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People who get in our way
Tales of a really fancy dinner, and some pebbles in the river.
People that get in our way are like pebbles in a river. They force us to alter course and, over time, crunch through an island or forge a new path through some scrub.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez says the invincible power that has moved the world is unrequited, not happy, love. I would build this out slightly. The invincible power that moves the world is unrequited everything; not just unrequited love but unrequited dreams, unrealised plans and unfulfilled potential. And, sometimes, the people who get in our way.
Let me explain.
I am making this explanation from an otherwise unremarkable spot, north of Oxford where the River Evenlode is crossed by Akeman Street, the old east-west Roman road that transects the country and may have been built on an even earlier Celtic road.
Now it is a very quiet footpath that runs through some curvy overhanging beech and hazel trees — but still immediately recognisable as an obvious two-chariot wide dent in the landscape.
It’s a great place to escape a busy house during half-term to have a think.
I climb a little bluff above the Evenlode and survey the scene, trying to imagine Centurions marching down a paved road under me. Waving a thistle stalk like a wand as if it might transform the scene before my eyes. Mercifully, no badgers fly out of their setts into my face.
I’m thinking about a return visit I made to college recently.
By college I mean university. Not college in the secondary school way Brits sometimes mean when they say college — or even college in the way Americans use it to mean university. College in this case means a very specific college, in a very specific university, at the very specific place where cattle used to ford the river (probably since about the same time Akeman Street was bustling and Centurions were crossing the Evenlode beneath me).
Anyway, I went back to college at the invitation of one of my old tutors, with whom I always had a somewhat fraught relationship but, twenty years on, I feel it’s time to bury the hatchet. She’s certainly not going to give me a bad mark in Collections1 now, is she.
Or is she?
There are dinner rules of many and varied layers of complexity: who can sit next to whom in the retiring room, which direction the wines must be passed, whether to carry your napkin from the dining hall to the second dessert room. Etc. At one point I forget to pass the wine and she gets up to chide me along. In an instant, I am 19 again, back in one of her tutorials, failing to recall what Lord Bingham said in a seminal dissenting judgment.
But that’s skipping ahead.
Back to the river.
There are a few key moments I look back on, not with regret, but as major river course changes. One was when I was 21 and failed to get my predicted first in Finals. This flowed through to an email, about a week after results came in, from another tutor saying “I tried, I spoke on your behalf, they said you just wouldn’t cut it.” Or words to that effect.
The “it” in question was the BCL. The BCL, or Bachelor of Civil Law as you may not know (because why would you, it’s super niche and dull), is a selective and prestigious law masters. When I was an infant of 20, I had a conditional offer to do it, if (and, oh, it’s a big if) I managed to swing a first in my Final Exams.
Looking back, it was mostly a lack of imagination and an unwillingness to leave college yet that made me want it so much. I also just knew I didn’t want to go the City. Did not want to spend my days in an airless cube in a London skyscraper. Not for all the money and coke and mates in the Golden Mile.
The problem was, a first in Law back then meant getting marked above 70 in the majority of your exams. We sat nine exams for Finals, seven compulsory (Trusts, Contract, Tort, Admin, Jurisprudence, Land, European Community) - and two optionals (mine were Public International Law and History of English Law). In each exam, we had three hours to produce four essays. For those of you counting, that is 27 hours and 36 essays.
To get marked over 70 in a single exam, your four essays had to average a mark of 70 or above.
And to get a first overall, you had to do this at least five times.
Now, as it turns out, I only managed one first, in History of English Law.
This was because, dear reader, I am just not a lawyer at heart.
And it’s also because I chose to spend my third year mostly drinking and shagging around, instead of studying, none of which I regret2.
But that was then, this is now. At the time, I had many regrets and worried deeply about my BCL fate. My other tutor, the wonderful man who had called us all up individually before Christmas to let us know we’d got in, even though the formal date for notification wasn’t until January (so the people who’d got in could enjoy their Christmas and those who hadn’t would be spared the bad news til after the holidays) said not to worry, he’d fight my corner and there was reason to hope I might still keep my place.
