Academia / by Alex Williamson

Know what you have learned.

i.

One morning in early November, he flew to London for his viva voce. He woke alone in the spare room, torn from restive sleep by the shrill and urgent noise of his alarm clock, which was positioned a short distance away. Lying in the semi-dark of the spare room, returning slowly to consciousness, he ran at length through everything that he needed to do that day. The logistics of departure and arrival, the items he needed to take with him, the bag containing his notes, a light coat, before inevitably moving on to possible outcome of the reason for his visit. The tenor of the meeting, the questions he might be asked, the hostility or kindness of his antagonists. As he lay there, he could hear solitary cars rumbling past below the window, People on their way to work / And baby what did you expect?/ Gonna burst into flames.

That might be a relief, he thought, as he threw back the covers and walked unsteadily towards the bathroom. Under the unforgiving sodium glare he showered and dressed, with maximum speed and minimum fuss, before creeping down the creaking, ancient stairs into their kitchen, cognisant that disturbing the children at this early hour would spell catastrophe for his sleeping wife. In the kitchen, he peeled and ate a banana to stave off the biliousness that overcame him after waking too early and tried not to think further of what lay in store for him that day. Then he collected the bag he had packed the evening before which contained his passport, his annotated introduction and conclusion, and whatever book he was reading for pleasure at the time, now that reading for pleasure had once more become a thing, and stepped out into the icy air, closing the door gently behind him. He stood under the streetlamp outside his house and waited for the taxi.

He’d managed to forget about his viva, or rather, if not forgot about it entirely, he had successfully banished it to the recesses of his consciousness. He had planned for it in an abstract way, as if it was something that could still be delayed or deferred. Confirmed the date with his supervisors, booked his flights, informed his employers at the house in Hopeman that he would not be available that day, which they begrudgingly agreed to, and then he had barely given it any thought at all until a week or so beforehand, when swung into view like a tipper truck heading the wrong way down a one-way street, aimed in his direction.

Now the viva was bearing down upon him, a familiar feeling of dread had set in. He’d felt it before, when preparing for exams and his driving test as a teenagers, and thereafter at job interviews, but it had been some time since last he experienced the feeling he always associated with the knowledge that he would soon find himself in acute and sustained discomfort with little or no hope of escape. To escape, he would have to succeed. Rarely had he been able to will success upon himself.

Whenever he had to verbally present his research, he felt terrified that he would be unable to adequately describe what it was he was researching. It was a question of terminology. Lexicography. Words failed him, or rather, he failed words. He knew what he wanted to say, in simple terms, but those simple terms were off limits. Not good enough. To say what he wanted to say, he had to say something else entirely. This was the structural code of academia. Its lingua franca.   

Sometimes he overreached himself, overcomplicated his speech with digressions, tied himself in knots, forgot what he was saying. Rambled. Waffled tosh and piffle. When he tried to speak academese, felt as if he were sifting through a sack of grit in search of a grain of sand. The more he reached, the harder it was to locate it. One false word might spill the beans and disclose his true identity, not as a serious doctoral candidate at all, but a pretender, an imposter, someone who was making it up as he went along and hadn’t a hope in hell of getting it done. 

This was the concern he carried with him when he left his house that morning. After four years, he wanted to be done with it. If he failed his viva, the entire purpose of his thesis, to prove he was capable of an elevated consciousness, however limited, a consciousness which was the very foundation of his being, his tentative, tenuous sense of self-worth, was all over. It wasn’t simply his thesis that was under examination, nor his doctoral candidacy, but his very self. His ontological basis, his right to exist. If the examiners believed his thesis lacked critical value, if they called for major revisions, or even minor ones, he did not know whether he would be able to do them. In short, if he failed his viva, he was fucked.

His reasons for starting a PhD, many years after graduating from university, ranged from the pragmatic to the whimsical. He couldn’t afford the course fees for a creative writing masters, and the PhD presented a practical alternative. It might enable him to forge a new career in academia. By meeting new people, it would bring him out of himself, while unlocking something within him creatively, giving credence and succour to the impulses that had always driven him to make art, however naïve or uncultivated. It was an experiment in plasticity, the malleability of his mind, to see if it would cope with the new intellectual environment. There were certain things, concepts and philosophical enquiries, that existed at the fringes of his cognition, the borders of perception, and he wanted to know what those things were. He wanted to see if he could do it. If he had the gumption, the mettle, the Right Stuff.

