Odyssey, Pt. 4

Disaster And Defeat

“Success teaches us nothing; only failure teaches.”

Hyman G. Rickover

The time had come. The band was breaking up. P was heading back North, to begin a new adventure in Leeds, Kevin would stay in Southampton with his fiancé, Rob would eventually wind up back in his beloved Wales, and I was starting a foundation degree at the university. I have a distinct memory of helping P load his parent’s car for the journey home. I rather stupidly wondered if he’d ever return. I knew he didn’t love Southampton, was entirely unsentimental about it, and it wouldn’t surprise me if he never looked back, but I would see him – and everyone else – that Christmas.

I would stay with my then-girfriend until the start of Semester, in October. Like the year before I recall it was a bright and sunny summer, all the girls wore designer sunglasses and cargo pants, tramp stamp and visible thong seemed to be the thing. The All Saints look, as I thought of it. The lads all looked like they shopped at Fat Face because they did.

There was a definite feeling of change though. I was equally excited and apprehensive. I was 26, technically a mature student (anyone would testify I was anything but mature) and I was a long way out from any kind of academic study. I was wondering how I’d get on. There’s not much time between school leavers and 26, but it’s also another world, and I’d be living among them. Would I hate it? The work I wasn’t too worried about. I was telling myself I had done enough.

I would discover under the most difficult circumstances, that I hadn’t.

I’d wanted to live in halls, but the only availability was in catered; in other words they served breakfast and dinner, which was easy, expensive, and kind of novel. I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking, which is fortunate, because I couldn’t, as the lads would testify.

My move-in day was Monday October 2nd. Most people were already there. I pulled all my belongings out of the boot of my friend’s little Peugeot hatchback, got my keys, and took stock.

The university accommodation fruit machine had allocated me a room in K Block, Glen Eyre Halls of Residence. Glen Eyre was a large housing complex just North of the Highfield Campus, featuring several blocks of varying vintage. K block was part of three identical blocks, 3 stories of concrete in brutalist style. It could have been made in Minecraft. In 2005 they were extensively redeveloped with an additional floor and extra wing changing their plan shape from a ‘C’ to a square. Back then, I think the fixtures and fittings were all original, it had a distinct 1960s feel to it. Shared bathrooms on every floor, blue-tiled kitchens (2 on each floor), white hardwood cupboards, knackered microwave and cooker, and the hot water came from a small electrical header tank over the sink.

The corridor was grey carpeted, seemed perpetually slightly-too-warm, and varnished wood panelling punctuated the painted concrete walls. It was all very beige. My room was tiny with the window looking out onto the middle space of the block, a single bed, scuffed-up old wardrobe and a basic desk. There was a telephone socket and an RJ45 port but these were extra, and not cheap. and I don’t think anyone I knew paid for them. No internet otherwise. Seems unthinkable now, but that’s how it was. A single computer room on the first floor allowed access to the delights of email and the web. If you needed to download something substantial – say a large patch for Half-Life – you had to use sneakernet – walk to the labs on campus with a writeable CD-R.

I was the oldest person on my floor, but nobody really cared. The kids, as they say, were alright. My previous experience at Southampton was at the Institute, which some people unkindly referred to as the Chimpstitute. It was a different class of school. One morning Sarah (a neighbor on my floor) told me she would be spending the day in the Library. I laughed, assuming she was joking, because obviously going out for a daytime pint or two was a better idea. She wasn’t. She pulled 8 hours in there like it was nothing. She did this often. These kids were dedicated.

Here there were lots of Harriets and Tims, rather well-to-do kids who were also very, very bright. The first person to introduce himself to me was Joe, who is still in touch today, and was my closest friend there. He seemed shy, talked himself down too much, but also possessed a keen and sardonic wit. Josh was a tiny computer science nerd from London, Ellie was a very sweet girl from the home counties somewhere, and Tom reminded me of every kid I went to grammar school with. All confidence and tall good looks. Sally was 17 and at university early because she was super clever or some shit, and Nina was the most local, from Bournemouth, and super cool, when you could get a word out of her. Sarah was striking, a bit plummy, very bright, and carried herself as if much older. Alex was a bear of a lad, awkward, but a heart of gold. Joe told me he thought Alex looked up to me. I didn’t even look up to me. There were plenty of others but these are the ones I remember the most. Joe recently reminded me about Rachel, who I didn’t remember at all until he mentioned her, and she lived on our corridor! Memory is a funny thing. It’s not as reliable as you might think.

The floor was its own self-contained entity – we did not know anyone upstairs – and had further subdivision into different corridors, forming cliques and alliances. There was a kid called Tony from the other side (the floor, not the spirit realm) who had seen too many Guy Ritchie films and talked like Danny Dyer. He walked around repeatedly with his hand on his crotch like an Italian pimp and was a bit of a plonker, but definitely amusing. I think he was from Tunbridge Wells. People we didn’t know but saw regularly (the entire block had breakfast and dinner together) acquired nicknames like ‘badly-dressed girl’ and ‘ponytail twat’.

People slowly figured out I was a little different due to background (but not a serial killer), and I was really quite fond of everyone, which was fortunate, because I didn’t really like anyone on my course. The first week was full of things like orientation (“this is what a bus looks like” etc) and motivational talks from course leaders. The actual classes would start the following week. There was an orientation day at City College (foundation year is delivered there, but run by the university) giving me the odd experience of forced trivia about a place I knew back to front. The rest of the time was spent exploring the union bar (really very nice) and the Glen bar (local to the halls) watching South Park and The Matrix about 2 million times and generally enjoying myself. The difference in age, while small, melted away completely.

Monday morning would be right into it with double maths. About fifteen minutes into class during which some fundamentals were rattled through – simultaneous equations, quadratic identities and so forth – I realised I was in the shit. I wasn’t up to speed on this stuff. Not enough. The remainder of the day featured physics (which went a little better) but my apparent lack of preparedness for the maths had given me a sharp jolt. I returned home to halls and went over the material. I could do it, but not anywhere near quick enough – and it was only going to get more difficult – and there were some concepts I still had trouble with. I lacked confidence.

The rest of the week was more of the same, logarithms, binomial theorem, polynomials…I was struggling to keep my head above water, and more complex physics theory started being introduced. I enjoyed Stress and Strain (irony) but struggled with some of the electrical theory. The big problem from my point of view was the tempo was crazy fast, I felt like I was drowning. My habit was to retreat back to my room and figure it out in my own time – I got very stressed out trying to make progress in class with someone standing over me.

The college had a half term in its own timetable, during which it was closed. The university called this a ‘reading week’, essentially a break from class. I got endless shit from my K-Block mates for this, perceiving it as a holiday (which it was) but I knew it would have to be fruitful or I was fucked. I resolved to head to my parents, by now in Cambridgeshire and take a breather. This may have been a mistake. I still don’t know. I should probably of got my head down and stayed in Glen if I was to have any hope of avoiding what happened.

At my parent’s place, I had something approaching a nervous breakdown. I was suddenly fixated on the idea that I did not want to go back, that I could somehow stay in rural Cambridgeshire indefinitely. I discussed it at length with my mum, and my dad tried his best to assure me it was just a wobble. He told me stories of his own experiences and It helped, but I was having an almost complete failure in confidence and I could not see past it. I think I completed one homework assignment (of two) and could barely stand to look at the reams of printouts of algebra worksheets for fear I might burst into tears. I overcame the panic and returned to Southampton.

At this time I did something very stupid. I stopped going to class. I spent my days idling around, very occasionally looking at some work before changing my mind, and shooting the shit with my neighbors. There was always somebody around, and something to do. Get lunch on campus, spend the afternoon in the union bar watching MTV, anything to avoid thinking about work. Nobody knew what was happening. I kept it all to myself.

Eventually, inevitably, the system caught up with me, and I started getting pressed to go and talk to one of the tutors. I put it off for as long as I could, before going in. He was very understanding, told me to keep my chin up, collect the work I’d missed and knuckle down. I came back armed with an enormous amount of course material (they continued to move fast) and after Christmas there was the first final, a maths exam, which would determine progression. A retake was possible for this one, but what I’d need was a miracle.

It was December. I’d started to seriously consider finally fucking it all off. I was not so far in that this would cost me much, I could quit and cut my losses right now. I decided not to do anything too hasty, see how study over Christmas went and assess if I had the slightest chance of passing the first assessment. I was nowhere near where I needed to be. I’d started behind, and it was only getting worse.

Fate also had a part in a particularly terrible way. On the evening after my birthday, during a reunion with my old housemates, there was a serious fire at my girlfriend’s place. It is believed a candle had started a fire near the sofa, causing that to be completely destroyed, and the whole apartment contaminated by smoke damage. We had to live with a friend for a couple of weeks, while the flat was completely redecorated. It was just one more thing on the plate, even though it was sorted out remarkably quickly.

I tried to find a way out of things.

The best analogy I can make is being able to run a competent 5K, and entering a marathon. You’ll never make it, have no hope to get up to standard during the race, and are just going to damage yourself trying.

I started to let people know that I would be leaving after the break, in January. Everyone was great about it, we’d all keep in touch, all the usual platitudes. Dr. Barney, for her part, expressed absolute confidence in me and insisted I re-apply the following year. She said I just needed more time. And with that, I withdrew. My return to education, the thing that was meant to change my life, my big opportunity to really do something for myself and launch a career, had completely shattered, after just three months. I felt completely defeated.The experience was so wounding, and left me so soured on it, I would never return, and resigned myself to finding another path. It haunts me to this day.

Writing it now, with the clarity of hindsight, I should have bailed much earlier – the moment I realized I wasn’t ready – and come back the following year. It was a much more realistic plan, but at the time, I just had no sense of it at all.

Over the years I asked myself if I could have pulled it out of the fire. I just didn’t have the right mindset to even begin to do that, it would have taken a work rate I had never demonstrated, confidence I didn’t have, and aptitude I thus far hadn’t shown. Adrian Newey, Southampton Alumni and world-famous aerodynamicist for Red Bull Racing, struggled badly with maths during his engineering degree, and the answer he discovered was for him to simply knuckle down and try harder. So really it is simple, but also not so simple, unless you’re Adrian Newey.

More preparation was required, but I didn’t realise it. All the clues were there, I just had failed to notice the competencies – in black and white – were absolutely literal. I had a false sense of security from doing alright in the initial assessment and had made the fatal error of believing it would be alright on the night.

P had got it right, he’d done an A level, and this gave him practice at the standard near where he’d be starting university at. I should have done the same, because A level mathematics was pretty much the starting point of the course. I wasn’t used to academic work, to study, to organizing my time, or to pacing myself in lessons. It had been a long time for me and the level I’d achieved off my own back was only really a starting point. I should have done ten times more.

I packed up my stuff and moved back to my girlfriend’s newly refurbed flat, and would try and pick up the pieces. For her part, I think it planted the seeds of a perception of me that would eventually cause the end of the relationship, because from her point of view, I was going nowhere.

To be continued…



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