I set up the workspace exactly how I liked it – a brightly lit room (a former bedroom turned into a study), a desk with neatly stacked books and papers, a cat asleep on the chair (to be fair, I didn’t put her there. My cat’s attitude to the world is simply a case of looking at things and then going “MINE” before claiming them for the next 16 hour power nap). A cafetiere of coffee (imported Italian stuff), a fresh pack of tobacco, a incense stick ready to be sparked up in the burner, my laptop open, a blank Google doc before me, the cursor blinking good-naturedly and awaiting my first words. I sat down, stood up, removed the cat, sat down again, stood up again, removed the cat again, came to arrangement with the cat (based on mutual contempt) that she could sleep in my lap as long as I could have five seconds longer tickling her tummy before she became be-clawed death, cracked my knuckles again, lit my incense and then realised:
“I have no fucking idea what I’m doing.”
What I was meant to be doing is writing a PhD proposal. This proposal had become akin to my desire to learn to drive, to go to the gym this weekend, to quit smoking, mow the lawn, get a tattoo and finally finish reading Proust – in that it was subject to infinite delay, existing only insofar as I would publicly declaim that “needed to be getting on with” it, or that I was “setting aside a few hours this weekend to” do it, or the fact that I would suddenly wake up at three am in the morning with the panicked realisation that I “still haven’t even started” it. At which point, my cat would pounce and sink her teeth into my toes.
(My cat will be making periodic appearance in this blog post, her role being that of comforter, existential sounding board, and world’s most determined but ultimately ineffective assassin.)
Realistically, I had to have a 5,000 word proposal, with bibliography, written, proofread, fact checked, and then sealed in an envelope and sent off to the University’s of Sussex, Edinburgh and Glasgow, by October. That was, if I wanted any money. I did want money. Anyone who says they don’t is probably lying. Socialist as I am, a man has to eat, and pay extortionate tuition fees. I had spent the last year of my life living hand to mouth in order to carry on with my academic life, paying off debts and scrapping as much money as I could from each paycheque and skipping meals so that I could, by 2018, call myself Dr Chris Page. And yet now, sitting down, I realised I had no fucking clue what I wanted to say.
In a broad, abstract way, I did know what I wanted to write a PhD on: masculinity in radical left politics. I did my MPhil research on this, exploring the ways in which traditional socialist groups often implicitly privileged a heroic masculine gender performance, and how this stood at odds with socialist and also feminist principles. I knew that I wanted to draw a comparison between the traditional left, the anarchist left, and the Green left (three political worlds I which I awkward straddled, like a man who got invited to an orgy but really didn’t do his research) looking at hierarchies of power, the creation and legitimisation of male archetypes, and examining what these movements could learn from one another if they were to build a truly intersectional, radical political praxis. I knew I wanted to do this because the reason I had become so alienated with the left was due to the ridiculous amount of hypermasculinity on display, and I wanted to draw attention to this, and try to start an intellectual dialogue that might see the left avoid becoming a gendered irrelevance.
Yet I didn’t know what to say.
I picked up my master’s thesis (somewhat clawed. My cat, thwarted in one night’s attempt on my life, had decided to treat my thesis like a voodoo doll, perhaps hoping to whittle me down and no I am not paranoid and definitely don’t think my 1 year old tiny ball of fluff is actually trying to kill me honest) and flicked through. At some point, I had gone through with a pencil, with the intention of identifying which picks I could carry on to PhD. I’d evidently done this while either depressed, or drunk, or both, as all of my notes seemed to consist of thinks like “crap” and “wut?” and “y u so dumb” and “cockwomble!” and, bizarrely, “we’re out of halloumi. Also, girl across from me in the UL is properly fit and smokes. Ask her out? No, buy halloumi instead”, a statement which implied I’d drifted into a world where I had to chose between polyamory and cheese, and that’s choice no one should ever make.
“Fina?” I enquired of the cat in my lap.”What should I do?”
Fina half opened an eye, glared at me, and then stretched in that elegant way only a cat can, before going back to sleep. I have lived among cats for years, and my attempts to learn their language have been vastly simplified when I realised they only said four things: “Feed me.” “Cuddle me,” “Die, fool!” and “Bugger off!” I could only conclude that this was the latter.
What was holding me back from starting? Was it lack of ideas? Was it a lack of confidence? Was it perhaps fear? Applying for a PhD meant that I was moving on. Don’t get me wrong, I have no desire to remain in Cambridge, but as much as I have more warm feelings for wodges of hair that clogg up my shower than I do for this town, I was settled here. I had a house, and a cat, and a loving girlfriend and a good housemate. I’d been fixed in one space long enough to feel at ease. By typing that first word, I would be beginning a process whereby I was back to living out of a suitcase, upending my life and heading out to a new city. I tried to calm my anxieties – I’d be living in a new city, but I’d chosen all the Universities to apply to on the grounds that they were places I could live. I’d be long distance with my partner, but only for a year or two, and we’d visit as often as possible. I’d be leaving behind the little comedy empire I’d built up, but that was fine, I could gig when I was in town, and I’d be able to set up my own little night in the SU. And yet…and yet the idea of leaving on my own felt unnerving. My partner and I would have liked to have left Cambridge together; blown the joint, like Bonnie and Clyde, complete with a cat and two guinea pigs, feeling mildly perplexed for being accessories to robbery, and headed up north. But she was younger than me, and needed to spend years learning how to repair animals. And I needed a PhD before I was 30 if I ever wanted to be an academic.
