stand alone complex

I haven’t posted anything real in months and months, despite having oodles of drafts dicking around my computer. This is the state of play/Y2 retrospective as I wrote it about three months ago (!).

So! This year, I averaged a First, wrote a novel(la), decided on a career, escalated my tea consumption to apocalyptic levels, and still managed a good sixteen hours’ solid procrastination each and every day. That’s a pretty good round, I reckon.

I am very, very glad that I’ve ended up friends with the explosively talented Mr Reeve; it’s been one of the great unexpected blessings of the last few years. Writing-wise, I discovered that, just with essays, what brings it out is pressure. After far too many rewrites of the first three chapters, I contrived an outside deadline with him, then sat down and actually bashed out 43,000 words of Blood on the Tracks. The only issue with the story now is that it doesn’t know quite what it is; it was from the (incredibly distant-seeming) beginning a love-letter to Mortal Engines, and while it’s exactly the Mortal Engines fanfic I would write, it’s not the stand-alone novel I would write at all. So now that I’m rewriting and retrofitting it to be Its Own Thing, it’s in a sort of limbo of creative doubt. As an example, the mostly minor but occasionally drama-critical Mad Science aspects, like Stalkers and electro-zap thingies, just become contrived deus ex machinae if the world is no longer established as Fever Crumb’s weird ruined-future blend; so for the sake of verisimilitude, either I need to go back and establish a greater presence of Mad Science in the generally mundane, blood-and-iron technology base (which runs the risk of turning into overly campy steampunk bullshit), or I need to totally rewrite the scenes based around things blowing up, which is a shame, as I think they’re among the best (yes, I know, murder your darlings). Still, doable, I just need a kick of inspiration (or pressure) to finish it. The vague distant dream of being a writer is still very much there.

Something much more concrete, though, is the six-month-old wish to get into law. I have direction in life, drive for the first time ever, and it’s a nice feeling. There’s a lot I need to do with it this summer, particularly for the Law for Non-Law society, but it’s all doable, it’s all good.

Academically, it’s been a complete success. I was surprised as anything when I got my first 77 (my best mark in first year having been a totally unexpected 73 at the exams) for Critical Analysis, and continued to be surprised at my second and my third, particularly when I realised they between them made a good 33% of the year. After that I could only go down; but further essays in the 70s, and 71 and 73 in exams, reduced my average without hurting the grade boundary. Most importantly, there’s consistency there; I’ve got 70s from at least five very different academics (and their second markers!); and the essays which were below par, I was doubtful about knew they were shit before handing them in. I need to keep this up – I certainly can’t afford to be complacent in third year – but I’ve gained with it a confidence in my academic ability I never really had before. I’ve come a long way from the totally uncertain wreck who first begged essay advice off Siz almost two years ago.

The house is done and dusted, without financial penalty or the loss of any friends I wanted to keep. I had planned a sort of house-retrospective – possibly a long, embittered screed that I would probably friendlock out of embarrassment – but it all seems pointless now. We have all made our beds now, or had them made for us, and we will all lie in them.

Romantically… let’s just gloss entirely over the interactions-with-girls side of second year.

I am alive. I am awake. I am in control. I am full of hope and optimism. And I have a long free summer ahead of me.

More details on all points later.


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.

all that life can afford

The other day I got an email from the great Rob Thompson, containing this link. It’s my old house, 10 Vincent Terrace, an address mentioned on my old London-nostalgia post. From practically anyone else, that would have been creepy bordering on stalkerish. From one habitual archive-molester to another, it’s about the coolest thing possible.

And that was the first port of call when Beth and I went on a day-trip to the big city as a wind-down from Group Research. Off at Angel, after a superbly cheap train from Moor Street to Marylebone and a tangled switchback of tube changes, rounding the City Road and strolling through the grid of quiet white-faced Georgian terraces. The old playground down by the water hadn’t changed even slightly since I was last there; Anderson’s warehouse had been torn down and replaced by expensive apartments back in 2001, the Diespeker building was the same half-brick-half-plate-glass yuppie-haven as it had been when I last saw it converted. We looked across the water at Hanover Primary and heard the sound of kids playing on the roof over the ripples of City Basin; Beth ruminated on what different childhoods she and I must have had. I don’t know how much inner-city life has really shaped who I am, but while I was a wretched, bullied kid who fucking hated that school and never want to see its insides again, I’m not sure I want to be anyone else.

Then down to Camden Lock to eat the great big picnic I always make and drain my thermos in a haze of hipster-exhaled marijuana smoke, and explore the various mad, wacky, over-the-top markets that infest the place. Camden, for all its myriad fascinations, doesn’t really impress me the way it ought to: I was far more interested in the history of the old stable-blocks and warehouses and the lock than all the weird gimmicky bong shops, nom shops and places trying to be somewhere out of Tron. There’s a weird sort of desperation to it, all these creative types trying their very hardest to outdo each other in off-the-wall weirdness and overcoiffed “counterculture”, but I’m glad places like it exist. As premeditated, Tom showed up, fresh and elated from having just scored an internship at Tussaud’s (waxwork eyelashes: squirrel fur. The more you know!) and we two highly connected children of the digital age eventually managed to locate each other in a hundred square metres of Camden (“We’re under the weeping willow by the lock.” “There are four weeping willows by the lock!” “AND WE’RE UNDER THIS ONE.”)

