So I did heaps of work over the summer holidays, reading everything I could get my hands on, and making copious notes without really knowing what for -- normally I was reading/writing towards a specific essay, but this was more vague. Because I didn't know what I was looking for, I was looking for everything; thinking about what I was reading, making connections between things. And with Eliot, it was all connections. There was nobody to tell me that I didn't have to read every text that Eliot quotes in The Waste Land... so I went through the notes and made lists, and read all the ones I could find. Dante's Inferno, Ovid's Metamorphoses (both in translation of course!), my parents' copy of The Golden Bough. It was like a treasure hunt, tracking down references and seeing the way everything was "deeply intertwingled", as my dad said.
Then there was the actual tuition leading up to the exam (I was in the last year to take a formal entrance exam for Oxford) -- four one-to-one lessons, which in retrospect were basically Oxford tutorials. Two (Shakespeare, and whatever the option I've forgotten was) with Miss C. who was scary, and two (Eliot, and the Brontës) with Mrs G. who was amazing. I can still remember the fluttering-in-the-stomach of those one-to-one lessons, in some small empty sixth-form garret classroom. Miss C. reduced me to tears by questioning everything I thought I knew how to think and then told me I should have a bit more self-confidence. I remember shouting "How do you expect me to have self-confidence when you're always telling me I'm wrong?" at her. (I may have been academically mature, but emotionally I was a complete mess. I'd like to say the emotional side of things all got so much better when I went to university, but you guys knew me then, and have known me since, so who the hell would I be fooling anyway?) I had past papers to look through as well; I would have to take two exam papers, the 'General English' paper and the 'Critical Commentary' paper (i.e. an 'unseen' critique of a couple of poems, or short extracts of prose or drama). I do remember being really disappointed that I couldn't take the 'General Paper' which some of my friends would be taking, the one that had questions like What is courage? and Could things be otherwise?, because it looked like so much fun. (The latter was a real question, and I've carried it around with me ever since.)
Open and shut days
I can't remember when it was that I first actually visited Oxford, so this section is somewhat 'out of time'. It was probably some time during that summer between Lower and Upper Sixth -- I could find out if I was back at my parents' house, because that's where all my diaries are (I kept obsessively detailed diaries in those days) -- and it wasn't an open day, it was just my friend Jenny's dad taking her and me and Vicky to look round Oxford. It was pouring down. We wandered around some of the colleges, grey stone and green quadrangles, leaves hanging heavy with rain. I thought I'd never seen anywhere so beautiful, and if I loved it in the rain, I knew I would love it in the summer, and in the snow.
I didn't go to any open days; I didn't really know how. Lots of people in the sixth form did, but I didn't know how to catch a train on my own, and my parents wouldn't have let me anyway because they didn't trust me not to get lost, and ... I don't know. At this distance from it I don't know if the school offered to organise trips to open days and I said no, or my parents said no, or if the school just let us shift for ourselves and I didn't, or if I was still dithering about universities anyway. I don't remember how on earth I actually made my university choices, though I do remember writing off for prospectuses (the horror of trying to write proper grown-up letters which I thought would actually influence whether the university wanted me or not, because I didn't realise I could have just written "prospectus please" and my address on a post-it note and the admissions people would've still sent it out (nowadays I'd just fill in a web form or just read the prospectus online). I knew I didn't want to be too close to home or too far away. And I remember writing the UCAS 'Personal Statement' (a trauma that I didn't realise I'd have to repeat every time I applied for a job), agonising over endless rewrites, failing to fit everything I wanted to say into the box on the form, and eventually cheating by printing it out in 11.5pt instead of the specified 12pt. The struggle to print it into the right place on the form (a whole Sunday afternoon in my dad's office cursing the laser printer) -- I guess they do it all online now.
Anyway, I ended up applying to Oxford, Durham, York, Birmingham, Southampton, and Sussex. Durham was where you went if you didn't get into Oxford (yes, Durham folk, I know that's a rotten slander, but it was what Everybody Knew then), Birmingham was where Mrs G. had gone and was a cool place where they had proper gigs and things, and Southhampton and Sussex were near the seaside, hurrah!
Jenny's parents took us to Durham (their alma mater); and my parents took me to look round Southhampton and Sussex en route to a family holiday on the Isle of Wight. We did look round the campuses (or colleges in Durham's case), and it did demystify things to some extent (so you'd sleep here, and you'd have to walk around town and get to here to go to lectures...) -- and to be honest the idea of living in a town was incredibly exciting to me, living as I did in a one-shop village 5 miles from the nearest town with the last bus home at 5:30pm (you mean I could ... go out, and then... get back? without having to ask for a lift or be in by a specific time?).
Under Pressure: The Exam
The exam was terrifying. Two papers, one on a Tuesday afternoon and the second on a Wednesday morning; I can't remember how long they were -- 2 or 3 hours? I was horribly nervous, but I had a good luck card from my fan club (a bunch of Lower Fifths who liked my poetry -- hey, everybody reading this already hates me for living in some kind of crazy privileged Ivory Malory Towers, I may as well tell the truth here) and my Good Luck Bear, and I'd done loads of exams before. ... But when it came to it, I had that total 'exam paralysis' feeling where I felt like I'd sat for ages not knowing what to write. I wrote pages and pages but it felt as though nothing quite clicked. I came out of the exam feeling physically sick, I was convinced that I'd failed worse than anybody had ever failed anything before and I'd never be able to face going back to school again, let alone university. I cried for hours and hours. I remember going for a walk round the village in the dark to try to calm down, and not being able to stop crying. I'm not even sure, at this distance from the event, whether I was upset about not getting into Oxford (which I thought was inevitable now) or just failing. I think mostly the latter; failing my teacher, failing my parents. I should say that I didn't have huge pressure from my parents or anything; I don't remember them every being anything other than kind and supportive. There was a lot of pressure from the school, but not specifically about getting into Oxford; just general academic pressure, a focus on grades and marks (I remember nearly falling out with friends over differences of 5% in exams), exams every summer, that sort of thing.
But to come back to the exam. I barely slept at all that night; I just carried on feeling sick and hopeless. My parents persuaded me to go into school, and I went straight to the corridor outside the staffroom (you weren't allowed to knock, but you were allowed to hang around there & wait to see if anybody came in or out) to see if I could find Mrs G. and tell her I'd FAILED ALREADY. Of course I did find her (I'm sure she was expecting something like this), and I don't remember what she said but just being around her was comforting. She gave me some kind of silly Kinder Surprise toy to take in as a lucky mascot (I already had my Good Luck Bear, but he didn't seem to have been much luck), and told me to do my best, & said that if it was awful, I didn't have to go straight back to lessons afterwards, but it was English straight after so I could come and join them if I wanted. And off I went to do the other paper.
And it was great: the sort of exam where you know you're writing well and your only frustration is not being able to get everything down fast enough. I clutched that tiny toy in my sweaty left palm and wrote until my right hand felt all squashed, side after side of lined A4, and when the exam was over I felt good about it, not just relieved but actually ... kind of ... happy. I bounced into the English lesson that was halfway through and said "Sorry I'm late, I've been doing the Oxford entrance exam". (It really is a wonder that nobody just took me down to the canal and drowned me, in retrospect.)
The waiting game
So then there was just the waiting. For the exam was only the first hurdle; after that there was the interview. I remember us all desperately waiting to hear about interviews, but I don't actually remember getting the letter or anything. I remember buying interview suits: a dark turquoise velvet skirt-suit (I suppose I could have worn trousers, but we weren't allowed to at school), and a scarlet crushed-velvet suit. (I wish I had photos.... actually, no, I'm quite glad I don't. I do still have the scarlet suit, though.)
We all got interviews, all of us who did the Oxford exam (Cambridge didn't have an exam, but I think they all got interviews as well), but we didn't all go up to Oxford together, probably because we were all going for different subjects and different colleges. None of us had had much idea how to choose Colleges; the school offered some advice on which colleges had previously accepted girls from our school (or previously rejected them), but there was an air of mystery and superstition about the whole thing. One girl decided that she was going to rule out any with a religious name because she was an atheist. To be honest, it was no worse a strategy than any that the rest of us adopted. I had only chosen one college -- Hertford, because it had the Bridge of Sighs and seemed to have lots of good English tutors -- and had had two others allocated to me (Lady Margaret Hall and St Catherine's, which I knew nothing about). My parents drove me to Hertford, and I went to the 'common room' where we all had to wait, and Becca from school was there too so at least I knew somebody. I tried to make conversation and at least find another person who was going for English, but they all seemed to be Geographers like Becca, though I did meet a chap who lived in the town where I'd lived when I was tiny. Small world. They all seemed quite normal people, but it was a bit like being suddenly thrown into a new school, and I hadn't had to deal with that for 7 years. There were basically three conversations, "Where do you come from?", "What subject are you doing?" and "I'm so nervous I think I'm going to die". The TV was on in the background, showing The Day Today.
I got a huge booklet of poems to look through before my interview, and was allowed to take them off to my room (my room! I'd never even stayed in a hotel before except one night when I was about 10 and shared a room with my parents and my sister, so the empty room with just my tiny suitcase in it was another strangeness) to read and "be prepared to discuss two of them in detail" -- that is, more 'prac crit', but spoken rather than written. I was delighted to find that one of them was "Mending Wall" by Robert Frost, which we'd 'done' at GCSE, and I picked another poem that I didn't know, something by Paul Muldoon. In retrospect, the Robert Frost was a bit of a false friend -- 'doing' a poem at GCSE (when you still get points for knowing what the big words mean) is not the same as talking about that poem to Tom Paulin.
Yeah, my claim to fame, there; when I was 17, Tom Paulin proved that he knew more than I did. He leaned back in his chair and said things like "do you really think so?" and of course I didn't know if I really thought so, and backtracked, and got myself into a worse mess than I'd started out in. Trying to talk about anything by an Irish poet was clearly a mistake, too. He and Charlotte Brewer had (whether by accident or by design) positioned themselves so that I couldn't look at both of them at once, and I felt like I didn't know whether I was coming or going. It was horrible. I was miserable and tearful after it, but nowhere near as bad as after the exam; for one thing, everybody else in the 'JCR' who was 'up for interview' (in the space of a few hours we'd already started to absorb the jargon) agreed that Tom Paulin had made everybody cry. I knew I hadn't got into Hertford, but that was okay, because my other two choices (the choices I hadn't made) would interview me, and I'd have another chance, and I'd have a better idea of what to do.
How did you know who else was going to interview you? My memory of the whole process was that it was fairly weird and confusing for someone who'd literally never been anywhere on their own before. You had to keep an eye on the noticeboards to find out whether you had any more interviews at other colleges, and if you did, you just had to get there ... on your own? All the way across a town you'd never been to before? How? They couldn't possibly expect people to do that, it was clearly unfair. I watched the noticeboard, but nothing came up that day; I walked into town but didn't dare go any further than Broad Street because I didn't think I'd be able to find my way back. It had snowed, and my new interview shoes had no grips on the soles so I was sliding around all over the place, so instead I just sat in the JCR with a book (The Riders by Tim Winton), and talked to people a bit. I couldn't do anything about the interviews except wait until tomorrow, and in the meantime, there was the evening's entertainment... I remember going to a pub near Hertford (in retrospect it must have been the King's Arms), and then coming back to Hertford bar, and there was a lot of drinking (I'd done plenty of that before, so I wasn't totally out of my depth). I got talking to a nice guy called Jacob who was also up for English; he had a Dr Who scarf and he was funny and interesting and enjoyed talking about literature but also had, y'know, normal conversation. I remember people playing on the pub quiz machine, and (I've told this story before, but it really does sum up a lot of the Oxford Thing for me) people were arguing over the answers, as they do, and one guy shouted "Of course it's fucking Sophocles", and I thought I want to stay here. Just realising that the room was full of people who were intelligent and interesting and fun, who didn't think doing homework was 'totally gay', but who weren't boring swots. People who could go to the pub and swear and still know about Ancient Greek. At home all my going-to-the-pub had been with friends who, while good friends, weren't as interested in the academic side of life; all my talking-about-school-stuff had been either with teachers (because I was a swot) or with people who didn't really do so much of the going-to-the-pub side of things. I realised you could have both. I've always been greedy.
So... morning (and a slight hangover) dawned, and Becca gave me a raised-eyebrow look when I turned up at breakfast at the same time as the nice guy called Jacob, and I carried on waiting to find out when the next interview would be. Nothing. No notices on the noticeboard, no hint from anybody, just lots of sitting around in the JCR. In the end someone told me that I could go home, so I did -- I can't remember but I must have phoned my parents & got them to pick me up -- with my suitcase and my mostly-finished book and Jacob's phone number. I didn't really know what to think by that point: either Hertford had accepted me after all, or they'd rejected me so completely that neither of the other colleges wanted to interview me either.
As it happened, it was neither of those things. The next day, I got a phone call in the evening. "This is Pembroke College," it said. (I'd never heard of them; were they a proper Oxford College?) "We'd like to interview you. Can you come back tomorrow?" Cue panic; phoning teachers, working out arrangements. My mum would have to drive me back to Oxford (I'm not sure if she wasn't working at that point or if she managed to take leave at short notice), and I'd have to miss a school Carol Service (you have no idea how distressed I was about that), but I could get there and do the interview.
I was cross with Oxford, and cross with Pembroke College for dragging me back (why couldn't they have interviewed me while I was there?). I don't remember feeling nervous at all this time; I'd done this before, they'd messed me around, and I was going to go there and Show Them. So my mum dropped me off and went to wander round Oxford for an hour or so, while I went up a rickety old staircase and got handed some more 'unseen' poems to study (only two this time, so no agonies of choice -- T. S. Eliot's "The Boston Evening Transcript", and an unattributed poem which I've not been able to find since & can't remember enough about to google for) and shown to a chair to sit on and wait. One other girl was there for interview at the same time, a rather snooty-looking girl called Megan; I tried to make conversation with her, but she obviously wasn't keen to talk to me.
This interview was very different from the previous one, both from their side and from mine: I was much less nervous, marching into the room in my scarlet crushed-velvet suit determined that I wasn't going to bend over backwards for Oxford after it had messed me around; but this seemed to be a totally different Oxford. The room was smaller and more cosy, the two interviewers were sitting on a sofa on one side of the room and I sat on a sofa opposite -- no worries about where to look -- and they were both charming, smiling people. "I'm so sorry to have called you back like this, it must have been very inconvenient," said one of them. "Yes, it was a bit," I said, still on the defensive. But then we had a chat about the poems, and I leaned back in my sofa and said pretentious things, and they asked me questions about my entrance exam paper and I even managed to pretend I remembered what on earth I'd written, and before I knew it it was all over and they were saying cheerful goodbyes.
I knew it had gone better than the Hertford interview, but I was still surprised and amazed when I got the coveted two-E offer.
My parents said "well done", but also said they'd have loved me anyway even if I hadn't got in; I was kind of disappointed that they weren't more unequivocally delighted. I didn't want them to be reasonable about it, I wanted them to be over the moon! "Your parents must be so proud," people kept saying, and I had to say, "Um, I guess they are, maybe, I don't know," at which grown-ups gave me funny looks. But the main thing was... I was going to Oxford! And so were Jenny and Vicky and Debbie! In fact all but one of the Oxford applicants in my year got offered a place; the one who was rejected was Liz who had applied to do Ancient and Modern History, for which there was only about one place. She'd known it was a difficult option, but she was utterly devastated when she didn't get in. She wasn't a close friend of mine, so I can't remember what she did instead. One of the others, however, turned down her place -- Sarah P., who got offered a place at St. Hilda's, and decided that she'd never really wanted to go to Oxford anyway and certainly didn't want to spend another four years in an all-female environment. It was one of the big controversies of the Upper Sixth (I know, "Controversy in the Upper Sixth" sounds like an Angela Brazil novel): Sarah was adamant that she didn't want to go, and the Head and all her teachers were insistent that she had to. I remember our form teacher telling her "you'll regret it all your life if you don't go", and I remember arguing with the teacher and saying that going to Oxford when you didn't want to was like buying designer jeans that you didn't want to wear just because of the label. I'm pleased to say that Sarah stuck to her guns and went to Leeds instead (and the one time afterwards I met her again she said she was absolutely loving the course and the city).
