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004 — Red carnation
Finishing Finals, feminist fails — and the choices we make.
Welcome back to The Notebooks. If you missed the last, this is where we were.
If you’re coming in fresh, The Notebooks is a piece of long form writing, based on a true story, served in weekly instalments. You can read it yourself or listen to me read it (audio linked above).
Pieces in The Notebooks may have a song-matching, like wine and cheese.
Not your quick-release serotonin fix, The Notebooks are in it for the long haul.
Now re-opening The Notebooks to June 2006….
Remember how good it feels sometimes to be really shit-faced?
Just drunk and unshackled and on the cusp of 21 and free of exams and light as Prosecco bubbles, squirted all over you on Merton Street?
Feeling your whole life ahead of you. You can be whatever you want.
Imagining, with incalculable hubris: I am one of the chosen.
Two drunk guys push each other. They spin apart. One of them retreats ten feet and then retreats another twenty feet and yells “motherfucker” at the other, who is also retreating. His retainer or something plastic in his mouth falls out into the street. He walks out in front of a Thames Valley Police car to retrieve it. The cop cruises past uninterested. They’re out in force tonight, like the drunks.
There are flashing blue lights on Magdalen Bridge — someone drunk in the river, still in suit and bowtie, voluntarily, it seems — and there’s a press of people outside the Half Moon at the top of St Clements. Some still in sub-fusc (I’ll get to that in a minute) but bowties hanging loose now and stockings laddered. Cowley is a shit show, packs of roaming lads and half-dressed hags.
The light is that perfect late evening June light where the sun has set but the glow seems to have diffused out and got stuck in the leaves. It refracts dreamily off the Cotswolds stone, oolitic limestone quarried locally since the fourteenth century. The hollow of Oxford lies on a former seabed and all the stones were first laid down as carpets of shells in shallow interglacial seas. They retain a luminous opalescent quality. It’s still oddly bright, but in a purplish way.
The sky is usually low in Oxfordshire, a uniform dull grey under permanent cloud cover, but today the sky was high and blue. You’d never know we’re in the Midlands.
It was a nice day to be finishing Finals.
I’m not sure where more specifically than that we are now. We’ve roamed widely tonight and now we’re somewhere out of the city a bit, out past Jericho, a pub by the river that is done with us and really wants us to leave now.
Kind of like the whole of Oxford, really, come to think of it.
Tim is not into it; expounding to the barman about something, not aggressively, just intensely. He always looks like he could be solving a deep-rooted intellectual riddle but he’s probably just talking about Tottenham. Tim wants to be a journalist and has an intensity that won’t quit. If he says he wants to be a journalist, I know in ten years he’ll be running The Times.
Who else is still here? I grin happily, looking around. There’s Matty, he’s doing a joyous little two-step. His last day of Finals — something inordinately complicated in the world of Materials Science, for which he will eventually garner a double First — is over now too. There’s Rich, modern languages and English, who will go on to write a celebrated novel about the Arab Spring, and Christine, another lawyer. Arun too, a mathematician who at some point will make an absolute fortune betting against Goldman — and winning. Then there’s Patrick, Matty’s best friend, a historian who will become a very successful barrister and Fred, a bit of a lout and another historian, who will dabble in imprudent journalism and get swept up in the phone hacking scandal. Some others — the much cooler cohort, which includes the actress who will eventually get nominated for an Oscar — are nowhere to be seen. They’re into drum and bass, not old man pubs, and they aren’t here. They’ve gone somewhere better.
Over the next few years leading up to August 2008 and the crash of Lehman, almost without exception, all of my friends will go down to London. Some will go on to careers of glory; others, of notoriety. I will (results willing) stay on and do a Masters and not have to leave Oxford yet to figure out what else to do with my life. That all can wait. I’m about to be 21 and time is on my side.
All warm and fuzzy inside, but outside quite cold. The high sky and purplish glow retained none of the day’s heat.
How did I get to this pub on the edge of Port Meadow?
Alarm went at 7am this morning. The light across the city still soft and pearly, foretelling a bright day to come. Exams didn’t start until 9:30am but, when you have to write four essays in three hours, every minute counts.
My sub fusc was ready to go but there was a last minute panic because I couldn’t find tights without runs or obvious holes. Do you know about sub fusc? It’s the formal attire students have to wear under academic gowns to take exams in Oxford. It comes from the Latin for “moderately dark, brownish, dusky, sombre” so in theory you could wear grey or brown or navy — but everyone just wears black. There is also apparently an ancient exam regulation that permits students to arrive at Finals on horseback down the High Street, but I never saw anyone test this rule. In 2006, it was black suit for men, black dress or skirt for women, and horse for no one. I think this has been changed since and women can wear trousers now (still no horses though).