Because it is there. George Mallory’s famous words about Mount Everest. How often he thought of Mallory and his climbing partner Sandy Irvine preparing their climbing equipment and oxygen tanks on the morning of 6 June 1924. That last photograph, taken by expedition geologist Noel Odell at Camp V on the north Col, as the pair readied themselves for their departure to Camp VI, the jumping-off point for their final push to the summit. In their putties and khaki and rudimentary snow-goggles, they looked like two airmen who had been forced to bail out over the Himalayas after an aborted record attempt. The last time the two men were photographed together, and alive. The last time they were seen, in effect. Then they disappeared.

Hyperbole. Writing a thesis was not remotely comparable to conquering Everest. It was just reading and writing. No one would die if he failed.

 

ii.

A few months earlier, after numerous redrafts and proof readings, he had finally submitted his thesis, the culmination and fulfilment of four years of his life, four years in which he switched jobs, left full time employment to become an unemployed househusband, saw the birth of his second child, moved home twice, the second time relocating from London to the Highlands of Scotland, and initiated a renovation project of their new home, which was almost finished. In the last year of his PhD, he was living with his wife’s parents, working on a house renovation during the day, returning home to wash the dust and grime from his body, then eat dinner with the rest of the family, settle the children in bed, then return to the dining table to work at his thesis, and incorporate his supervisors’ suggested changes, the final edits being made after he and his wife moved into their new home, which was still not yet complete. He submitted his PhD one lunchtime in the local library.

For his revisions, he had worked through the thesis chapter by chapter, so he had never had full visibility of its size and shape, the weight of it. Consequently, he never had the chance to behold the thing itself, though he knew by then it was a brick of a thesis, the longest thing he had ever worked on, and at the upper end of the word limit. It was possible he was pushing his luck. He had put everything into it that he possibly could, and was reluctant to take anything out, lest he left a gaping hole, a glaring error, that the examiners would seize upon and use to tear the thing to shreds.  

One hundred thousand words. Four hundred pages. Nothing left out. Nothing left to chance.  

The bulk of the thesis written in their home at 62 Adamsrill Road, in the hours when his children were sleeping, sat in the little box room above the front door, sat on a fold-out plastic chair before a vintage drop leaf table that his wife had picked up at university in Brighton, which had travelled with her to any number of shared houses before settling in at his own, and which is less of a desk than an ergonomic nightmare, barely large enough to accommodate him and his tiny, temperamental laptop, and the scattering of papers and a small stack of books from the library. The room where his son had slept when they first moved in, where black mould formed behind the cardboard boxes they had not yet found the time to unpack, boxes of books and fabric and framed photographs, the room he pulled his son from after the unseen mould ruined his lungs, the cold little room with no radiator or heater, and the air-vent in the wall kept open to prevent damp building up in the winter, where he read and made notes and typed, his breath puffing out in little clouds. He could see out onto the street from the little room, observe the seasons changing around him, the trees coming into leaf and growing bare, the pockmarked puddles when the rain came, the shifting shadows of trees on sunlit days, and the dark winter evenings where he caught sight of himself reflected at the window, lit by the small black desk lamp and the glow of the laptop, distracting him until he let fall the blind, keeping the warmth in and himself out.

Adamsrill Road, a quiet suburban street in Sydenham, south London, with a park at one end and a school at the other. Friendly neighbours. Street parties. Local drug dealers who delivered to the door. And sometimes in that small room, his door closed to his family, he would take cocaine, finding that it helped him focus, kept him motivated and meticulous, though the next day, when he came to read what he had written, he would find sentences without a beginning, middle or an end, shifting tenses, missing clauses and passages which had become overrun with meaningless parataxis, baseless neologisms and unwarranted tautological excursions. Every revision and redraft moving him closer to this idealised version of himself which would only be realised when the thesis was finished. Writing himself into existence.

 

iii.

Modernism. Postmodernism. Metamodernism. Structuralism. Poststructuralism. Deconstruction. Psychoanalysis. Phenomenology. Hermeneutics. Dialogism. Feminism. Neurology.

Hundreds of pages of books and printed journal articles read, considered and critiqued. Thousands of sentences and paragraphs. Millions of words. Billions of letters. The slivers of torn paper used as bookmarks. Passages highlighted, phrases encircled, margins annotated. X-ref. Contra-X. Pertinent things to return to or find a place for in his sprawling thesis.