Meanwhile, those of us with our two-E offers were feeling quite smug comparing ourselves to the Cambridge girls, who all had three-A offers or higher. Amanda who was going to do Physics got an offer conditional on getting three As and two 2s (S-Levels pass grades were either 1 or 2, as far as I can remember), which was clearly insane! (In the end she got five As -- including getting 100% on several modules -- and two 1s, of course.) Of course, the two-E offer made all the other offers a bit of a joke. I'd been offered AAB by Birmingham and ABC by Southampton; Durham and Sussex had said they weren't going to make me an offer until I had the results of the Oxford application, and York hadn't replied at all. In the end I only kept the Oxford offer, as if I didn't get two Es I didn't know what I'd do. Of course, I knew (Everybody Knew) that the Oxford two-E offer was a lie, and if you didn't get three As they wouldn't take you -- got to keep the pressure on! -- but we didn't have to tell the Cambridge girls that.
General Studies and university choices
No, this isn't the debate about whether General Studies should be allowed to 'count' as an A-Level for the purposes of offers (it didn't, generally), so bear with me.
General Studies at our school was a bit of an odd fish; we had lessons jointly with the Grammar School (boys! in lessons!! And male teachers!!!) and as far as I can tell any teacher could teach anything they wanted under the umbrella of GS. (This bore no relation whatsoever to the actual GS paper; that was covered by separate lessons in General English, General Maths, and General French for those who weren't taking those subjects anyway.) The subjects they chose were a peculiar mix of general knowledge, 'improving' topics for discussion, and finishing-school classes -- everything from "Four Nineteenth Century Thinkers" to ballroom dancing, from wine-tasting to "Is genetic modification a good thing?" The set I was in quickly got a reputation for being the "liveliest" GS set, by which I think they meant "argumentative".
One of these strange made-up courses, taught by a mad old Welsh bloke who had actually already retired but came back to torment pupils occasionally, was called "What is wrong with your generation?" and was apparently an attempt to compensate for the fact that most of us didn't read the Daily Mail. He cheerfully told us in the course of some debate or other that foreign people should go back where they came from, and we told him that in that case he should go back to Wales. I still don't know if he was actually a mad old bigot or whether he was just trying to hone our debating skills.
Anyway, somehow the subject of university came up, and he said (I paraphrase, but only slightly) that only stupid people should go to ex-polytechnics and do silly subjects like media studies; clever people should go to Oxford or Cambridge and do real subjects like English or History or Physics. All of us disagreed with him, and said so at some length; we argued that the less "traditional" courses could be more progressive and more relevant and more vocational; that they weren't any less good, just different; that not everybody who could go to Oxford wanted to go to Oxford (my designer jeans analogy may have got another airing); and so on and so forth (no, we didn't have any really impressive arguments). Eventually he said with a bit of a sneer "so what are you lot going to do at university then?" and we went round the group: Oxford (English), Oxford (Physics), Oxford (History), Oxford (Chemistry) ... Looking back, I suspect that a) he knew damn well that we were the Oxbridge set, and b) he was trolling. But we felt we'd won by proving that we weren't just arguing with him because we were going to ex-polytechnics (whatever they were), and that we could go to Oxford without having to look down on people who weren't going to Oxford.
It all seemed quite simple then; he was the voice of outdated nonsense, whereas we knew that friends were more important than qualifications, and everything followed from that. Simple. These days, I don't think I'd even dare take part in the debate; I'd probably just turn it into a joke and then change the subject.
Good grief, I didn't realise I'd gone on so long. To be continued, if anybody (including me) can bear it...