Anyway, back then it was skirt and tights. Imagine being about to sit an exam and worrying about tights. It’s inhumane. And heels, I had to walk in heels down ancient cobbled New College Lane to get to the Exam Schools.
In HEELS. For an exam. I ask you.
I finally found a pair of clean-ish tights and started on the ribbon. The boys wear a bowtie and the girls a black ribbon around the neck. There is no consensus on how to tie this and everyone just ends up tying a weird double knot that looks like a badly-wrapped Christmas present. As I did now.
In my robe, holding mortarboard (which is not to be worn, on pain of a hefty fine) I examined myself in the mirror.
I looked like a knob.
I looked like Mr. Collins in the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice (the only version that counts) in his frock and coat tails, prancing around at the Netherfield ball, embarrassing the shit out of his cousins.
People don’t ever seem to write or talk too much about these odd little idiosyncrasies at Oxford when you’re a student. It’s as if you’re not supposed to acknowledge how weird some shit at Oxford is because that makes you pedestrian, a bit of a pleb, just like one of the tourists snapping a picture as you trundle to exams in your robe and ribbons.
But I never lost a slight sense of wonder about it all; the arcane mystery of having to comply with 800 years of nonsensical traditions. In my head, still fresh from the woods of upstate New York: how did they let me in? There must be some colossal mistake! How did I pull this off?!
My stomach flipped. There was that familiar seed of doubt, laced with terror. I’ve got an offer to stay on and do a Masters if I manage a First. What if I don’t manage it? What if I can’t stay on? What then?
Finals determines your entire three year degree. No coursework, no extended essays. Just nine three hour exams serving up a total of 36 essays and one average mark at the end that will either be above 70 (a First), between 60 — 70 (an upper Second or 2:1), 50 — 60 (lower Second or a 2:2 — a Desmond, see if you can figure out why) or less than 50 (the dreaded Third).
There’s a common saying that the only degree worth getting is a First or a Third. A First means you are indisputably brilliant, while a Third means you were too busy with the extra-curricular opportunities for networking — and forming strategic alliances that will serve well into middle age — to go to the boring, pointless library.
In either case, you have reaped well what Oxford has to offer.
But a Second? Who wants a Second. That’s just the swollen middle: unremarkable, undistinguished, mediocre merit. Like being the captain of the runner-up team that *just* missed the podium.
I pushed that thought down. There’s no point right now. I am extraordinarily good at ignoring uncomfortable thoughts and need to finish getting dressed.
Forgot to mention one key part of the sub fusc get up. It’s a carnation, a real one, pinned to a lapel or through a buttonhole. On the first day of exams, it’s a white carnation, which then progresses to pink, until the day of your last exams, when you wear a red carnation.
I know. Talk about arcane traditions.
No one seems able to agree on the origins of this one. In 2006, the story went that the carnations had “in olden days” been placed in an ink pot: still white on the first day, progressively pinker as they soaked up the red ink, and then bright red on the last day.
This is nonsense.
I have since heard that the tradition is decades, not centuries, old and never coincided with that aquatint age when students wrote exams with ink pots.
A more poetic interpretation I like is that the carnation colour change represents all the knowledge, outpouring from heart via fingertips, bleeding into the page and soaking it red by the last day.
It’s the job of the second years, who have it all ahead of them, to place the carnations in the pigeonholes of Finalists overnight. Kind of a karmic pay-it-forward to the elders.
Anyway, after a week of pink carnations each morning, it was time for my red one. So, to complete my final Finals ensemble, I trundled down to the porter’s lodge and into the pigeonhole nook.
When I got there, I could see a smattering of pink ones (some people were still going and had more exams after today), a white one or two (for people who were only just getting started — shudder) and a few precious red ones to mark the end.
But not in my pidge. My pidge was empty.
I stood and looked at it for a moment and really pointlessly put my hand in and felt the corners, as if my fingers might light on an overlooked flower lurking there.
There was nothing. It was definitely empty.
A kind of white-hot panic in my belly. What do I do? I can’t do my exam — my last exam ever — without a carnation. I certainly can’t do my last exam ever without a red carnation. The red carnation is the most special of the bunch. It signifies the end. I need that carnation. Who am I without it? How will anyone know? The tourists along the High snapping pictures of stressed out sub fusc-ed students en route to exams — how will they know? There she goes, they’ll whisper. That girl doesn’t even have a carnation. Who is she? She’s probably not a real student. She’s a fraud. She’ll never get a First.
