milk run

Clifton is a vertical place. Not in the up-down plate-glass-canyon sense that immediately brings to mind, not like Canary Wharf or Manhattan. Hardly anything around here is more than six or seven floors high. But the combination of tall buildings and towering hillside give the place a definite steepness, like a hilltop village plus white-limestone gentrification. Which is, I suppose, exactly what Clifton is. Storey upon storey upon garden upon hill upon high stone wall, veined with roads that twist up at unbelievable angles and little leaf-covered passages full of dappled shade and snail trails. And it’s well built. This is important, after too much time among crappy run-down semis and the mongrel architecture of inner cities: these are real homes. The terraces loom high and solid like window-speckled castle walls, with moats of areas or promenades and perimeters of black-painted iron railings, the doors tall sally-ports with tarnished brass doorknockers. The windows shine black and half-reflective, the high rooms behind them filled with old, expensive things. This is architectural snobbery, not social snobbery – the people here are certainly not intrinsically “better” than the residents of Bartley Green and Weoley Castle I brushed up against while census-collecting, who live on a tenth the income of Cliftonites if they’re employed at all. But I like the houses here a lot more.

It’s beautiful, under a sky like a Florentine ceiling, scattered by clouds with grey bellies but backs of fluffy white and gold. The air is skin-temperature, not hot or cold, scattered with random birdsong and the smell of flowers whose names I wish I knew. There’s hardly anyone about.

I feel the emptiness of the pavement beside me, and I wish all of a sudden that she were here. Something like this should be shared. My eyes skate across the stone and tarmac, but the pictures I see are half-fantasies of beautiful days and sunlit laughter, stupid, surface fantasies of shared love and shared understanding, conjured up far too quickly by a mind far too used to making up such nonsense. Cynicism, leaning on memory like a crutch, is back with a knowing sneer. The roses all have thorns, and the perfect summer fantasies are full of forgotten awkwardness and miserable lacunae of loneliness. There’s no understanding when you walk side by side in silence; even sickly-sweet in love as if you’ve just stepped out of a sonnet, when you walk without speaking, you walk apart. The understanding is fiction, or maybe a dim truth for people whose heads are too slow for self-doubting turmoil (but I don’t think many of those actually exist). There’s too much that can be thought but not shared, thoughts that die on contact with air when you beat them into ugly, lumpen words and try to push them out of your mouth.

The terrace ahead has risen to cut off the horizon, and the cloud directly above is grey. The air is chillier, but I don’t mind the solitude, and when my head goes up again I’m smiling. On I walk, towards the bridge and the sunset.

til we close our eyes for good

I am back in Bristol, and looking for a job! One of these two is an agreeable state of being.

Dad picked me up from Reservoir Road on the 11th, and with the car brimful of more stuff than I can ever remember owning we staggered back to a town I haven’t spent much time in lately. Absence makes the heart grow fonder – maybe it’s that I’ve been spending too long in some spectacularly run-down pieces of suburbia, but Clifton never looked so beautiful.

My house – my parents’ house – is still too big, too cold and too messy. The taps run chill, the washing-up implements are grimy stinking hives of infection, most of the rest of the kitchenware could be swapped out for random rocks without any loss in sharpness or functionality. At night, the lights are broken or too dim or my parodically energy-conscious family just plain don’t turn them on. The internet is a wreck, sputtering fitfully and incapable of sustaining a connection for five minutes straight. The hills are steeper than I remember (perhaps I’m getting old), and half the time it’s pissing rain. I am convinced that April and June have swapped places this year; April was nothing but perfect summer, whereas this month has been riddled with grey misery and storm showers. But I am home and dry, and it’s not just nice in comparison with Reservoir Road: it’s just nice, objectively.

I need a summer job. I need it for several reasons. I promised my parents I would, upon getting bailed out over Mason; we still haven’t established how much I owe them, but several grand would not be impossible or unreasonable. I need the discipline: without something to actually do, even something as insubstantial and undemanding as three contact hours a week plus Redbrick and library, I seem to sleep all day (this is possibly making up for how I was averaging 4-6 hours at uni, but as far as I know “sleep debt” doesn’t work like that.) And I need the money. I’m not living hand to mouth, but I’m close than I’ve ever been.