Then we pootled off to Canary Wharf, mainly because Beth wanted to, and sat by the fountain judging the various businessmen and tourists around us, making bad Wire references and wondering how to salvage dropped change from the pontoon bridge over West India Quay. I saw them building that bridge; I remember frogmen in the water around the pontoons as they inflated them and the bridge gradually rose from the water like an overburdened sea serpent. I wonder if this makes me Old. We made an interesting discovery: the Canary Wharf Tesco, which we expected to be a massively overpriced bijou nomshop for people with cufflinks worth more than my father makes in a stereotype stereotype blather blather, turned out to be hellishly cheap. (Maybe this is how the rich stay rich: unlike students, they don’t get messed around with on groceries.)

“Tom, you’re carrying like fifteen different knives.”)

Thus fortified with 10p donuts, 60p cornish pasties and 75p cartons of soup (all of which would have cost at least twice that in Selly Oak, let alone most London shops), we wandered back to the station, nabbing along the way a copy of Canary Wharf Magazine, all glossy, poncy adverts for thousand-pound wristwatches and bizjets and polo, reeking of the insecure nouveau riche trying to assert themselves. This – this city, maybe even this particular plate-glass-and-rebar money machine – is where my ambitions are aimed at the moment, if I’m good enough – and I hope when I get there it’s not as pathetically superficial and image-conscious as it seems to believe.

The DLR extension goes down to Lewisham now, and there’s a station nestled in Greenwich near the now-tragically-reduced Cutty Sark, but the way we always went when I were a lad was the old under-river foot tunnel back when the railway stopped at Island Gardens. There’s nowhere else quite like it. Once we were done gawking at the Old Royal Naval College the maritime museum was long closed, so we climbed up the hill to the Royal Observatory and watched the sunlit city and all the tourists messing about with meridian lines.

On the way back, we stopped in a little off-alley tea shop in Greenwich Village, and wondered about cities over far too many cuppas. My answer was “something that’s too big to really personally connect to, too complex for anyone to properly comprehend it in a lifetime.” I can’t for the life of me remember what the question was, but the answer was satisfying enough in its own right. Then the DLR to Tower Gateway, and we wandered onto the great bridge and stood for a while at the base of one of the bascules, looking over the Tower, HMS Belfast and the lapping Thames under a newly overcast sky. Tower Hill station, one last comparison of maps to planned outages, one last beep of Oyster cards and slam of barriers, and the train from Marylebone whisked us back in gathering darkness and gently streaking rain.

This is London, the place I grew up in, a place I know well enough that all the good parts are tinted by distant memories. I belong there, and I’ll be back there one day.

By the by, we got 62 for the GR presentation. Having looked at the rest of it (and published the marks online myself for fellow students, because the university is as ever criminally incompetent at getting our marks to us through the giant, confused, overengineered tangle that’s WebCT) I can see very little correlation between the good presentations and the actual marks they get, which has led to a few people being very pleasantly surprised and a lot of people being bitterly disappointed, myself counted. But we always knew Group Research was a bullshit module; better roll with it. I’ve done some spreadsheety number-crunching and concluded that in order to get my First this year I need to average 66+ in the Group Research essay and the two forthcoming exams. Which I think – I hope – I can do handily.

Speaking of which, I’d probably best revise…

pillars of fire

Group Research. Oh, Group Research, if I had a penny for every time I complained about it I could afford to put myself through law school without a TC. Well. Alright, maybe if I had a tenner each time.

Group Research is a bad idea. Leave aside that the organisation and communication are, as usual from the history department, a bit* disjointed and shambolic. Leave aside that we had limited guidance because our highly competent and willing tutor wasn’t allowed to see us regularly. The module is worth 20 credits (ie, 1/6th of the year, the year itself being worth 25% of the degree.) 50% of the marks are from a 2500 word essay (which we’ll come to), 50% are from the group presentation. This means that, fundamentally, 10 credits of my degree are relying on other people. And not to lapse into lame misanthropic wank which so disrupts the standard lame self-deprecating wank, but I don’t trust other people to do my degree for me.

Last week was the culmination; essays were due in on Tuesday (except, as we most of us learned after handing in slightly rushed essays on Tuesday, they were actually due in on Wednesday. Oh, History office. Oh, you.) I did my essay, which was (like dissprep before it) marred by nobody being perfectly sure what the hell to do having been told fifteen things going in different directions. In the end I just worked to Stuart’s pretty-good-actually email spec, more or less finished the day before, and reworked it in the bog standard all-nighter that’s become basically habit. Then presentations, in morning/evening sessions, with each group required to go to one session presenting, one session assessing and one session as “audience” (for which read: meat in the room.) We were assessing on Wednesday morning, presenting first thing on Thursday.

