Friday, 17 June 2016

First First

My baby's all growed up an' savin' China...

I've just heard that my daughter has been awarded a first (BA in Film Studies, Sussex University), the first first in our family, as it happens. She's done so well: she worked hard, and got the reward she richly deserves. I couldn't be more proud of her, though I have no idea where she gets the self-discipline and application. Certainly not from me or her mother, who tended to rely on last-minute cramming and what one of my old teachers would call, dismissively, "native wit". There'll be dancing in the streets of Brighton tonight, I'll warrant.

So now may be the right time finally to tell the much-postponed story of how I failed to secure a first, way back in the hot, dry summer of 1976. It goes like this:

As I have already confessed several times, I did very little actual work at university. At least, until some point in the third, final year. I did enough to meet the requirements, but at the "ancient universities" in those days these were not onerous. The route leading to a "theatrical third" was an accepted and well-trodden path for those who, having proved whatever they had to prove by getting admitted (also easier in those days, women being excluded from direct competition), decided to concentrate on things other than boring old homework. Typically, things like theatre, sketch comedy, sport, politics, getting totally wasted, sitting up all night listening to records, talking profound gibberish, and various combinations thereof. I majored in all-nite Stoner Studies, a very popular option in those days which I understand has, inexplicably, vanished from the curriculum in recent years. O tempora, o mores!

A simple version of the story might end right there.  And that, children, is how your father ended up with a third-class degree, before learning to straighten up and fly right. But, without boasting, I am better than that. In fact, I have a gift – let's call it fluency in Old High Bullshit – which enables me to conjure much out of little. Obviously, this is not much use in the physics lab or a tutorial on the constitutional history of Bulgaria, but my chosen subject was English literature (I know...), specifically poetry wherever possible – nice 'n' short –  all the way from Anglo-Saxon to Eliot. A bit of reading, a bit of staring into space, and I would have interesting things to say. Interesting enough, in fact, to put me in the running for a first.

Now, those ancient universities still operate a system for negotiating boundary cases known as the "viva". After sitting finals, most candidates' class of degree is clear-cut: a few thirds, a lot of seconds, and a few firsts. But a further few are felt to be hovering between classes: there is a sense that perhaps a paper or two had gone more badly than it might, pulling down an otherwise more representative result. The examiners agree a list of candidates for a further viva voce examination; in other words, some get a chance to talk themselves up a grade. I found myself on that list.

They don't tell you which class you are aiming at. It could be third-to-second, it could be second-to-first. I was pretty sure I was borderline first; the possibility of a third hadn't even crossed my mind.  My tutors were somewhat less sure. They had seen plenty of "theatrical thirds" in their time, and I rather fitted the profile. It was even hinted that a viva at the fail-third boundary was not out of the question.

So, one morning in June, I found myself sitting at a long refectory table, facing the examiners, about ten English dons from a variety of colleges, none from mine. I was told by the man in charge of the special paper on Wordsworth and Coleridge that I had given the best account of Coleridge's theory of the imagination he had ever read. Congratulations were in order. However. The paper was Wordsworth and Coleridge: I had rather avoided answering any questions on the former, hadn't I? Um. Well.The fact that the man in charge of that special paper was Jonathan Wordsworth, direct descendant of the Boring Bard's brother, put me in a tricky position. Nonetheless, I fought my corner, and I could sense the mood round the table was positive. They asked me to come back again that afternoon.

What? Two vivas? My tutor had meanwhile seen my marks, and confirmed that, yes, getting two papers over the "alpha" threshhold would deliver a first. This was unusual, but the examiners had clearly liked the cut of my jib. As I say: fluent in the Old High Bullshit. However, I felt in need of a break from all this, and headed down to the bar for a pint of Hook Norton. Probably a mistake.

That afternoon we reconvened at the same table and, considerably refreshed, we started in on Shakespeare. I was then asked what seemed to me a very odd question. It went something like, "So, you answered a question on the history plays. It was a good answer, but your chosen examples came from only three of the plays in the second tetralogy. Why not all four?" My answer was simple. Because the question, printed on that there paper, said "Using examples from three plays..." My interrogator, who had presumably set the the damned paper, said, "Does it?!", and reached for his reading glasses. Everyone around the table looked, and had to agree, well yes, it does say that.

This might have gone OK, had I not smirked at his obvious discomfort. I don't think I laughed out loud, but to any observer it was clear that, inside, I was having poorly-suppressed hysterics. Curse you, Hook Norton! At which point, sensing a threat to the honour of Team Don, they all rounded on me, and I got a good, thorough, Shakespeherean kicking.

Ah, well. So close. It was rather like losing a cup final to Germany in a penalty shoot-out. Regrettable, but somehow inevitable, and another Noble Defeat in that great British tradition. But now the daughter has scored, putting an unstoppable strike in the back of the net for our team! Yay!

Grrrl... Some of us prefer to stay inside the car!

No comments: