Waterland by Graham Swift

I finished Waterland by Graham Swift last weekend, but it feels like a lot longer than than – since then, I’ve motored through Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and started re-reading The Year of the Flood, the sequel. Might write about those later in the week.

When I was doing my MA, one of my modules included a session on the regional novel. During that class, I remember that I struggled to think of any ‘proper’ regional novels that I’d read – that is, novels which are set in an identifiable and specific locality. Waterland, however, is a great example. We had the option for that module to write a 5,000 word essay on a regional novel of our choosing, and I think if I’d read Waterland at that time I maybe would have given it a go. As it was, I ended up writing about the churchyard of St Mary Magdalen in Knighton, and how it can be used as a source to explore changing attitudes towards death and community and belonging. Which was more fun than it sounds, I promise.

Waterland is set in the Fens. Its narrator is Tom Crick, a history teacher who grew up in a cottage on the side of the river Leem, where his father was a lock-keeper. The novel opens in July 1943, when Tom is 10, and the body of a schoolfriend of his is found in the river outside the Cricks’ cottage. From there, the story slips backwards and forwards in time, into the lives of Tom’s ancestors, their varied fates and relationships with the Fenland in which they found themselves, and also into Tom’s present, where he is being forcibly retired from his teaching post amid some kind of scandal involving his wife.

I found this book to be a strange but not entirely unpleasant combination of realism and fairy-tale. Some parts are wrenching in their reality – I’m thinking particularly about a sequence where a young girl gets a home abortion. But other parts, which perhaps should have been repulsive and shocking although arguably not to the same extent, didn’t provoke the same reaction – there is an instance of incest between a father and a daughter, for instance, which felt like it would have been at home among Grimm’s fairy tales. In fact, many of the sections focusing on characters from further back in Tom’s family tree had this fable-esque quality to them, with a pervading sense of superstition and mystery. Tom’s great-great-grandmother is struck dumb and apparently mad by her husband in a moment of violent jealousy, and then acquires a sort of mystical significance for the inhabitants of the town of Gildsey where they lived. His grandfather, after inheriting the family brewing business, creates a beer of extraordinary power which plunges the town into a night of drunken mania, climaxing in the mysterious destruction of his brewery. These scenes have got something almost other-wordly about them; somewhat at odds with the sections which continue from the discovery of the body in the river, or which cover the adult Tom’s life.

The highlight for me was the backdrop of the Fens. Some stories that you read have a kind of universality about them in the sense that you feel that these particular events would have played out with those characters regardless of where they were, but this definitely is not one of those. Swift manages to create a set-up where the Fens not only forms the setting but also something of a player in the story, in that ‘Fenlanders’ are drawn as being of a particular type of people; in fact, it is suggested that the flatness of the landscape can induce men to madness, to ‘drive a man to unquiet and sleep-defeating thoughts’. In some ways it’s also a kind of lovely exploration of the ongoing relationship between the landscape of the Fens and its inhabitants, highlighting the ways in which Fenlanders quietly and determinedly working to reclaim some of the land from the water: ‘So forget, indeed, your revolutions, your turning points, your grand metamorphoses of history. Consider, instead, the slow and arduous process, the interminable and ambiguous process – the process of human siltation – of land reclamation’.

So a strange book, and quite a dark one, but I think one worth giving a go.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

I just finished Kate Mosse’s latest novel The Taxidermist’s Daughter last night, at the end of a pretty lazy Sunday. Never read anything by her before, but saw a great review in the Independent when it first came out at the beginning of September, and so picked it up in a massive bookshop when I was on holiday visiting my parents about a month later. I’ve only just got round to reading it though – the first few months of a History PhD slows a person’s for-pleasure reading right down. Who knew?