I’m on the verge of tears. This isn’t fair. I’ve worked so hard and now to be felled at the last hurdle.
Then, a horrible little troll of a thought creeped out from under a bridge in my mind.
Take someone else’s. It whispered.
Oh god. I could though. Maybe they wouldn’t even notice. Maybe they’ve already gone to the Exam Schools, maybe halfway down New College Lane before they realised, whoops no carnation, oh well too late to go back now.
I could see Christine’s pidge two rows above mine, full of red blossom. I could do it.
My hand was halfway up when she rounded the corner, clutching her mortarboard and pencil case.
“Morning!” She said brightly. Then, because I was standing quite still in the middle of the pidge nook at the back of the porter’s lodge, my arm still semi-extended:
“….what are you doing?”
“I don’t have a carnation.”
“Oh, shit. Really?”
“Yeah.” I still couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have a red carnation on my last morning! It felt like a terrible omen.
She looked from me to her pidge and back to me again. She put two and two together pretty quickly. She’s no fool.
“Wow, that sucks. Here, have mine, I don’t care.”
I sputtered and protested but she pinned it on me quickly and pulled me towards the door.
“Come on! We’re going to be late, you twat.”
We ran down New College Lane, dodging tourists with Canons, and made it to our seats in the Exam Schools just in time.
While we scribbled, a meteor detonated in far-northern Norway with the force of Hiroshima. A bomb exploded on a beach in Palestine, killing families. Scientists in Greece uncovered hidden letters in the Antikythera mechanism.
Three hours later, I am covered in eggs and flour. The day is Friday 9th June 2006 and I am finished with Oxford. I don’t know yet but I’m finished forever.
There is ketchup in my hair and new holes in my tights. The red carnation is covered in glitter and won’t survive the hour intact.
The world plods on.
Here are the four exam questions I answered:
Do I know what I wrote? Do I fuck.
(A) That was 18 years ago.
(B) I forgot it instantly, as I wrote, an exercise in pure catharsis. Then I got drunk and forgot it even more.
(C) All trace of it has now been swept from the earth. There’s a rumour that the University incinerates all exam scripts pretty sharpishly after they’re marked to minimise the risk of an angry student disputing their 2nd class degree. So any feverish scribbles of mine from the exam hall have long since been turned to, well, wordsmoke. There’s nothing at all left of them; not a trace of memory nor physical remains.
Why do some things vanish and other things endure? Kind of like Oxford itself. I’ve always felt like it was the bones of a place, a stage set through which we all moved and then moved on, circulated like smoke and then dispersed, vanished, while it stayed the solid same.
Oxford is redolent with fumes, and thick with wordsmoke.
It’s well after midnight now and we’ve left the pub, heading to Godstow nunnery. It’s the ruins of an ancient abbey, originally built on an island but long infilled by the shifting Thames. Haunted perhaps by the ghost of Rosamund, the twelfth-century mistress of Henry II who was buried here and revered by locals, her grave decorated with blooms, until a bishop got angry that people were worshiping a “harlot” and ejected her long-dead corpse from the abbey.
Poor forgotten Rosamund.
Learn this well. We are not who we fuck — except that, ultimately, we kind of are. This lesson is everywhere. Who we fuck will endure but we will not.
The nunnery is over a bridge and through a little field but I’m so cold it feels like a really long way. I’m freezing and Matt gives me his coat. It’s way too big — he’s over six feet tall and solid like a tree. We’re still walking but there’s a big dark shape coming at us across the field. It’s the ruins of the nunnery.
The boys decide we should light a fire. Patrick stokes it with a couple of sticks and the flames play off faces. Someone passes around a spliff.
I’m listening to the swirls of conversation all around me. It’s one of my favourite sounds: concentric spirals of conversation diminishing outwards around me, from the discernible to the semi-audible to the steady hum.
Christine is smoking, looking louche and cool, talking to Arun about a recent quarrel someone in our year had with the Dean.
“… I’m not interested in yet another guy’s perception of how aggrieved he is…”
Tim and Rich are giggling.
“Yeah, that’d solve all kinds of things. Drink driving, anti-social behaviour, petty theft … if the punishment was a month in a chastity belt.”
Matt is lying on his back, smoking the spliff, quiet next to me.
Matt is really clever. He went to a comp1 but was brilliant enough to have made it in without any private school leg-up. He’s had the same girlfriend all the way through three years at Oxford, a girlfriend from back home, and they’ve just broken up. Now, after three years of an undergraduate degree and stuck in a dead-end relationship, only now to be free, just when it’s time to leave. I feel sad for him that he missed out on so much. Then, I wonder what he missed out on. STIs? Shagging around?
