I had huge long reading lists from Oxford, and I'd gone to Codd's Bookshop in Loughborough and asked nice Mrs Codd to order in all the books I'd need. We'd be 'doing' Victorian literature in the first term, so the reading list was mostly extremely long novels. We also had to write a holiday essay on Tennyson, whom I'd always sort of discounted as being Charge-of-the-Light-Brigade stuff, all pom-pom-pom, without ever really having read any. As it turned out, I loved In Memoriam, and enjoyed some of the long 19th century novels, and overall was having as much fun reading new stuff as I had done the previous summer... until I got glandular fever. When the doctor told me it'd be a few months before I was well again, I was devastated; I thought I'd never be able to go to Oxford, I'd miss the first year, I'd never have any friends (god knows why I thought I'd be somehow more likely to make friends with the people in 'my year' than the people in the next year... particularly given that everybody else had had gap years and/or was a child prodigy, so the 'year' you were in was more or less irrelevant, but I didn't know that then). I basically spent two weeks asleep, waking occasionally for just long enough to swallow some more aspirin. Even when I started being able to stay awake for a few hours a day I was so pathetically weak I could barely move; I remember bursting into tears because I couldn't unscrew the top on a bottle of lemonade, I just didn't have the strength to turn the cap. I felt like Mariana in her bloody moated grange, always "aweary, aweary". And as soon as I was awake enough to think clearly, I started worrying about the reading lists. The rest of that summer is kind of a blur of Henry James and aspirin, one eye on the page and one eye on the clock to see whether I could have any more painkillers yet.
My GP told me that I'd be fine to go to university, but that I should "get lots of sleep and avoid the alcohol". He was actually a Pembroke alumnus, so in retrospect he was probably actually just taking the piss when he said that, and I knew it wasn't likely that I was going to live that sort of sober life... but maybe if I had done, or if I'd slipped a year and let myself get better properly, I might not have spent most of the next decade being tired. Who knows? Too late to do anything about it now.
I don't actually remember the First Day that clearly, and it probably wasn't that different from the First Day at any normal university: worthless idiots like me who didn't know how to catch trains got dropped off by their parents in a big Volvo with enormous amounts of stuff, while real people got the train with a big trunk full of stuff, or drove their own car. (Actually, not many people brought cars to Oxford, because there just wasn't anywhere to put one.) Then everybody milled around a bit for about 4 days, spending the daytimes asking each other what A-Levels they'd done, and the evenings and nights drinking as much as possible and trying to get off with someone. Anyone. I didn't get to sleep before 4am one single night in Freshers' Week. Way to recover from glandular fever, eh? (When I went home for the first Christmas hols I literally slept for nearly a day -- went to bed at the normal time and didn't wake up properly until 6pm the next day.)
I remember at one awful freshers' week bop (it was the Boat Club drinks/bop, and I had no interest in the Boat Club at all, but I didn't dare not go to stuff in case it meant that I spent the rest of my life having NO FRIENDS) a girl whose name I could at least remember (though can't now -- I think she was called Ingrid) bounced up to me drunkenly and said "Are you having fun?" and I made the mistake -- or not -- of stopping to think about it and said "No." She said "Me neither". She and I and another girl called Bethany ended up sitting in Ingrid's room crying and wondering what was wrong with us that we just weren't enjoying all this Fun.
I don't remember anybody talking about what school they'd gone to, whether it was a private school or a state school. It didn't really matter. What A-Levels you'd done mattered, though, and I soon realised that my 4 As weren't very special (for a start, one of them was General Studies, which didn't count). Most people had done 4 proper A-Levels, many people had done 5. (I felt slightly resentful that the school hadn't allowed people to do 5 A-Levels; I was sure I could have managed it.)
It's all fragmentary, all the memories. Meeting the other people doing English at Pembroke. One of them was Megan, the girl who hadn't wanted to talk to me at the Pembroke interview. She didn't seem to remember having met me, and still seemed a bit stuck up. I was disappointed that there weren't more guys doing English -- there were 8 girls and 1 boy (a tall quiet-ish chap called Bernard). The girls mostly seemed quite posh and not at all like I'd imagined English students being... they didn't wear velvet jackets or talk about poetry! They wanted to try rowing, for god's sake! Bernard was more like a proper English student, but I never really talked to him much after the time really early on in the course when he asked me to look at one of his essays. It was scary stuff, hardcore critical theory; he'd used words I didn't even know, like "nexus". (See, "Do you think it's okay?" he asked, all nervous-like. I felt sick with worry, I obviously wasn't good enough to be here really if this was the sort of essay we were supposed to be able to write. But on the other hand... I'd already met several people who were really, really boring. How did they get in? Were they good enough to be here?
Once I'd got comments back from tutors on a couple of essays, though, I didn't worry so much about the work. It was okay. I wasn't top of my class any more, but nobody really was; there wasn't so much sense of being a "class", because we had tutorials in ones, twos or threes, never all as a group (we had Anglo-Saxon translation classes as a group, but to be honest I think we were all bottom of that class all the time). There was no falling out with people over a 5% difference in marks because we didn't get marks on our essays, we just got comments -- and we never really saw each other's comments. It wasn't all about beating each other: it was just about getting the work done. I suppose there was a bit of "how many sides have you written?", but that's about it. It felt less academically pressured than school, but more interesting.
The real pressure, though, was in terms of time. The essay on Tennyson that I'd written over the summer had been fine, but I'd had weeks to read and make notes, and goodness knows how long to draft and redraft it; then I got to Oxford and found that I had to be able to do the same thing once a week (twice a week after the first term). This wasn't so bad when I was writing about books I'd already read, but if I hadn't read them in the hols, it was awful; I got through Middlemarch in a day and a half, and loathed it as a result. I don't remember a thing about the novel now, but I think that was the essay which I was writing while actually falling asleep on the computer keyboard -- waking to find that I'd typed another few sentences in my sleep, rambling dream-nonsense in a strange mixture of caps and lower case, including something about ice-cream. I did lots of "all-nighters", fuelled by "essay coffee" (3 spoonfuls of instant coffee, 7 spoonfuls of sugar); I got used to seeing the grey dawn light and the rowers going out on their morning jog.
I know I was supposed to be writing about schooling and Oxbridge for juggzy, but instead I'm just wandering off down memory lane, picking occasional wild flowers from the side of the path. I've lost the knack of writing essays. More wild flowers another time, maybe; perhaps I'll even manage to wrangle them into something like a bouquet.