It’s 1912, we’re in West Sussex, and a woman is garroted in a churchyard. Her body turns up in a stream at the bottom of the garden of Blackthorn House, on the outskirts of Fishbourne village. It is the home of our heroine – Connie Gifford, the taxidermist’s daughter of the title. She lives with her father, known simply as Gifford, who used to be a renowned avian taxidermist (or ‘stuffer of birds’ as he himself prefers) and owned a museum of his work, but they have since had to sell up and he now spends most of his time drunk. Connie herself is skilled at taxidermy, but it is more than the unusual craft that makes her interesting; she has no memories of her life before the age of 12, as a result of a traumatic head injury – ostensibly simple enough, but she has begun to suspect that there is something hidden in her ‘vanished years’ that her father would rather remained forgotten. The discovery of the body in the stream sets in motion intrigue, deception, blackmail and more murder, and as Connie struggles to keep her head above water (quite literally – the third act of the novel is set to an enormous thunderstorm and the encroaching sea) she begins to realise that everything leads back to one terrible event in her unknown past.

Firstly, I should say that I found it completely gripping almost from the first page. I read the last 250 pages or so in one day, and much of them in one sitting, racing to the end. This is a plot-driven book and the events come thick and fast; the feeling of speed is also partially powered by the fact that the narrative point of view keeps changing between characters, so we might spend a few pages in Connie’s head before heading over to someone else for a few more. Each new section is set up a bit like a scene in a film, as it is headed by where the current ‘active’ character finds themselves – e.g. ‘Blackthorn House, Fishbourne’ or ‘North Street, Chichester’. It might be this that made me think as I was reading that it would make a good TV series – lots of lush landscape shots, an ominous score and great period costume. It would have to be after the watershed though, too much grisliness.

I was also spurred on by wanting to know if my own suspicions of who was behind the sinister goings on in and around Fishbourne were correct. It’s not especially difficult to solve the puzzle if you’re paying attention – I am generally terrible at solving the crime in books like this, so if I got fairly close then others won’t find it difficult at all. This didn’t alter my enjoyment any, although I realise that it probably would for some people. I also found it genuinely quite frightening in places; a relatively rare experience for me, seeing as I don’t really read much horror, true crime or thrillers. Connie is always conscious of being watched, of someone spying on the house, of crucial possessions going missing, and there is an overall sense of a sinister someone, malevolent and murderous, crawling closer and closer. The effect is for the most part very creepy. Mosse doesn’t shy away from the grim or gruesome either, gleefully focusing in on the taxidermy practiced by Connie and her father as well as the intricate details of the several murders, but the description of Connie working on a jackdaw towards the beginning of the novel, for instance, isn’t gratuitous. In fact it’s tender, matching the Giffords’ conviction that taxidermy can be an art form and not just macabre curiosity.

There is a bit of a wet-lettuce love interest thing going on alongside all the disappearances and dead things, between Connie and aspiring painter Harry Woolston, which frankly I could take or leave. Even though the narrative is quite often told from Harry’s point of view, he is never as well drawn or three-dimensional as Connie – despite Mosse’s attempts to inject some personality into him by making him a portrait artist desperate to get out of the soul-crushing job ‘shipping china from one end of the country to the other’ found for him by his stuffy repressive father, he never moves beyond being an empty cipher, a plot device. It’s possible this is even more pronounced because Connie is very well drawn and a pretty awesome heroine – she’s smart, courageous and determined. I’m already thinking about who’s going to play her in the BBC mini-series.

Never enough books…

My sister Rachael moved to Japan a couple of weeks ago, and before she went she recommended a stack of books for me to read. I’ve brought them back to Leicester with me, and here they are. With the exception of Wolf Hall, none of these are books that I would be likely to pick up myself, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re like.

Before she went out to Japan, Rach had to move out of her house in London where she’d been living for her final year of university, so all her stuff had to come back to my parents’ house while she’s away. About 68% of that stuff is books – that little stack there is only the tip of the iceberg. So I also pilfered a few more – because clearly with a dissertation due in six weeks I have loads of time for excess reading.


Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier, and books and films.

My Cold Mountain experience was slightly unusual for me in that I’d seen the film before I read the book. My friend Hannah (who writes a lovely blog herself, find it here) always says it’s best to do it that way, because then you haven’t created your own mental picture of the characters, setting etc. in your head only to be disappointed by a film that doesn’t match. Usually, though, I go the other way, preferring book before film. In the case of CM, however, I saw the film sometime in my last year of undergraduate, sent to me from LoveFilm. I really really enjoyed it, and I thought that the three leading performances from Jude Law, Nicole Kidman and Renee Zellwegger were very strong indeed – although I was slightly non-plussed by the almost complete absence of black people. Anyway, I’ve just got round to reading the book recently – in fact, I finished it on the plane on the way to Copenhagen early last week.

It goes like this: it’s the American Civil War. Inman, a soldier on the Confederate side from Cold Mountain in North Carolina, has been wounded in battle and has been laid up in the military hospital. He decides he wants out of the war, and even though his wound hasn’t fully healed, he absconds from the hospital and begins the long and treacherous journey home to Cold Mountain, hiding from militia men looking for runaway soldiers and encountering a host of different people and situations along the way. Back home is Ada Monroe, the girl Inman loves, privileged and naive and left upon the death of her father with a farm she has no idea how to run. And so the story continues in a relatively simple alternate 2 person narrative – one chapter from Inman’s perspective, and one from Ada’s, and so on, tracking both characters’ bids to survive.

Seeing as I started off by saying that I’d watched and enjoyed the film before I read the book, I should probably mention at this point that I didn’t find my memories of the film a hindrance to my enjoyment of the novel at all. In fact, I quickly had images of Inman and Ada, of the landscape they were in and the other people in their stories in my mind’s eye that were my own, not those from the film. I don’t think this is due to weakness on the film’s part, but to the strength of the book. Frazier’s descriptions of the landscapes in which his characters move in particular are completely immersive, and beautiful. This is particularly true in Inman’s parts of the narrative, as he treks back home through forests and up mountains and along rivers. Although the story is not told in first person, we do see Inman’s journey from inside his head, if you see what I mean, and Inman is a man who has a deep and abiding affinity for the natural world. Maybe this is partially why the landscape through which he moves comes alive so vividly – we are seeing it through the eyes of a man who understands it.

I’ve heard discussions between people who have read the book about whose narrative they enjoyed the most, Inman’s or Ada’s. In that conversation, there was an implication that women would prefer Ada’s sections, while men would prefer Inman’s. Frankly, I think that’s kind of ridiculous – I really enjoyed both halves equally. Ada’s parts are great because you are able to watch her develop from a privileged girl who’s been sheltered and pampered, into a woman who is strong, determined and independent. The other part of those sections that I particularly enjoyed was Ada’s relationship with Ruby, a young woman sent by acquaintances of Ada’s to help her on the farm. Ruby’s background could not have been more different than Ada’s – she survived a chronically neglectful childhood, a survival which made her tough, practical, matter-of-fact and completely without airs or graces. Ada and Ruby’s relationship is from the beginning one of complete equals – Ruby makes it clear she will empty no-one’s chamber pot but her own – and I think it’s one my favourite portrayals of female friendship that I’ve ever read. Not only that, but for most of their story, in which they spend most of their time on and around the farm, they are in the position of power; when Ruby’s father and some of his friends arrive on the scene some way through the novel, it is clear that the two women are the ones in control, not the men who have come needing their help. Moreover, they remain in positions of power, in control of their own destinies, until the end of the novel.

Inman’s sections have something of the fable about them, and something of the old-fashioned adventure story, in the sense that here is a man on a journey, and these are the people he meets along the way. These other characters, the girl with the ferry boat or the kind slave or the family in the sloping house (you’re in for a treat with the latter), seem to have sprung up out of the ground, or to be rooted in the landscape where Inman finds them. They don’t feel contrived or caricature-ish, but at the same time it’s hard to imagine their lives after Inman leaves them to continue on his journey. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as arguably the reader experiences these people how Inman would have – so focused is he on his aim of getting home, that the people he meets simply melt away in his consciousness as he leaves them.

I really want to say something about the ending, but I’m not sure how to without committing spoiler crime. So I’ll just say that I liked the ending and felt it fitted with the overall narrative of the story. Obviously please feel free to comment if you feel differently! Overall (as you can probably tell), I think CM is excellent and moving, and well worth a read. And the film’s worth a watch. In whichever order most pleases you.

Blowing the dust off the blog.

In recent months, my relationship with the blogosphere has been entirely one way. I have remained an avid reader of blogs, and have continued to visit my favourites regularly. I’ve even joined the commenting community for the first time on some of them. But my own blog has been sitting here, and no new writing has happened. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve started to write plenty of new posts. I started a ranty one about door-to-door charity collectors. I started one in defence of a TV programme me and my housemates loved watching before Christmas, Educating Yorkshire. I started one about what it was like spending Christmas in Dubai this year. I even tried to get one going about a book I was reading about Germany in the last year of WWII. But none of these came even close to being finished, to making me feel like I wanted to press the ‘publish’ button. I even missed my blogging anniversary, so neglectful of this little corner of the web have I been.

I’ve written other things over the last few months. I’ve written about churchyard epitaphs. I’ve written about the medieval Welsh Marches. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve written a PhD proposal and funding application. I’ve also been reading a lot, but not the kind of reading I usually write about here. It’s mostly been academic reading – the type where you need to take notes, of books with footnotes and huge appendices, the type where you don’t read the whole thing, you just read selected chapters, and you probably jettison most of that in your ruthless, time-poor search for relevant material. In fact, until the night before last when I finished reading Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes in bed, I don’t think I’d finished reading anything from start to finish since I finished Longitude by Dava Sobel, which I did actually write about on here. I haven’t even finished that book about Germany. I guess you could call it a fiction drought.

But as I say, on Sunday night I actually finished a book, so I think it’s probably a good idea if I write about it on here. Apart from anything else, when I’m not updating my own blog with anything even resembling regularity, there comes a stage when you feel like a bit of a fraud when you visit other people’s. You begin to feel like you’re not really part of the blogging community anymore (which is for the most part a pretty nice bunch to be part of), and imagine with shame a fellow reader clicking on your name in a comments section, coming upon your blog and thinking that it’s hardly worth coming back, because clearly posting is sporadic st bSo let’s try and put paid to that feeling for a little while, shall we? I’ve got a fairly significant amount of work to do for my Friday seminars, but I think at the weekend I’ll see if I can *gasp* put an actual review together, and shove it out into the virtual void for people to bump into and trip over.

Longitude by Dava Sobel – seafaring and science for a non-scientist landlubber.

So we’re now over the halfway point in the term, and it’s beginning to show in my reading (and blogging) speed. I finished Longitude by Dava Sobel at least two weeks ago now, and not only have I not managed to cobble together a review about it but I’m only about 50 pages into The End by Ian Kershaw, which is what I started after that. I’m in quite a weird situation work-wise at the moment in the sense that all my deadlines for this term are either right at the end of term or actually when we come back after the Christmas holidays, so I haven’t handed anything in yet – so I have no real concept of how I’m doing. And it’s also meant I’m writing 4 assignments at the same time; I’m quite comfortable with having 2 essays on the go at the same time, but I’ve never done it with 4 before. Not entirely sure how it’s going to turn out.

Anyway. Let’s talk about Longitude. It’s only a small book – I think a couple of hundred pages if that, but I can’t check because I got it out of the library and it’s gone back now; usually I would keep it until I’d written it up on here so I could refer back to it, but I needed to give it back because I needed the space on my library card for a book for one of my assignments (they let postgraduates take 25 books out at a time. For the record, it’s not enough). Despite it’s small size, however, it seemed to take me quite a long time to finish it – partially because of the ramping up in work intensity.