Seeing other teams’ work was, surprisingly, a confidence booster. There was one featuring a friend from Practising History last year, which was very competently done despite the subject being the sort of tedious parish history nobody could really give a damn about, a couple middle of the road things, and one which had a rather clever presentation on the screen but was let down by a group who said so little of substance in such a mumble (and did such a terrible job of answering questions afterwards) I was convinced they were reading wiki printouts after a night of heavy drinking. It became swiftly obvious that nobody on either side of it cared much about the actual content. But some of the stuff we saw was basically media studies; not to be a history snob (HEAVEN FORFEND) but it felt good to have a presentation based on actual facts which we’d discovered from actual archives and primary sources, rather than watching a couple of movies and issuing sweeping statements of questionable integrity.

Sam Lear tells me that his default question after a presentation was “tell me why this is important/historically relevant”, which is the best damn question you can ask, really, though it also got him a rep as a total dick.**

Despite excusing myself from an amusing Northern Soc karaoke night (which I attended with some trepidation, worrying that as a southerner they might only want me as a blood sacrifice and/or ingredient for pies; totally wrongly, Northern Soc are lovely folks) in order to get pre-presentation sleep this, too, ended up as an all-nighter. For no actual reason: I designed and printed a couple of handouts (one map with the Messines-Wytschaetes Ridge as placed against, one with a 9000hoursinMSPaint diagram of the British Army chain of command (for non-war plebs), rewrote my script and fiddled a bit with the presentation. None of this took much time at all. But it seems I can’t live without fatigue, insomnia and a good hard tea/adrenaline kick before a piece of work. The actual day of the presentation came up, sunny and bright, and I was buzzing like a hummingbird.

We started presenting at 10. Thirty minutes later, we sat outside, grinning stupidly in the comedown, and one of the professors assessing came and shook our hands to congratulate us on what he reckoned was good work well done. The first presentation of the day, I’m convinced, gets marked most leniently (such was certainly the way when we were marking). Afterwards, we all went to Joe’s for a hideously early pint and discussed music and methods of execution.

I’m convinced that there’s no way that could have gone better, and that we probably deserve whatever mark we get from it; mostly I’m just glad it’s over with. But I can’t deny it’s been pretty interesting as a module, and some real CV-boosting nonsense along the way. Challenges! Teamwork! Productivity!

Group Research: it sucked hard until twenty hours before crunch, but when I’m all withered and ancient, looking back on uni through the rosy tint of distant hindsight, I think I’ll remember it kindly.

* Where “a bit” = “completely.”
** He tried it on us; another member of the team said something nice and common-sense-y while I was still mouthing “how fucking dare you”, then I recovered and said something disjointed about challenging popular perceptions.

on a long run, on a long run

I got spat on by a census pleb today. The arse-end-of-nowhere Bartley Green AO* with the nonsensical street layout (people who had lived there decades couldn’t tell me how to work out where the next one along was logically. I grew up on terraces, this place is a COMPLETE MINDFUCK) was supposed to be one hour; it took me two hours of legwork, an hour of travel time, and will be another hour of filling out dummy forms. I’m not really getting paid enough for this. On the other hand, the AO on my own street which I’ve been given 6 hours to complete will likely take only 3, with no travel time, and I can run home for tea whenever I like. Swings and roundabouts.

Uncouth expectorators aside, I think I prefer Phase 2. I’m in the groove I was hoping for, and though we now have to visit every house three times and fill in a dummy unless we actually get the form back, we get allocated more time for doing so (which is to say still not enough, in most cases.) It’s much more binary than Phase 1, which I like in grunt work: the workload is heavier, but tighter, with less need for improvisation. I like brain work, but when your workspace is a clipboard in a broken-glass-littered slum, simplicity is nice.** And there’s a very satisfying air of finality to having each house Checked Off, even if it’s a giant mass of dummy forms and not a returned questionnaire in sight: as collectors, we are done with these districts now.

Thunder, the first I’ve heard in ages, was starting to murmur on the western sky as I finished up in that AO. The best you can say of the place is that it’s on a big hill, so home is downhill almost all the way, and downhill I rode, jouncing over the potholes and the tarmac creases of Weoley Castle. The sky just above and ahead was blue in the swirling grey, the boundary between cloud and open sky almost directly above me, and I raced the weather all the way home, the first drops of a summer shower lapping at my heels.

*That’s “Area of Operations”. The actual approved Office for National Statistics technical term is ED, for “Enumeration District”, but I can’t help trying to be operator.
**Also, now that we’re not issuing any replacement forms the load is lighter, even with the requisite paintbrush and, uh, jar of fresh lamb’s blood.