Study Skills, plus training sessions for various degree-helping software packages. All of which is free, so it seemed best to take advantage.

Because of these extra classes, and my own slow progress in learning how to process textbooks quickly and efficiently, what’s really meant to be a part-time student timetable has pretty much expanded into full-time status. Just as well I don’t have very much else going on.

The plan is to turn myself into a good Part-Time Academic, then when I’m confident enough, I switch the student work to proper part-time hours and sort out the whole Earning Money part alongside it.  Ideally, some sort of part-time job involving the college (they have a careers guidance department) or writing for hire, or editing. Or even teaching. I’ve done a little of helping foreign students polish up their English grammar in their essays, so that’s one possible path.

As it is, it doesn’t seem to be the best time for finding paid work right now. Even people who seek conventional work – as opposed to dizzy bohemians like me – are finding it hard.

A friend that I used to work with at the news clippings office recently remarked, ‘It’s actually good that there are people like you who aren’t trying very hard to get work. Because that means that people like me who really need the jobs – people with families and children and mortgages – can have them instead of you.’

He was half-joking. And half not-joking. But there is this acute sense of there being a dwindling  amount of paid work out there, each position chased by dozens, sometimes hundreds of other people. And I know that for most conventional jobs I’m just not that one perfect candidate, the one that’s better than all the others.

Friends have told me that I have the air of an eccentric tutor as it is, so I should at least give the academia path a decent go. I do know that I definitely want a degree in English Literature.  That, and to publish a novel. As ambitions go between now and the grave, that really is it. But at least that’s an improvement on recent years: two more than none at all.

Oh, and I’d also like to lose my gin-gut. Have to lay off the Sainsbury’s Flapjack Bites for a while.


The first year of the four-year course is spent in ‘foundation’ mode. This means none of the exercises and exams count towards the final degree grade. It’s a sort of training year, shaping the mind into an academic style of thinking, making your mistakes first and being allowed to make them.

In this initial year, I have to do three modules at the same time: one on the nature of reading (mainly via poetry), one on critical methods (via literary theory), and – best of all – one on London In Literature.

In my non-studying time I find myself drawn to articles on literacy and books and reading as it is – tonight’s Booker Prize announcement, for instance. I follow debates on e-books, on library closures, on book adaptations, on genre versus literary novels, on bestseller lists, all of it. So doing the English course feels like a formal justification of my own current passions. Now I’ve started a degree in the stuff, I feel in the thick of it, rather than worrying if I’m thick.


Tonight was the first seminar on the latter module: the theme of the city in Ian McEwan’s Saturday. Not a book I care for as a general reader – there’s an awful lot of deference to Mrs Dalloway, and rather too much squash playing and brain surgery for my taste – but as a literary response to London life after 9/11 (and crucially, before 7/7), it’s essential.

What’s particularly satisfying is that the Birkbeck classes are held in Gordon Square, Bloomsbury, in a building where Virginia Woolf once lived (she’s very much on the reading list), and a few blocks away from the main locations in Saturday – Fitzroy Square, University Street, the BT Tower.

Even though Saturday divides readers, including McEwan fans, there’s plenty of passages that have sceptics punching the air in support of literature, if punching the air is your sort of thing:

Standing here, as immune to the cold as a marble statue, gazing towards Charlotte Street, towards a foreshortened jumble of facades, scaffolding and pitched roofs, Henry thinks the city is a success, a brilliant invention, a biological masterpiece—millions teeming around the accumulated and layered achievements of the centuries, as though around a coral reef, sleeping, working, entertaining themselves, harmonious for the most part, nearly everyone wanting it to work. And the Perownes’ own corner, a triumph of congruent proportion; the perfect square laid out by Robert Adam enclosing a perfect circle of garden—an eighteenth-century dream bathed and embraced by modernity, by street light from above, and from below by fibre-optic cables, and cool fresh water coursing down pipes, and sewage borne away in an instant of forgetting.

– Ian McEwan, ‘Saturday’ (2005), p 5

By way of a companion to Saturday, I read Nicola Barker’s Clear (2004) immediately afterwards. Both are literary novels based around real-life London events in 2003: McEwan takes the march against the Iraq war in February, while Barker takes David Blaine’s ‘Above The Below’ stunt in September.

But whereas McEwan’s novel is a studied, calm string of Modernist musings from a responsible, middle-aged brain surgeon; Clear is a skittish, fidgety, giddy account of a young, slightly pretentious GLA worker who befriends a shoe-obsessed woman at the base of the Blaine event. It’s teeming with tangents and random references to pop culture, including Ian McEwan’s Comfort Of Strangers, where a couple on holiday are drugged and tortured by two seemingly friendly strangers:

‘She just Ian McEwaned you, man, and you’re still none the wiser!’

– Nicola Barker, ‘Clear’ (2004), p 51

Aside from turning a fellow novelist into a verb, I also loved Ms Barker’s description of the GLA building:

…a huge grey-green-glass Alessi milk-jug of a structure (a tipsy fat penguin): the Greater London Authority Building…

– ‘Clear’, p 8

And I thought, does the GLA building really look like a ‘tipsy fat penguin’? Really?

Oh yes! It really does.

Not the sort of thing Mr McEwan would come up with, but it’s closer to my own askew way of thinking.

Tags: , ,