So, it was first published in 1995, and by all accounts did really well – it won the prize for British Book of the Year in 1997 and two separate awards from the American Library Association, among other accolades. I don’t think Dava Sobel had written a book before this one, although I might be wrong about that and she’s definitely published some since Longitude. 

This book is set in the world of, in the words of James Naughtie in 1999, ‘chronometers and the stars, mariners and the sea.’ Sobel was apparently inspired, when attending a conference, by a glimpse into the story of how we came to be able to accurately measure distance east to west. Measuring latitude – north to south – was relatively easy, but the lack of a method to measure distances going across the globe instead of up and down it was another kettle of fish altogether. Just imagine trying to navigate a ship heading towards Britain, and having to hope that you were just west or east of the Isle of Wight, and not about to crash into it, but having no effective way of checking. Obviously, quite often the navigator’s hope was misplaced. So this is a pretty serious problem we have here. Longitude is the story of how it was solved.

Clearly, this is a work of non-fiction. However, it doesn’t really read like a monograph or a series of scholarly articles, but more like a novel – and it must be said that the battle to figure out the longitude problem lends itself quite well to being retold as a thriller or a novel of political intrigue. The hero of Sobel’s book is John Harrison, a British self-taught engineer who’s life work it became to build an instrument, a precision timekeeper, that could accurately and assuredly enable seafarers to work out their longitude. (Don’t ask me to explain how that works – Sobel does explain it, and I remember thinking that I understood at the time, but faced now with this empty blog screen I’m not too sure I’m going to risk trying to connect the dots there.) Harrison is going against the grain on this, because most of the ‘establishment’, including those sitting on the Board of Longitude (in 1714, the Act of Longitude was passed offering a substantial cash prize to an individual who can solve the longitude problem), believe in a celestial solution, whereby the best and most accurate method of calculating longitude lies in the analysis of the relative positions of heavenly bodies. But he perseveres, for 40 years, and finally his clocks (which can still be visited in Greenwich) are recognised as having solved a problem that many believed was unsolvable. But that isn’t before he has to stand up to the establishment, build four incredibly complex clocks – or ‘marine chronometers’, and be regularly sabotaged by circumstance and by design – especially by the villain of the piece, astronomer Nevil Maskelyne.

What I liked about this book I think is the way it makes a great scientific problem accessible to someone like me with an entirely unscientific brain, and also how it succeeded in bringing home what this problem of longitude actually meant practically to sailors trying to get from one side of the world to the other,who could easily become completely lost as soon as they lost sight of land. It’s a great skill to make something very complex seem simple to a non-expert, and I think the fact that Sobel presents the whole thing as a kind of quest (which I suppose it was) helps you keep track. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a political thriller, which is how I’ve heard other people describe it, and there wasn’t anything frenetically page-turning about it, but it still manages to draw you in. It’s also sprinkled with great characters from history who really played a part in the story, like Isaac Newton and Captain James Cook, which is quite fun because every time one wanders across the page it feels a bit like when you’re reading a work of fiction and a character turns up in a peripheral role who was a main character in a book by the same author you’ve read previously. Like an ‘ah, I recognise you!’ moment.

I have to say, John Harrison definitely isn’t your typical hero – he’s pretty dour, and single-minded, and meticulous, and just not that exciting really! It’s what he does, what he creates that’s exciting. Although to be fair I don’t think that’s the fault of Sobel’s writing – I think she’s just tried to paint him as true to life as possible. So if your reading is driven by liking a character as a person, I think you might struggle with John Harrison. I actually wanted to hear more about Rupert Gould, a Royal Navy officer who painstakingly restored the clocks long after Harrison had died, and his original clocks had been sadly neglected – but he obviously turns up right at the end and we don’t get much time with him.

All in all though, definitely an enjoyable and accessible read. It’s made me want to go and visit John Harrison’s clocks in Greenwich, at any rate.

New College of the Humanities, the University of Buckingham, and the rest of us.

On Saturdays in our house, we buy The Independent and The Guardian. Our kitchen table is then piled high with supplements for the rest of the week, growing as we add to it with copies of the i, which is what we read on weekdays. Quite often it happens that you’ll come into the kitchen and whoever else is in there greets you with “have you read this?”, pointing to a particular place in the entire tree-worth of newspaper. Over the last few days, we’ve been talking about an article by Amelia Gentleman in The Guardian Magazine called “Let the bright ones in” about the New College of the Humanities, a private university founded a couple of years ago by British philosopher A. C. Grayling (I can’t find the article online, but will include a link when and if I do). Reading it reminded me of another article, also in the Guardian, a few weeks ago about the University of Buckingham by Zoe Williams. That one got me pretty hacked off, and this one got me so hacked off I decided to write about it.

Firstly, let’s talk about money. The NCH charges £18,000 a year for a three-year undergraduate course – and students of that university are not yet eligible for loans from the Student Loan Company, because the university has not yet been accredited. Gentleman writes in her article that although a third of NCH students get some form of support, ‘two thirds are not only paying double the fee they would pay elsewhere, but they must also pay it instantly, rather than delay until they are earning a good salary.’ The University of Buckingham charges around £10,000 a year for their undergraduate courses which are 2 years long, only £6,000 of which can be covered by student loans. In the Gentleman article, she writes that ‘generally, when I raise the subject of money, I’m made to feel this is not a nice subject for discussion, that it’s embarrassing to mention’, and implies that Grayling, the NCH’s Master, is annoyed with the media’s preoccupation with the £18,000 price tag.

Frankly, this seems a bizarre attitude. Of course people are going to be preoccupied with the fees for NCH, they’re double the yearly fees of places like Cambridge or Oxford or the London School of Economics. A fee of that sum is obviously far too expensive for most people (and their families) looking to go to university, and this is borne out in the demographic of NCH’s student body – according to Gentleman, only 20-25% of NCH students come from state schools. Grayling (and apparently several of his colleagues) argues that £18,000 ‘is neither hugely expensive nor particularly unaffordable, given that most public schools in this country charge £30,000 just for tuition.’ Ah. Now we’re beginning to see who NCH is aimed at  – those immensely privileged few for whom £18,000 a year for 3 years is not hugely expensive. Those who are able to spend £30,000 a year on public schools. Right. What was also striking was Gentleman’s assertion that ‘the students are untroubled by the college’s financial structure.’ Of course they are. For one thing, I can’t imagine all that many of them are directly paying their fees out of their own pocket (which is not a criticism, as most students don’t, at least initially); and for another, if their families can afford £18,000 a year then it seems unlikely that these students are from backgrounds where financial restrictions have been particularly prevalent.

But the financial side of this whole issue of private universities wasn’t what really got my goat. I don’t despise rich people, or people who went to private school, and if people are able to pay such astronomically high fees then all power to them I guess. I just don’t like the pretence that the financial requirements of places like NCH shouldn’t be seen as prohibitive, or as obstacles to those in less fortunate circumstances. What really got me about both the NCH article and the earlier article about the University of Buckingham, was the attitude towards students from other universities – universities like mine, and like those my friends go to and have been to. For example, when talking about why she chose to attend the University of Buckingham, 19-year-old Olivia comments that ‘her friends were “going to Nottingham and Sheffield, and those are very party-orientated. I wouldn’t have gone to university if I couldn’t have come here, because everywhere else it all seems to be about getting drunk.” Well, that’s a singularly blinkered dismissal of over 120 institutions with one fell swoop. In my experience, both at my own university (University of Leicester) and of the variety of places that my friends and family have attended, it’s people that are party-orientated, not the universities they go to. There are definitely “party-orientated” people here at Leicester. But I choose not to be one of them, and so do most of my friends. I agree with Olivia that the university experience shouldn’t ‘be all about getting drunk.’ But that’s OK, because it isn’t. I doubt you’ll find a university department anywhere who makes allowances for ‘party-orientated’ people.

Jamie, an NCH student, goes even further: ‘we’re expected to do between three and four hours personal study a day. We write a minimum of an essay a week. It is a full on education. We are being educated actively…The ethos of the place means that you can’t sit around getting trolleyed mid-week, putting pizza on the ceiling. If you do that, you just won’t be able to keep up. You’re not meant to screw around at university. You’re meant to educate yourself in a very serious way.’ Well gosh Jamie, thanks for pointing that out. All the rest of us out here paying a mere £9,000 a year hadn’t realised university was supposed to be serious. These kind of comments lead me to wonder what NCH students and staff think the rest of the university-going population actually do. Between three and four hours personal study a day? Yep, sounds about right – quite often more. Falling behind if you insist on getting hammered multiple times a week? Yep, definitely still the case over here. I have 15,000 words worth of essays to write this term. My house-mate, who’s in her final year of her undergrad degree (History and American Studies), has got 5 deadlines to meet before 13th December, totalling 10,000 words, plus work on her dissertation. And I’m willing to bet that all of those weekly essays that Jamie’s writing don’t actually count towards his degree, so I’d argue that the pressure on him is substantially less. The idea that you have to work harder at places like NCH and Buckingham is a fallacy.

I’d also like to pick up on a comment made by a Buckingham administrator: “Those universities where the courses are three years, what do the students have, one lecture a week? And then they party the rest of the time. Students here aren’t like that at all. I have some living next door. People always say: ‘Aren’t you plagued by the noise?’ But they’re fine. It’s like they have jobs.” They’re right in the sense that we have relatively few contact hours – the average third year humanities student has around six hours of lectures or seminars a week. But do you know what I was doing in my third year during the time I wasn’t in those lectures or seminars? I was preparing for those seminars, often reading hundreds of pages a week per class; I was planning and writing essays and presentations; I was (God forbid) going to my part-time job; I was involved in student music societies; I was researching, writing and weeping over my sodding dissertation. Partying? 0.5% of my time. I’m also interested by this administrator’s slightly surprised-sounding assertion that students would be nightmare neighbours – except for Buckingham students obviously, who are just so studious compared to the rest of us noise-polluting leeches on society. I live in an area of Leicester which is probably 50% student housing – the rest are mostly young families or professionals. I can safely say we are excellent neighbours, and I am just as likely to be woken up by a couple of older blokes wandering back from the pub past my window than students heading on a night out.

In her article, Gentleman quotes a member of NCH staff who used to work at Rugby school, who claims that she ‘decided to join Grayling because she felt many of her ex-pupils found university a let-down after boarding school. [She said] Some people are very happy with the conveyor belt, mass-produced large numbers – nothing personal.’ A student is also quoted as having commented to NCH lecturer Dr. Suzannah Lipscomb that at their previous university they could “walk past my lecturer in the street, and he wouldn’t have any idea who I was.” It’s the mediocrity in the usual university experience that’s implied by the NCH staff member that really bugs me. Why does the fact that there’s a lot of us in one department mean that we’re on a “conveyor belt” and receive “nothing personal”? Do you know what you do if you want your tutor to know you from Adam? You seek them out. You go to their office hours and talk to them about the work you’re doing for their class, ask them advice about essays, talk to them about how you can be doing better. You prepare properly for seminars and make intelligent contributions. You put yourself out there. Your lecturer is not your primary school teacher – they aren’t obliged to know your name. If you’re a history student like me, your lecturer is there to introduce you to some of the broad themes and ideas of a topic, and to work through interesting debates in group seminars, and to help you if you ask for their help. The rest, friends, is what you make of it.

Despite what it might look like, I don’t think the NCH and Buckingham should be blasted from the map. Just as I don’t think the University of Buckingham would work for me, I imagine that the University of Leicester wouldn’t work for lots of Buckingham students. But these ideas about what it’s like at universities other than these ‘independent’ institutions are problematic because they feed into the image of universities as a doss, and students as a load of feckless, entitled yoofs.