But then a week later, that email. No, I’m sorry, I really tried.
And, like the pebble in the stream, my course altered significantly.3
Now, the reason to go into all this guff about who got what in Finals and how many mind-numbing essays I wrote is foreshadowing this week’s tale — in which I returned to college to dine at High Table.
Dining at High Table is, just like in Harry Potter, where Dumbledore and McGonagall sit, except without the magical ceiling.
As I’ve mentioned, this was at the invitation of a different tutor, one with whom I never really saw eye to eye when I was her student. She always gave the impression that she thought I wasn’t really good enough.
Basically, reader, she saw right through me. She knew I’m a fake lawyer.
I was nervous before the dinner. Nervous mostly that I would be hungry and eat all my food in seconds. I had a Scotch egg in the King’s Arms on the way — with mustard, which felt very daring as I am wont to spill but which thankfully went down without incident.
I still ate all my courses quicker than anyone else. The main was a duck leg and, as I may have mentioned once or twice before, I like to gnaw on a bone (it’s my Irish and Jewish peasant ancestry). A furtive glance across the hall. No one looking so I picked it up and instantly locked eyes with a guy on the other side of the table. I said something stupid like “caught in the act” and he went “American?”
Turns out he’s a Junior Fellow from San Diego. So we shared a moment while I gnawed all the good bits off that duck leg bone at High Table.
I talked to some interesting people in the course of the evening.
My favourite was an astronomer studying things that move in and out of galaxies — mostly magnetic fields and gases, as it turns out. We bonded over a shared appreciation for Star Wars. She advised me to read Asimov and Lem and I advised her to read The Three Body Problem. She told me she got her start in astrology when she noticed there was a gas cloud in one of her doctoral supervisor’s images. She wrote her dissertation on it and everyone was like, no, that’s a programming error, your programming error, it’s not a gas cloud. So she spent years monitoring radio telescope transmissions trying to prove it. She told me back in the day when she and a colleague were on duty at the telescope, monitoring whatever it was that they were monitoring, another colleague would come in the dead of night to relieve their shift and they would both be talking to themselves, independently. And the newcomer would be like, I thought you guys were having a party in here.
Then, just last week, she got the latest results from two telescopes in South Africa and Australia. These print outs4 had been through many layers of independent programming that she had nothing to do with.
And when she got her copies to review she started crying because there it was! Right there. Her gas cloud with all the stars forming in it.
There was also the Hungarian physicist who banged the gavel to dismiss us all from High Table. He had less to offer in the way of moving anecdotes but I’m sure he’s brilliant at Physics. Materials research is lucky to have him.
In the Senior Common Room, after the second dessert course in the Retiring Room (where I failed to pass the Sauternes with sufficient promptitude), my tutor who invited me was irate. Apparently the guy from San Diego, the Junior Fellow in Sanskrit, had the audacity to argue with her about something to do with the law, something about how a ruling from the 17th century trumps a more recent ruling (which is actually precisely not how the common law works).
I am indignant on her behalf. She is, after all, a Senior Fellow in Law. Was he mansplaining the law to you!? The absolute cheek.
Talk turns boringly to career choices, how work-life balance isn’t a terrible idea, etc.
I try to convey that I know this already and don’t work very long hours and have a pretty good work life balance, all things considered. If there is any dissatisfaction, it’s just that I think there are things I’d rather be doing.
Like what? What would you ideally do?
She chortles. Oh yes, I remember you saying that, after Finals. When you went off to the States to be a ski instructor. I remember beating my head against the wall saying I just spent three years teaching this person at the pinnacle of human academic study in law — to go be a ski instructor.
I take a sip of my drink, somewhat taken aback. I’ve never had anyone be proprietorial about my life or my life’s choices. The audacity, the arrogance of a teacher to imagine they have some stake in the lives of their students. Then, hot on its heels, the thought that maybe I am the one being audacious. In accepting a place to study there, was I accepting the burden of living up to it, the responsibility of doing something with it of value? But value determined by whom? By my tutors? By society at large? Something that used my legal training? Have I squandered a responsibility I never knew I accepted?
