Friday, January 22, 2010

A Leap in the Dark

I should -really should - be settling down with a suitably academic book and doing some serious reading. But as is apparent, I'm not doing that.
I've decided to give myself the afternoon off, partly because the Bright-Eyed Boy has passed on the snotty cold that he was nursing last week and my eyes feel like hot pickled onions in my head, and partly because I've just e-mailed of the latest revision of my first chapter to my supervisor ahead of next week's routine meeting, thus reaching a bit of a hiatus. I'm not inclined to press on with any more writing until I get the comments back: I want to see what he thinks of what I've produced first. By and large he makes encouraging noises, but I always come away feeling slightly downcast and that I haven't said what I wanted to.
It's always a bit of an expedition: York to Birmingham is a good couple of hours by train. Factoring in an allowance for delays means having to set off after depositing the B-E-B at school, walking the two or so miles to the station (the car parking's extortionate and our buses are unreliable and rude), catching the smelly CrossCountry service to Birmingham New Street, surely one of the the darkest and grimmest station in England. Then get onto the branch line that goes by the university (hopping off if necessary for the library), and onwards to the satellite campus where my department is situated, a fifteen minute walk from the stop. And of course, the same thing in reverse after our meeting, which means that I generally get home at around eight in the evening.
When I first travelled down to the Midlands, I really felt that I could not cope with all that travelling - it seemed such a long trek, but now, weirdly, it all feels a lot easier: I recognise landmarks from the train, I know where to get sandwiches and coffee from, how long the various legs of the journey will take me, how to get into the card-protected buildings. It all seems so much more handleable somehow, although nothing's really changed. I've changed.
When I was travelling to Leeds by car everyday during my undergrad years, I had everything worked out to a fine art, and was never late -either for lectures or for picking the children up. But nowadays I am filled with amazement that I managed to do this five days a week for two years, it seems an incredible effort. I guess it's all down to familiarity. Things that are familiar aren't quite so daunting.
A couple of years ago my parents decided, quite out of the blue, that they were going to try a new holiday destination. We were quite surprised, as they'd been travelling to the Italian lakes for a least a decade and a half, with the occasional foray into Switzerland for much the same sort of break. They went further east, and hated it. Unusually for them, they'd not attempted to learn any of the language beforehand, and it seemed to me that from the outset they had almost deliberately decided not to engage with the culture or people - they were sitting back and waiting to be impressed, waiting for the good times to come to them.
Now, if you're unfamiliar with anything east of Italy it all becomes a lot more......rough and ready. Buildings seem to sprout up in odd locations, apparently ungoverned by planning applications or building regulations. Quite often they appear incomplete and remain so for years, with concrete columns and reinforcing rods bristling towards the sky. Roads regularly lack markings, traffic lights are uncommon, pavements rare, gardens seldom well-tended in the our sense of the word. A lot of the landscapes can look pretty desolate and barren, especially if you're used to being surrounded by softly rolling greenery and picture-card views. It was around this new country that my parents were bussed in the company of other equally elderly people. Excursions tended to be very long and tiring, usually ending in a meal of unidentifiable dishes in an out of the way and unfinished hotel. They had a miserable ten days and returned home vowing never to go there again (although looking at their photos, it seemed a most attractive place).
This year they returned to their usual haunt and loved every moment of it, steaming across the lake, going to see the Matterhorn, all the things that they'd done many, many times before. They were surrounded by what they perceived as familiarity. They know the language, the excursion destinations, the timetable for the trains, even the staff at the lakeside cafes - and they recognise what they are eating as well! But I can't help feeling that now they've shut the door on a lot of new experiences, too. I know that there are a lot of places left that my mother especially would love to see, but because the last time they tried something new and didn't like it, they probably won't want to try again. Knowing exactly what you like is great, but sometimes a leap in the dark can ultimately be just as satisfying.


Anonymous said...

The first time I arrived a Birmingham New Street station I thought that if there is a Hell, New Street station would be its entrance. This would be some time in the early 90s when a former flat mate from my Leeds days was then living in a JVC* community in Ladywood – itself hardly the most salubrious destination! Another friend of mine (and also a former flat mate) did his PhD at Birmingham – his thesis was on the Qur’an, so at least managed to squeeze several months living in Cairo, to learn Classical Arabic out of the process (and lecturing and writing books on inter-Christian/Muslim dialogue has become his life’s work as a result). I never visited him when he lived there for a while – he married half way through his thesis, so chose to live in Bristol with his wife (a much better arrangement!).

We considered moving to West Yorkshire (Hebden Bridge – that bastion of the Pinko tinged professionals who commute into Leeds and Manchester and where there are shops that sell jute sanitary wear!) when I got the AHRC funding as (as you know better than I) there is no need to be near your academic institution as a post graduate research student. This would have meant we were nearer our aging parents (by coincidence my parents only live ten miles away from my partner’s mother and her husband (his father died years ago)) which I would prefer as my parents are now in their mid-80s. However we decided it would entail too much upheaval and plumped for Hertfordshire – though once the PhD is completed it is probable we will move further north. But for now Hertfordshire gives me access to all the University of London’s libraries and the British Library, which are only a thirty minute journey away. Hence you have my sympathies, schlepping down to Birmingham for library access and visits to your tutor (though I presume you have a SCONUL card and can gain access to local academic libraries?).

I had a meeting with my supervisor yesterday and was told what I needed to hear: my work is progressing nicely and although I have timing issues, the basic standard of work is good and with some tweaking could even be very good. I am now tweaking like mad!! As I write this I am reminded of the forts we used to make as children with books and whatnots; there are 22 books in assorted piles on my desk and its environs. In addition to this there is my supervisor’s completed PhD thesis, all 378 A4 pages of it (it looks like a telephone directory) – he won a prize for his thesis – something he reminds me of (admittedly quite subtly) from time to time! I think you and I are well on our way and that is the main thing. A fellow MPhil/PhD student (with whom I shared the same supervisor) fell by the wayside in September of last year when he failed the second attempt at his upgrade. We were quite pally until he failed to convert to PhD and now he avoids me. Which just goes to show it is possible to come unstuck. My institution (KCL) brags that 96% of PhD students complete their theses. I am content that I seem to be one of the ones who is likely to uphold this statistic, though, as is ever the case with me, I never count my chickens until they are on the shelf at Waitrose!

Enjoy the day off and I hope the cold is soon overcome!


*JVC = Jesuit Volunteer Community – given my friend had been a member of St George’s, Leeds (a conservative Evangelical church), I thought this a BIG step into the unknown for him!!

Hypatia said...

Well, I can't believe no-one told me about the SCONUL card before!
I've just downloaded the form and will take it with me for endorsement next week!
Thank you for that Zeteo!


Anonymous said...

No one told me at King's - it was at one of the librarians at LSE who let me into this little academic secret!