Among his research cohort, with their fine minds and obscure research areas, some funded, some not, his research felt overly populist, gauche. The reading materials they were given each week felt like a distraction. The Order of Things. We Were Never Modern. The Sense of an Ending. At their weekly meetings in the Keynes Library at Gordon Square, he would sit gnawing his biro, avoiding the chair’s gaze, though he usually could be relied upon to blunder into the discussions with moronic interjections aimed at producing levity. They rarely did. He brought nothing to the table. The problem was not that he did not know, but that he could not remember. This had always been his issue, his terror, one of recall, right back to his first exams. Absorption without assimilation. The weight of silence. After a while he stopped attending, preferring to be home with his wife and children, where he would instead distract himself with low brow, white bread entertainment. Feelgood reality TV shows. The Great British Bake Off. Masterchef. Grand Designs. Programmes that required a significant investment of time. The cultural logic of nostalgia capitalism. Keep calm and carry on.

He often thought about his thesis, where it would fit into the current milieu. There were those who would find some use from it, despite its faults, and others who might take issue with its vulgar obsession with celebrity, its basic reading of theory, praise of normative identities and self-conscious distancing from issues relating to identity politics, race, class or gender. Issues he did not feel capable, nor comfortable, of tackling adequately.

Already he was cognisant that while his research was important to him, it was mostly irrelevant to everyone else. As time wore on, often he felt that there was something else he should have been doing, instead of reading about writing and writing about reading. The two activities felt like a deferral of sorts, a kind of productive procrastination, when what he should have been doing was simply writing. Sifting through the madness. Making it new. Scribe ergo sum ego.

 

iv.

The academic conferences he threw himself into, writing papers or chairing sessions. His papers were light-weight, useful solely for making up the numbers. Stood alone during the coffee breaks, an imposter in their midst. At a conference on the writing of Geoff Dyer, attended by the man himself, a writer he admired, and had met once before, outside a jazz club in Dalston, he floundered during the Q&A before getting into an absurd argument about another academic about whether mortgage debt was as damaging as cocaine addiction. (He thought it was.) A later review of the conference in the Los Angeles Review of Books singled out his paper as a joke. As Dyer sat in the back of the theater, scribbling in his yellow notepad, one could imagine what was going on in his head. The British Association for American Studies conference in Glasgow, where he paid for his travel and AirBnb accommodation, and walked for thirty minutes to the university in drizzle sweeping in from the Clyde estuary, arriving with sodden trousers which he had no way of drying, and which still hadn’t dried out by the time he left, and where he presented his paper to a handful of people.

And his own little conference, on one of the subjects of his thesis, who graciously flew in from the States to hear the papers and read from new work. The conference for which his own work as convenor was entirely unpaid, and which most of the department’s academic fraternity with a passing interest in contemporary literature comprehensively failed to attend. Others came, from St Andrews and Bergen and Augsberg and New York. That evening a handful of speakers went for a drink with the author in an unfamiliar bar somewhere in Bloomsbury, where they shared their incredulity at the possibility of a Trump Presidency. Sat at that table he felt, for the first time, that he was among friends, not members of the academic community. He was melancholic, too, for his supervisor was not there, she was with her husband who was very seriously ill, and he felt great pity for her, and not a little bit of guilt, for he had been hard on her in the weeks running up to the conference, after he had taken too much on and needed her help, without knowing what she was going through, the terrible nights at the hospital, or perhaps he had a little intimation of what was going on but didn’t like to pry, or he knew exactly how it had been with his mother, but didn’t like to say, and when the Dean of Arts, who was sat next to him at the bar, turned to him and asked after his supervisor, he said how sorry he was that she hadn’t been able to join them, the Dean said to him, I know. It’s a terrible shame. He really is a such a lovely guy. She sipped her wine, then added, Supervisors and their students should always look out for one another, something he had failed to do. As Aristotle once said, Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.

 

v.

A year before his oral exam, he flew with his wife to New York to interview the subjects of his thesis, the two married writers in whose work he had become so deeply immersed, it was as if he had assimilated something of their consciousness. After putting on a successful academic conference for one of his subjects, he had chanced his hand and asked for a follow up interview. Incredibly, they accepted. The night before he and his wife were due to fly out, he had celebrated the fact by going for a few drinks with a couple of friends. One thing led to another, and the evening ended with him attempting to get into bed with his wife’s parents, who had agreed to look after the children while they were away, and were sleeping in the main bedroom with him and his wife relegated to the small sofa bed in the living room, a fact he had forgotten when he returned home. A restless night ensued, followed by a hangover so vicious that he was certain he was going to have to get off the crowded train to the airport to throw up.