But then she goes on, reminiscing about other women she has taught. Do I remember so-and-so, a few years ahead of me, who did the BCL and went on to be a Fellow in Cambridge? Or so-and-so other, who had a full scholarship for the BCL and sadly dropped out and is no longer in touch?
And thus it is revealed, slowly and by degrees, a dawning revelation that I never managed to land before.
This is why she is proprietorial about my life’s choices.
It was she who headed the BCL selection committee when I was an undergraduate.
It was she who decided my fate, who told my other tutor no. I just wouldn’t cut it.
And I never knew.
I don’t have any conclusions to draw from this, save that a pebble will change the course of a river, for better or for worse.
Now, to be very clear, I have no reservations in saying that I am a much happier and more fulfilled 37 year old woman now than I would have been had I stayed comfy and cosseted in Oxford for another year, studying something I didn’t really care about just because I wanted to keep being a student and lacked the imagination for anything else at the time; working hard, late at night and in dark libraries, through my twenties, to become the barrister I thought I needed to be. I had already worked really, really hard to get into Oxford and I worked really, really hard while I was there.
And, coming out of it, my prize would have been… more work?
Because of her, the pebble in the stream, I avoided a miserable fate.
Maybe “the people that get in our way” is wrong. Maybe what I mean is the people who alter our course, howsoever minute. The impact can feel massive at the time, but in hindsight was insignificant. Or it can go unnoticed at the time but looking back, was the turning point from which a very different life flowed.
I never knew it was because of her. Never knew that this tutor, who possibly just didn’t really like student-y old me very much (understandable — I was, still am, a bit of a dickhead), had changed my life in such a profound way when I was 21.
There is this instinct we have towards non-interference, that David Attenborough-esque tendency to observe but not to interfere. I practice it in my very minimal maintenance of our garden. There is a coppiced Ash, no longer tended, the base of which has mushroomed extravagantly, bulging out over the river and sending up four tall new tree size coppice stems, each almost too girthy to reach around. There’s a juicy sprawling mess of wild lilies. There’s an untended bank into which the river plows, eating incrementally towards the back wall of my kitchen. Blackberries over hang and dangle in the roll of the water and there are willow saplings inching roots down to the river. I will not cut them, even though I know they are worryingly close to our foundations.
Maybe that Do No Harm approach is right sometimes. But maybe also it’s our duty to help people find the right path or just to shift them off the wrong ones.
Or maybe we do it unwittingly, by our tiny dislikes nudging people, getting in their way and, when we think they’re out of kilter, actually they’re exactly where they need to be.
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter why the pebble is there. If it’s there, we go around it.
It is a bit unsettling because I wonder just how many times in a day, in a year, in a lifetime, without any appreciation for the long impact of our actions, we change another person’s course. Parenting too, I wonder (and worry) how the traces of my smallest words and actions may be felt in years to come.
Had I not taken up a friend’s invitation to visit their country house a few years ago, or not swiped on a location-based dating app that same Friday evening after I arrived, or had Joel not postponed his weekend trip to Wales until the Saturday morning for unrelated reasons, we would never have crossed swipe paths on Bumble. The thought of this potential near miss still chills me.
Had I actually got my first, or had my tutor not drawn a line and chucked me out of the library and into the world when I was 21, things would be very different. That too haunts me.
There is a very specific chain of events that leads to each moment of import.
Happiness is so improbable and so easily thwarted.
But the accreted improbabilities are what makes a life.
All those pebbles and people in the way.
Exams held before a new term starts, to test you on what you learnt the previous term — and also to ruin the intervening break.
Well, maybe some of the shagging. But that’s a tale for another time.
I won’t go into the details but suffice to say: I moved to California to teach skiing, crossed Asia and the Americas by train, worked for a human rights NGO on the Thai border and then lived in Burma, mostly in that order.
I have NO idea if this is the right term. It was late, I had had wine and there were many big words being casually flung about.