But did I want to be an academic? I wanted to teach gender theory, politics, literature. I wanted to write academic work on T.S Eliot, Walter Benjamin, masculinity, gender dynamics in death metal, the politics of sex acts, and I wanted to teach bright young things who I’d join on the demo afterwards. I wanted to be the kind of academic who relocated all his lectures to the occupation in solidarity. I wanted also to be the academic who was kind, empathetic, and cared for his students – unlike so many of the academics who taught me at Cambridge, I wanted to be the one who created a safe, secure and warm environment for my students, so no matter their problems and health difficulties, I’d have their back.
But was academia the right place for this dream? I knew enough young academics, here in Cambridge, and elsewhere, who seemed haggered and drained and older than their mid 20s. They spoke of impossible workloads, unappreciative students, ridiculous department requirements, nepotistic colleagues, and of a world so cut throat and two faced it made Westeros look Walmington on Sea. A horrifying vision, there, of Captain Mainwaring as a Lannister. Corporal Jones would be the Night’s Watch, screaming “don’t panic” as the White Walkers sauntered down from the north. Private Godfrey would be a Bolton. All sweet and dim witted before flaying people behind the church hall. And Sargent Wilson would be –
*it went on this way for what seemed like hours*
What I wanted, ultimately, was a world of relaxed teaching, of lessons done outside because it was warm out, and of the chance to settle down and finish that book I’d been writing ( I sat up bolt upright in bed and gasped “I still haven’t even started it” before Fina latched herself onto my elbow, teeth first). I wanted this world to be academia. In the same way I wanted a psychiatric hospital to be a place where I could find a few weeks rest and respite in a therapeutic community, rather than a prison I was worried I might end up in one day unless I kept myself sharp. But in the same way that I knew that I couldn’t just take a carefree holiday at Fulbourn Mental Health hospital, I knew the world of academia was probably going to be as stressful and wearying as anything else I’d lived through. Except everyone would have three PhDs and wear tweed, and would glare that that long hair, bearded pierced chap, having a smoke outside the library and probably be thinking the academic equivalent of “you can’t sit with us!”
Mean Girls in the University, Regina is the pompous Professor. “On Wednesdays, we teach Foucault.” “Get in, losers, we’re going to a conference.”, “Stop trying to make coherent queer theory happen! Coherent queer theory is never going to happen!”
Perhaps it was my own fear of my (lack of) ability that held me back. I have a 2:1 and a Merit. I’m smart. I’m not the smartest. I know I’m smart. Yet, if Cambridge has taught me anything, it has taught me that I have a terrible inferiority complex, which often fights it out with my messiah complex, resulting in 5,000 people being fed, but *I totally could have fed six! Buddha would have fed six thousand people! Gah!*. Sometimes, it felt like Cambridge spoke to me in that complex. That I’d be sitting on Kings Parade with a smoke and good book and wanting nothing more than to people watch and have a bit of peace and quiet, and then Kings Chapel, the Mathematical Bridge and Fitzwilliam Museum would all sneak up behind me, lean over, tap me on the shoulder and say: “You know you’re mediocre, right? You know that you’re not even a faint star in a constellation. You used to talk about publishing articles and writing the book on the subject. Now you get home every day and your too tired to even make yourself a slice of toast. What happened, mate? We could have had something.”
And I’d turn around, to all those edifices of genius, and I’d want to say some pithy remark, but instead I’d relight my smoke, accidentally scorch my nose hair, and we’d all have a bloody good laugh.
The cursor continued to blink at me. I tried to imagine a way it might be battering its eyelids flirtatiously, but then realised that I was developing vaguely erotic feelings towards Google Drive and stopped. At which point, Fina awoke, and very deliberately inserted one of her claws through my shirt and into my nipple.
I can write, I can. I’ve written 8,000 word blog posts in 20 minutes. I wrote a 60,000 word novel when I was 16. And I’m not a burnt out wreck, I’m not drained beyond my days, I’m not a sad, bitter man who wakes every day in pain after a host of nightmares, who worries that everyone’s offended by his overuse of oxygen, who staggers to work and tries to hold it together and still fucks up and then comes home and cooks dinner badly and cleans but then runs out of energy so just sits in the garden and smokes – I’m definitely not the person who tries to read and finds it too depressing because an idiotic supervisor once shouted at him for not knowing a Latin word, and she was female, and since he has an abusive mother (for the sake of argument) shouting women are fucking terrifying and now he can’t even read for fun. Let there be no suggestion that I might even resemble the person who knows in his heart of hearts that all his pretence to any sort of real intelligence is a sham, that when he talks to people about books he’s developed this clever habit of nodding along at the mention of “have you ever read…” because he hasn’t, because he spent too much of his undergraduate trying to make the world make sense and therefore knows that he knows nothing worth knowing. And how dare you even imply that I’m not a real person, that I’m just cobbled together out of various impressions, none of which are remotely accurate, and if you were to open me up and have a look, you’d find some tar, a bit of fluff, and whatever the physical embodiment of depression is.
Time passed. I closed the laptop. I moved the cat. I moved her again. My lap, evidently, had been annexed. I distracted the cat with chirping noises, and fled into the garden. Empty, messy, housemates out, no idea where. The breeze was warm, the sun trying valiantly to pierce the overgrown trees behind my garden, and managing to pockmark the ground with patches of light and shadow. I lit a cigarette I don’t recall rolling. Fina followed me downstairs, occupied my lap once more, and curled once about and went to sleep. Silence but for the woodpigeons. The sky a pale blue, delightful. I looked up and into the robin egg shell abyss, and wondered where I might pinpoint the stars.