However, the world of work is not a friendly place to the underexperienced, overeducated and overexpectant. I don’t have any aversion to proper physical work; my last couple of jobs being the chip shop and the census, anything which doesn’t get me verbal-and-gob-related abuse/13-hour suicide shifts/200-degree grease burns is a step up. I would very happily take on any really awful, minimum-wage dogsbody job (not being a sanctimonious bib-wearing charity-mugger, though, fuck that forever). Unfortunately, practically every “fantastic opportunity” to work for a “national/world-leading business” (or “up-and-coming franchise”) in a capacity that barely requires a pulse wants six to twelve months of relevant experience and the sort of superhuman qualities Heracles would blush to admit to.

My CV is not bad at all. I have actually worked with the public, and I’m pretty good at it. I’m solid on computers, thoroughly tech-literate and with grand-sounding extracurricular positions to prove it. I’m intelligent and pick things up fast; I’ve been in closer contact with the grimy side of the world than most of my peers. I’m enthusiastic and serious, can be friendly on demand (though smiles that reach the eyes cost extra). I do work well in a group, and I do work well individually. I want money, and while I have no particular allegiance to any of the soulless corporati as something other than a potential money outlet, I do see that the best way to stay employed and be rewarded is to do as good a job as I can – and I would do a damn good job.

The trouble is, when I come to actually write this down as succinctly as I can, it’s the same old litany of bullshit that everyone everywhere puts down because their careers advisor told them to. Motivated, people skills, excellent communication, versatile, good in a team, good individually. That it’s actually true makes no difference.

The mutual insincerity of it, the utter, gagging mendacity, is painful. The recruiting side can’t really believe that they’re offering anyone a “fantastic opportunity” or that this job requires more than basic English, two hands and the ability to breathe. Nobody is “passionate” about customer service, and certainly nobody’s life’s dream was being a tiny part of some parish business or generic soulless mid-tier corporation. (And if there are actually demented creatures out there who are “passionate” about bringing their customers “great value”, then they’re fucked by the system too because all the normal people are crying wolf.) All the meaningless superlatives like “exceptional” and “fantastic”, they’re vile, buzzword chaff, believed by nobody – but everyone seems to need to go through the motions, because everyone else does. The system of structured, ritualised lies we’ve created boggles the mind. Most of the most absurd and vile social constructs tend to have, at heart, a good if distasteful reason to exist, but I can’t see how any of this helps anyone; the only explanation I can see is an arms race of self-promotional disingenuity, run way the hell out of control.

So! I’ve handed my worthless collection of buzzwords in at various village shops with WARM BODY WANTED signs up, applied on more job sites for more dogsbody positions than I can remember with more fulsome enthusiasm than any of them deserve, and a couple of more specialised and better paying things that are well within my capabilities. I’ve signed on with a couple of temp agencies and mean to look for a few more in the near future. I have thus far had no positive feedback from anyone. However, I am maintaining a cheery, optimistic outlook. Ask again in a week.

(What do you mean, “bad attitude”?)

execution hour (exam post, part three)

Two exams is what the third term of second year boiled down to; thirty-four credits between ’em, most of the Vietnam option module and the entirety of Operational Art. Just shy of a third of the year, enough to be worth a grade boundary – a degree classification – or two. Second year is 25% of my final degree, so not the be all and end all, but important. In particular, if I’m aiming for the type of sharp-eyed legal practice who’ll study my individual marks – and I am – it’s worth keeping the numbers up across the board.

The first was Op Art, for which I’d reread my various notes and powerpoints, and read a pile of interesting books on operational theory Toby lent me (if anyone’s remotely interested in the subject, I wholeheartedly recommend Shimon Naveh’s “In Pursuit of Military Excellence” and the multi-author “Effects-Based Warfare” and “Introduction to Strategic Studies”), as well as a revision session followed by an afternoon with some warbros going through a (huge!) ream of flashcards produced by the scarily organised Louis R. Three essays; three hours (which is to say three and three quarters, with the Learning Support allowances for my useless spaz hands.) I took my thermos in, unscrewing the lid for the invigilator to demonstrate that I wasn’t hiding any notes in there. The multiple loo breaks this induced raised eyebrows. The tea it provided proved wonderfully useful.

Ten questions, of which we needed to pick three. Let’s see. One hour on airpower in Desert Storm, why and how superior technology and operational doctrine decapitated and comprehensively crushed a technically inferior and hierarchically organised enemy. One hour on the absurd cross-Caucasus cascade failure that was Fall Blau. One hour on the effects of railways on strategic thought in the 1860s (conclusions: Prussians good, Americans silly). And forty-five minutes of conclusions, rewrites, proofreading, and doubt. Coming out, I was struck by the standard post-exam dread, the worry that what I’d done was silly and overwrought and didn’t really deal with the question – but that was, as always, quelled by the standard post-exam resignation.

Vietnam, I’d again done fairly little for, apart from going through old notes, meeting some classmates for revision sessions (mainly consisting of me explaining bits of complex war nonsense to Normal History People who don’t fetishise military technology) and putting my library card and ebook channel through their paces on likely-looking titles. I’d tried to do a couple of practice essays, but they turned out mediocre. A very well-run revision session by Rob gave me some confidence for the exam. Unlike Op Art, I tried to look at particular subjects rather than general theory; my particular areas of focus were the Tet offensive and counterinsurgency. While I was confident I could bullshit improvise pretty much anything that came up, these subjects I wanted to be solid on.

Tet was fun as hell, full of great allegories, divided historiography and potential sweeping statements to pick apart. COIN, starting with Kennedy and special forces, dealing with the hideous failure of Strategic Hamlets, the more overtly military approach Westmoreland adopted, and the great results CORDS was showing before Tet killed US willingness to continue, was even more educational than I had been expecting. One of the interesting ideas that came up looking at that was that, because the French colonial administration had actively discouraged the rise of an educated Vietnamese middle class, there was no politically involved section of the populace to create and support a legitimate government – only US-backed military autocrats, their corrupt and tooled up ARVN minions, and an oppressed, easily-suborned-by-Maoists peasantry, with little middle ground. Despite all the successes of CORDS, it could never establish the South Vietnamese government as legitimate in the minds of the peasantry.

Question time: Tet! Delicious. There was a question about COIN, too, but it was annoyingly phrased, so I did airpower instead; it’s something I pretty much knew by heart, though as I knew everyone else would be doing it and wanted to be a unique and special snowflake, I didn’t read much on apart from the bombing-related chapters in a weapons book I’d picked out for my dissertation. Two hours passed in an instant, and then I was out, blinking in the sun, shivering off the adrenaline.

With the Group Research essay that just came back a 75, I need a 64 or better overall in those papers combined for my First (or 33 for a 2.1, but I’m fairly sure I didn’t get a fail grade). I did pretty well in my exams last year, but I still have a little nagging doubt. It’s not even (false) modesty here; while my self-confidence when it comes to most uni work has got (dangerously) high this year, exam doubt is much harder to quash. Having so many things able to potentially screw you up makes me nervous; so does having so much resting on so little (but the alternative, of having five or ten of the bloody things, doesn’t appeal much either). But nothing went wrong. There were no panic attacks, no twisted curveball questions; if I don’t do well, it’s because I didn’t write a good enough answer, and while that’s not overall a cheering thought it is at least a morally satisfying one.

Over now; time for the real world.

the iceberg effect (exam post, part two)

(This is slightly related, and really interesting; I’d say it’s worth the hour, but for an excellent precis go here.)

I can’t grind revision. I haven’t done that much in the way of “proper” revision, certainly not in the making-up-notes-and-going-over-them-again-and-again sense, not since A-level and not really even then. I have made and remade notes, but I’ve always believed (based on hearsay and a stunningly shallow understanding of neuroscience) that the value of the notes is in the process of creating them, rather than in actually going over them.

Related to this, I only seem to remember things I’m actually interested in (I recently discovered I’m humiliatingly bad at the geography of the British Isles, because while I’ve probably been exposed to plenty of county maps I’ve never really given a damn.) I am quite lucky, I think, in that I still love War Studies and find it fascinating, while a lot of people I know who’ve taken their subject to degree level have come to hate it. I’m far from conscientious about reading lists; I don’t grind through the books because I’m supposed to, I read them because they interest me. I like to think that helps, because I never remember anything I’ve learned “on demand”. Forcing myself to learn, through grinding notes, or picking up a book I don’t care about, just doesn’t seem to work as well; it doesn’t stick.

Detail is a funny bugger. I have a head for detail – especially pretty finicky detail, especially that to do with weapons and mechanisms – but that I can give you a description of the inner workings of every weapon involved in any battle since 1860, is, while interesting, irrelevant, because there’s no way to bring it all out in an exam. Judicious use of detail adds texture, believability, historical verisimilitude, but that’s all. Toby advised us to try to give the impression of an iceberg: enough knowledge to make the tip of the iceberg, used adeptly enough to convince the examiner of a much broader and deeper understanding beneath the surface. There’s never enough time or enough space to show off every last tidbit; drop a few appropriate facts, confidently, and be damn sure they’re true.

I think what matters most in history is understanding the broad sweep of the topic, not so much what as why, having a picture in my head which is detailed enough to be believable but abstract enough to be understood in its entirety, so that a question with unexpected phrasing or which picks on an unexpected part can be dealt with. And I find getting bogged down in the minutiae, especially too close to the exam day, is actively counterproductive to that.

I believe that ultimately – and I’m staking quite a bit on this belief – what works best is demonstrating that I understand that broad picture, backed up by enough fiddly detail to sound authoritative. That understanding is something I can only seem to get by thinking about the subject at length, and having the space and the time to do so, unencumbered by piles of frantic notes.

Disclaimer 1: Different people’s minds work in different ways; many of my friends have very different approaches, which seem to work for them. This particular way has worked for me, for writing a fairly small number of widely spaced essays, and a novel(la). Applying it to a real subject, something that requires genuine factual knowledge rather than eloquent prevarication, or something that actually matters, may result in waste and tragedy. When the GDL kicks off I’m going to be doing a lot more grind and some serious personal re-evaluatin’.
Disclaimer 2: That this entire post is basically a smug, self-serving and generally despicable post-facto justification for my pathological laziness and “brief, blinding panic after sustained, intense procrastination” approach has, yes, crossed my mind.

grace under pressure (exam post, part one)

Nothing spurs adaptability like a genuine lack of planning.

There’s a feeling – and I’m going to steal and terribly mutilate a great line from Dear Esther here – a feeling you get in the morning an hour or two before an essay deadline, where you stare at the work in front of you and realise that there is nothing more that can be done. It’s over. You’re done. The caffeine and adrenaline are still pounding ragged through you, sleep deprivation has the world bending and blurring and barely making sense. And there you sit, lost in a vacuum of fatalistic calm.

I’ve found myself addicted to that feeling this year.

During the first of last year’s exams, the Late Modern history module that for various syllabus- and incompetence-related reasons I’d basically come to despise, I had a panic attack, comprising twenty or thirty of the shittiest minutes of my life. That was partly the total uselessness and foolishness that surrounded the exam (as detailed there), and partly the pressure. I felt the world bearing down on me; I felt the overwhelming fear of failure (foolishly, really, as first year doesn’t count for jack), and I wasn’t equal to it. I curled up into a useless, worthless, sobbing ball and was led away.

I can’t tell if it’s some sort of response to that, some determination for it not to happen again (after the panic attack they prescribed me diazepam and counselling, both of which I tried but found useless and quickly gave up) but I’ve discovered this year that I seem to get high on pressure. And never more than the manufactured pressure of an essay done in not quite enough time. There’s something about having worked very hard and very fast that has me coming out of the history office grinning sunbeams (before going home, crashing completely, and feeling sick for a week.)

I’ve done what I promised not to in first year, and made a habit of all-nighters. And the worst part is, it works. The marks come out best when I’m writing them locked in a vice marked “deadline”. The essays I do properly, with all plans laid and time to spare, are competent but not great; but the best marks I’ve got this year have been balls-to-wall all-night panicfests, written in a night of tea-sloshed adrenaline with barely time to print. Vietnam option essay, two thousand words, written conscientiously in good time (with a last-minute rewrite, which can’t have really helped) on a subject I was fully comfortable with? 67. Critical Analysis, four thousand words on four books I wasn’t sure I understood, started twelve hours before the deadline (having already spent two days straight without sleep working on Rise of Modern War)? 77.

My dissprep essay was not, by my standards or in my estimation, that good. In particular, I was worried about the last third or so, which was written pretty much in blind panic (even more so than the rest, which was done under standard “oshit 20 credits in 12 hours, GAME OVER MAN, GAME OVER” conditions) as a planned twenty-minute nap with twelve hundred words to go and plenty of time to finish them off accidentally became a two hour snooze and an absolute blur of panic up to execution hour. When Rob and I were talking over the essay, he asked me what happened to the last third of it; as I launched into some impromptu excuses, he took me completely by surprise in saying that it was so much better than the rest.

Not only do I find a horrible adrenaline joy in pressure, it seems I work at my very best when the world’s squeezing me. And exams bring all that out at once. There’s nothing, no distractions, no way out; only the pressure of how much this exam means to my life, and the fear of failure, and, as each second in turn flies away, the knowledge that it cannot be regained. And my hands fly across the keyboard, and I think: some fools pay for this kind of high.

Yep, I’m the lamest adrenaline junkie who ever lived.