Day 27 of 30 Days of Poetry
no mysteries lie
in your ancient dreaming spires—
not since I left you
no mysteries lie
in your ancient dreaming spires—
not since I left you
I went up to Cambridge in 1992. The introductory Freshers’ Week was very organised (by the 2nd and 3rd years) in terms of events but there was nobody who just told me what I would be doing. So I wasn’t told where or when my lectures were, or how to find out, and I couldn’t ask because that would mean speaking to somebody I didn’t know. Luckily I got to know some others on my course through one of the Freshers’ Week events and got hold of a timetable through one of them. However I was still feeling somewhat lost because I had no routine established.
I was surprised to find that the timetable left so much free time during the day: that was a big change from school where each day was filled. I could not get used to having so much time on my hands and so little structure to my days and this caused me to begin to lose interest. Now one of my traits is that I have to be interested in anything I am doing to be able to motivate myself. I started to miss lectures and supervisions (called tutorials outside of Cambridge) and just scraped through the first year exams.
The end of the first year also involved organising a place to live for the coming year (the college didn’t have enough accommodation for all the undergraduates for the whole duration of their courses). I had no idea where to start with this one and found it very stressful. It was just luck that I was asked to join 3 others in sharing a house.
The second year continued the downward trend of the first. I began to feel very depressed and at one stage was self-harming. I was drinking every day and generally taking very poor care of myself. My clothes were usually unwashed and I hadn’t shaved or had a haircut for over a year. I rarely ate in college, instead living off takeaways. It was no surprise to me when I failed the end of year exams. My parents couldn’t understand what had happened and I couldn’t explain any of it because that would involve talking about my feelings. I still find it very difficult to express how I feel: the words won’t come to mind.
One constant throughout all my education was the lack of any goal on my part. I have never viewed anything I have done as a means to an end; I have done it because it interested me at the time, or I felt that it was what I had to do to meet peoples’ expectations. I believe that university falls into the second category and that was why I ultimately failed. Looking back now I can understand that the university approach to learning just doesn’t work for me. I am capable of learning new things in a very short space of time: this is something I do regularly in my job, but I need to be interested. Time at university seemed to drag because of the amount of time spent doing things unrelated to the course and I got bored.
As if to demonstrate that intelligence is not the same as common sense (or maybe I was a glutton for punishment) I attempted to continue my degree at Nottingham University, entering the second year there in 1994. I did this because I felt that it was what I was expected to do and I hadn’t analysed the reasons for the failure at Cambridge. It was a disaster. All the problems I had faced before were present with the additional problem that I was in among a whole new set of people whom I did not know.
I was reluctant to return home to face my parents because I had failed again and felt that I had let them down. I stayed on in Nottingham for a couple of months after I had dropped out before I crawled home with my tail between my legs feeling utterly defeated.
I was at a loose end for some months. I signed on to the dole and tried to work out what direction to take. I volunteered for a local charity and did some computer work for them (mostly desktop publishing and databases). I took a correspondence course in programming and found the course work almost trivially easy. It was at that point that I had a flash of inspiration.
I had been programming as a hobby since I was aged 11. I started when my father bought our first computer, a BBC Model B+. While I had little interest in playing games on it there was something about programming that caught my attention and held it. I became proficient in BBC BASIC and progressed to the much more powerful Acorn Archimedes. It was on that machine that I first encountered C which I proceeded to teach myself in due course. All through my time at school and university I had continued to program: even through the times when I was depressed I could sit there programming and forget about the world for a while.
I realised that I could earn a living from my hobby. I had confidence in my abilities. All I needed was a foot on the ladder; that first step. That proved to be the hardest, most frustrating time of my life up to that point. I lost count of the number of interviews I attended only to be rejected because of my lack of experience or degree and poor interpersonal skills before I had a chance to show what I could do. I finally got an interview with a small firm based in Camberley, Surrey. At the interview they set me a written C programming test which I completed fairly quickly (they later told me that I had completed it faster than anybody else who had taken the same test) and accurately. I went home and waited, expecting to be turned down yet again. To my complete surprise I got a phone call the next day and was invited back for a second interview a week later. I got offered the job as an Analyst/Programmer and immediately accepted: I was off and running in my working life.
When I was growing up I was always identified as a shy but intelligent loner. I was never one to initiate interaction with others. I was happiest playing on my own with my Lego: I didn’t have any need for company. I did very well academically at primary school and passed the entrance exam to get into Manchester Grammar.
I can remember one of my first lessons there. I realised that I didn’t know the correct way to present my work in this new environment. I couldn’t ask anybody because I was afraid. I spent a little while just deciding whether to write in pencil as I had done at primary school or to use ink. I was so nervous about making the wrong choice that years later the memory of that anxiety is still vivid.
I suffered from a degree of bullying as a result of being socially awkward and physically somewhat out of shape: this took the form of intimidation, name-calling and teasing rather than anything physical. I guess that was just my good luck to be much bigger than the average kid my own age. I never had much of a circle of friends: mostly spent time walking round the corridors on my own at break time. I did enjoy the lessons however with a couple of notable exceptions. I never enjoyed Religious Studies and never got good marks because I approached it all from the position that religion is a tool used by those in positions of power to keep the “peasants” in line by stifling critical thought. I also loathed PE. I have never felt comfortable undressing or getting changed in front of others and that combined with my poor fitness made it all hard work.
It was around the age of 14 that things took a serious turn for the worse. I don’t know what all the factors were but one of the major ones was when I received a detention (my first ever) for not doing a homework assignment in English. Up to this point I had assumed that my teachers were supportive. I explained that I hadn’t heard any assignment being set and was told that that was no excuse and I should have asked somebody. I couldn’t explain that I wasn’t able to ask anybody because that would mean making the first move in a conversation. (In fact I never analysed it to that degree at that stage.) I felt that the situation was very unjust: I had been penalised for something that I had no knowledge of. From that point I began to lose interest in school, my grades suffered and my behaviour deteriorated to the point that I was receiving regular detentions.
Before long I began to dread going to school. I thought about opening the car door and jumping out but was worried about injuring myself. My dad did not react well to all this and would frequently shout which would make me very withdrawn. In the end I took to barricading myself in my bedroom and generally only coming out at night. This continued for a number of months and in the end social services became involved and I was dragged out to see a “child psychologist”. That was all “half full/half empty” bullsh*t and I felt she was simple-minded and patronising.
What broke the cycle in the end was moving to a different school: William Hulme’s Grammar where my younger brother was already enrolled. I entered the 3rd form close to the end of the academic year, being put into one of the lower sets on account of having missed so much schooling that year. The difference was remarkable. The teachers at that school were genuinely supportive and helped me to get established, identifying areas where I needed to catch up and others where I was actually ahead. When it came to the end of year exams I performed very well and was put into the top form for the 4th & 5th years (O-Level/GCSE – it was around the time of the transition from the former to the latter).
That was the end of my troubles at school: I aced my GCSEs and had teachers asking me to take their subjects at A-Level. I opted for the scientific subjects: physics, chemistry, maths and further maths without really having any idea where I was wanting to end up. When it came time to apply to university I opted for Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge because my chemistry teacher had gone there. I didn’t put any thought into alternatives and only put any on my UCCA application because I was told to do so. In due course I got good A-Level results and a place at Cambridge reading Natural Sciences. I’ll talk about my university experience next time.
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