I’ve decided not to bother with resolutions this year. For the first time in almost a decade I feel little inclination to commit myself to unrealistic expectations and unattainable goals.
I have to look back to 2010 to find a year when I did nothing. Lazed around the flat, reading newspapers all weekend. Watching back to back Premier League matches on Super Sunday. Drinking and carousing, with limitless expendable income. Took a three week trip to Hong Kong, Shanghai, Kyoto and Tokyo. Went to Paris twice. Wrote some unmemorable poetry. Took some photographs. Blagged a backstage pass to Latitude and spent the weekend poking my camera in the faces of unwilling spoken word artists.
That year my girlfriend and I were adopted by a young male tabby for a few days in June (it turned tail once we ran out of leftover chicken). A week or so later my girlfriend found out she was pregnant.
In 2011, our first son was born. I began an MA in modern and contemporary literature at Birkbeck. That November we got married at Marylebone registry office. (Half the guests at our wedding reception were exposed to the Norovirus, and spent the days following our nuptials with their head in a toilet.) The year following we travelled to Canada and the US, and I completed my MA; the year after, I left one poorly-paid, anxiety-inducing marcomms role and started another, for less pay, and began a PhD, also at Birkbeck.
In January 2014 our second son was born – I drafted a conference paper in the maternity ward at Lewisham hospital late one evening as my wife awaited her induction – and in August our family relocated from the lovely Forest Hill flat we’d long outgrown to a small semi – with postage-stamp garden – a short distance away in Sydenham.
Early in 2015 I admitted defeat and quit my poorly-paid, anxiety-inducing marcomms role for a property industry charity – with a ‘fuck you’ of bridge-burning finality in the form of an open letter to the industry on whose behalf I’d worked for over a decade – to become the primary carer for our youngest son.
During this time I juggled childcare responsibilities with researching and writing the bulk of my PhD thesis. The most suitable time to do this during the day was when my youngest child was either napping; or precious two or three hours every evening when both children were in bed.
Each afternoon for the first few months my eldest son went to the nursery closest to our old home. The nursery run divided my day neatly in half, although there was nothing neat about the inconvenience: pushing the youngest in his knackered, second-hand Bugaboo with a bent frame; pulling the older one on a scooter lassoed to the Bugaboo. It kept me fit if nothing else.
If I was lucky, my youngest would fall asleep on the return leg, so I might get an hour with the books. If I was unlucky, he’d fall asleep on the way there, before being woken by a wailing classmate or classmate’s sibling at the nursery. Thereafter he would remain awake for the entire return journey, subsequent hour at home and the return journey to collect my eldest son, by which point he’d be furious about his protracted incarceration.
Compared to laughable, lamentable career up to that point, it was no great hardship. When my eldest started school in Sydenham – which was 30 seconds stroll from our new house – we settled into a better routine. After doing the school run I’d take his younger brother to playgroup for a couple of hours, then we’d come home in time for Here and There with Mr Bloom, I’d make him some toast and peanut butter, get him down for a kip after Waybaloo and head into the study for a couple of solid hours ‘at the coalface’. Some mornings I would wake early in the faint light of dawn to slot away an hour’s work before my wife and kids stirred. The rare weekends when I’d spend both days in the little blue room, tapping away at my tiny Dell laptop, teasing some incisive observation out of my depleted grey matter, slowly pushing up the word count.
I suppose I was driven by any number of reasons to begin the PhD. Mainly because I wanted to see if I could do it. Because it’s there, to borrow from George Mallory. Because I love reading and, as with my MA, wanted to see how far my flaccid sponge of a brain would take me. Because I’ve always regretted doing politics for my BA. Because my ancestors were shitkickers and clayheads. Because my parents and grandparents worked hard to heave us from one social class into another. Because my young sons will hopefully come to admire it. But mainly because of my wife. I wouldn’t have considered doing it without her approval, and I would never have finished without her emotional and financial support. And besides, the topic of my thesis was all her idea.
My dad used to enjoy recalling the teacher at his school who, when he overheard my day talking about taking A-levels, interjected ‘You’re not A-level material, Williamson’. I felt the same about my PhD. The weekly meetings of our cohort where I sat, petrified and uncommunicative, while brighter sparks with better grades from loftier universities than Birkbeck discussed Adorno and Foucault, or Kermode and Latour, with an ease I could barely raise to describe my own research.
Doing a PhD is an honor and a privilege; it is, arguably, the definitive process of self improvement for a bourgeois arriviste like me; it also is isolating, exhausting and financially punitive. I have some sympathy for those who suffer and feel unsupported, but then, those who decide to begin a PhD do so of their own volition. If it’s hard work just thinking about doing it, don’t do it. For some, they’re following in the footsteps of nearest and dearest. Doing a PhD is in the order of things. A status symbol. A birthright.
I never felt that way. For me, it was at best an expensive folly, at worst a vanity project which pushed my family close to penury. While I successfully passed my viva – with no corrections, bar a handful of typos – I find my employment prospects to be no better than they were when I started in 2013. At that time I naively hoped that, once I finished my PhD, there would be a fairly seamless transition from student to gainfully-employed tutor.
As I neared the completion of my thesis it became increasingly clear that the zero-hours, contractual conditions of employment for postdocs and early-career researchers, particularly those without AHRC funding, had become virtually nonviable for anyone with a young family, or without a surfeit of financial support or additional income to push them onwards into academia. That is before taking into account the increased tuition fees and the new TEF framework which signaled the determination of the Government to push the era of the navel-gazing Don firmly into the age of antiquity.
Just before Christmas 2016, in the final stages of my PhD, I relocated with my family from Sydenham to Nairn in the Scottish Highlands. (It took us three days to make the journey, in the silver Daewoo Matiz my late great-aunt used as a runaround, and which we inherited on the insistence of my late grandfather. Of course, once we had the damn thing we couldn’t recall life before it. The little car got us to Scotland – just – but it soon needed a new exhaust, and failed its MOT; it has cost us two grand just to keep it on the road.)
For the past 12 months, almost to the day, we have been working almost nonstop to renovate the house we bought in Nairn. The house had been empty for two years, untouched for almost sixty and in need of a lot of remedial work. The Home Report indicated severe damp and timber decay. We caught it just in time, and we were able to put right all the major problems. We stripped back, insulated, rewired, re-plumbed, re-plastered and re-painted. Every stick of wood has been removed or repaired or sanded or stained or varnished or painted. Whatever we couldn’t keep or reuse we chucked. Five eight yard skips. Two of plaster alone. We have a back garden full of discarded timber and excavated earth. Slowly but surely, this ugly duckling began to reveal itself as a beautiful home.
We are fortunate. I know this and I take none of this for granted. It is only through the benefaction of my parents when I bought that small flat in Forest Hill back in 2006 that my family and I find ourselves here, in a well-appointed house large enough to accommodate our family and with a couple of rooms to let out to guests and visitors for next to nothing, so we can live mortgage-free and mentally unencumbered by the London lifestyle commuter doledrums.
But it was a big risk taking on such a huge project, and it almost broke me. Perhaps the renovation helped keep the PhD in perspective: nothing is harder than trying to renovate your own home. Nothing. I don’t care what anyone says. Try trying to connect up a waste pipe in the driving rain. Try stripping every external wall of lath and plaster. Starting the house gave me the motivation
At times this year I almost lost the plot. I was gripped my a sense of failure and inadequacy, of having squandered my education and pissed on my career, of jettisoning friendships on another whim. There were moments of elation, but mainly from a position of incipient gloom. Money has been a constant pressure for the past few years, ever since I rashly quit my job, and seeing the steady depletion of your bank balance week after week until it hits zero while still the bills come gives you a small taste of what millions of people across the UK have to deal with. It’s a universal discredit to our country, and with grim irony, our neighbours in Nairn and the rest of the Highlands have been at the forefront of it. Throw a colossal fuck up into the mix – like being caught driving without insurance and shipping another £500 – and you realize how easy it is to lose money when you already have none. Our ‘plight’ is hardly comparable, but both of us have been scratching around for bits and pieces of work just to keep going and get the bugger finished by Christmas, six months after our original deadline.
We’re not out of the woods just yet. Nevertheless, as we approach The Most Depressing Day of the Year, I have reason to be cheerful. By some small miracle I have secured a full time job for the next six months. Bookings for our small B&B are beginning to pick up. (We’ve had some good reviews, but you live in mild terror that the next person to walk through the door will destroy your dream with one damning report.) I'm writing something, though I'm not sure what it is yet, much less if its worth persevering with.
But when I think of resolutions that I want to make for this year, none spring to mind. Last year was a big year and I’m satisfied that I won’t see its like again. Instead I’m going to take things easy, count my blessings and not sweat the small stuff.
Yeah, right. Like that will ever happen.