I need a wee but too afraid to go on my own lest some serial killer/rapist/deranged monk from the all-male college grabs me and spirits me away to a cloisters or a sex dungeon or something.
Matt rolls his eyes — it sometimes seems that he does little but roll eyes at me — and throws down the spliff.
“Come on then.”
Back out in the field.
“As if I want to. I’m plugging my ears too. Don’t get wee on my coat.”
I hoist the enormous coat up and only splash it a tiny bit.
I tuck under his arm. “What’s going to happen now?”
“Are you wanting to go already? I’ll probably stay for a bit. We only just got here.”
“No, I mean, you know, Finals.”
“Oh.” He’s unmoved, unworried about his assured, golden future. “Well, London. Tim, Rich and I have a flat in Canada Water from September.”
“What’s Canada Water?” I’m not terribly au fait with London neighbourhoods but this is a new one on me. And it doesn’t sound like home. I’m from America and comfortable on dry land. Canada Water sounds as alien as can be.
“It’s nice. It’s out east in the docklands, just been redeveloped.”
“What was it before?”
“Just, you know, warehouses and old boats and things. Where the whaling ships went to Canada. It’s nice now. They’re getting the Overground next year.”
In another world, maybe I’ll live in this place that sounds like a brand of ginger ale. I’ll walk along the river, past husks of old boats and jetties and pick up pieces of pipe stem and porcelain thrown off passing barques two hundred years ago.
I’ll feel right at home in this town that’s home to so many of my friends.
But not yet.
“Well, I’ll come down and visit.”
“You’re still thinking next year…”
“Yeah, I’ll be here.” You know, as long as I managed a First, I don’t say.
“Cool.” He is pleased with this.
“Seriously, I’m coming to visit all the time. Save a couch for me.”
“Couch? Nah, you can cuddle up with me.”
“No thanks, your bed is a spunk tray.”
“My bed is spotless. I’m basically a monk at this stage.” He’s alluding to his long-term long distance ex-girlfriend and the extended periods of abstinence.
“Yeah, well, not for long.”
He looks at me and I don’t look at him. And, just like that, a moment swirls away and is gone forever.
“Ok.” He shrugs. “I’m going back to the fire. You coming?”
“In a minute.”
It’s 3:30am. Port Meadow is still under an enormous not-quite Strawberry Moon, which isn’t pink at all but deep honey gold. The sun will be up in an hour or so and I can already sense a lightening around the edges. Off across the meadow, the prominent outlines of St Mary’s and the Rad Cam squat against a fractionally lighter navy sky. I’m swishing one of Patrick’s fire-poking sticks, thinking about what Matt said, thinking about Finals, thinking about my future.
I don’t want to go to London, to the City. I know, instinctively but without acknowledgement, that it’s a world that is not designed for me. I know there is something — I can’t put my finger on it, can’t give words to it and actually am not even aware I know it — something dishonest in telling us that we are just the same as all the boys and will have the same opportunities. I know that things will be different for the hordes of black tights-clad women filing out of Finals, when they hit the City and easier, more natural for the be-suited boys. I just don’t know how.
What must it be like to move through a world designed for you?
I know all of this without knowing I know it, while explicitly disavowing any need to be a “feminist”. Feminism, gack, how retro. Who needs that shit, everyone knows we’re all the same now. The kicker is that it’s kind of true — in your twenties. An element of youth and pretty privilege in it too maybe, like, why do I need feminism? We are all equal and I can get men to do whatever I want anyway. You can blend right in, in your twenties, be just like one of the unencumbered boys climbing the ladder — until you fall off or jump off or want to jump off but can’t. Until you stop caring about unimportant things and start to become invisible. Until you start to be defined by who you fuck. When it all changes.
So dumb. Not being a feminist in your twenties is like all the poor bastards in red states voting for Trump; turkeys voting for Thanksgiving. A ragged bundle of contradictions: I am not who I fuck. But equally I want to stay home quietly with my babies. I don’t want to just be a CV with Oxford underlined in red ink by an eager interviewer. But I want to prove I’m just as good at this as the boys.
I throw the stick in the river.
When I get back to the fire, Matt is kissing Christine.
Later, walking back across Port Meadow, everyone is still merry. Matt and Christine are busy with each other and neither is looking at me.
I get my phone out and text the library guy. Geoff with a G.
“Hey are you out tonight”
To be continued
*All names are made up and any likeness to a real person, dead or alive, is coincidence.
Comprehensive = UK equivalent of US public school.