The flight itself was less eventful, so he was able to relax, if not sleep, thanks in part to American Airlines’ in-flight entertainment. By the time they landed at JFK and slowly, painfully inched their way through the queue for immigration, he was on the point of collapsing from nervous exhaustion, but once they made it to Brooklyn, he felt rejuvenated enough to be able to disembark from the train and walk part of the way to Park Slope, to get the vibe of the place. On the way they stopped at a Lebanese café for the best falafel they’d ever tasted outside of Just Falafs, before continuing to their AirBnb apartment, situated on the very edge of the neighbourhood, nestling against the nondescript neighbourhood of Gowanus, which somehow seemed very apt. They checked in and collected their keys, dumped their bags, then walked back up the slope towards the main drag, finding a pizzeria and sharing a margherita the size of Prospect Park, before returning back to their accommodation, resolving to have an early night ahead of his big day interviewing two notable writers.

At four am they were woken by a loud hissing sound, which appeared to be coming from the squat, four column cast-iron radiator positioned beneath the room’s small window. When he crouched next to it to turn it down, he discovered that it was boiling hot, and missing the control valve which would. Certain that at any moment he and his wife would be showered in scalding, pressurised water, they lay in bed with the duvet drawn up to their chins, hopeful that the hissing might abate and permit them to return to sleep. When it didn’t, they instead dressed and left the apartment to find a diner for breakfast. It was six am. 

After breakfast they decided to go their separate ways. There was still plenty of time to kill before his appointment with the writers. His wife went to rifle through some thrift stores, and he walked to Prospect Park. It was unseasonably warm for early December in New York. He had expected it to be much colder, and soon began to overheat in his heavy winter coat. The stoops of several Brownstones were adorned with Christmas decorations, which now looked incongruous in the warm, slanted sun. There was something wrong about it, he thought, the heat presaged darkness and ruin. To collect his thoughts, he decided to walk through the park. A fun run was about to get underway, and somewhere in the centre of the park ‘Felize Navidad’ was playing through loudspeakers, echoing across the grassy recreation area. Wherever he looked, runners were milling around and limbering up, several with a look of sinewy determination beneath their headbands.

Desperate for a bathroom after multiple refills of watery coffee in the diner, he snuck into one of the runners’ portaloos to relieve himself. He had only intended to take a short stroll, but because some of the pathways had been closed for the run, he ended up walking much further than originally planned, losing his bearings as he tried to get back on track. When he reached the LeFrak Centre in the south eastern corner of the lake, he realised he had gone much too far, and looped back up to the northern end towards the library, as the race leaders began to zip past him. Eventually, he arrived in front of the Art Deco façade of Brooklyn’s Public Library. Huge gilded figures overlooked the entrance, with smaller literary icons welded to the bronze doors. He was completely knackered. After visiting the toilet one last time, he found the fiction section and flopped down at a desk and tried to prepare for the interview. Taking a break to look through the fiction collection, he found several titles by the man, but only one by the woman. He told himself that they were out on loan. Large black and white portraits of the borough’s most famous authors lined the upper walls of the fiction section, a good number of whom he knew and had read, among them the brooding countenance of one of the authors he was about to interview, the man, warning him, wordlessly, not to screw it up.  

His biliousness from the day before returned, which he put down to his nervousness and fatigue, rather than an ongoing consequence of his overindulgence before the flight. After leaving the library, he met his wife for lunch at the Bagel Market a few blocks away. He had zero appetite, but knew he had to eat something as he was feeling lightheaded, so he had a lox and cream cheese bagel, an impulse purchase which sounded suitably indigenous, but which he immediately regretted. He was so tired he could barely speak to his wife. All he could think about was being back in bed.

She wished him good luck and he kissed her goodbye, before walking back up the main street, now busy with post-lunch shoppers and hipster couples buying Christmas trees. It was still too hot. They ought to have been buying ice creams. As he waited to cross the street, he spotted the English actor Jack Davenport approaching him, Miles from This Life, now middle aged, wearing a cap and leading his son by the hand, followed by his wife, the Scottish actor Michelle Gomez. He was sorry his wife wasn’t there to see them. Passing a florist, he decided to buy a bunch of long-stemmed white lilies, lilium casa blanca, for his hosts, then continued to the address he had been given, walking up the slight rise past a row of imposing, upgraded Brownstones. When he reached the address, he realised he was far too early, so circled the block. On his second pass, he hesitantly ascended the stoop and rang the bell. Waited. The woman answered the door, smiling and he handed her the lilies.

By the time he left, it was dark. His wife was waiting for him a block or so away. They kissed and she slid her arm through his, asked him how it went. As they walked, the streets seemed softer underfoot somehow, or perhaps it was that his body had become lighter, as if a great weight had been lifted from it, leaving him on the point of levitation, like Walter Clairborn Rawley, the protagonist of Mr. Vertigo. Looking for somewhere to eat, they found an upmarket trattoria wedged into the ground floor of a Brownstone. It was still warm enough for outside dining, the hubbub of conversation rising and falling as they walked into the restaurant, where an ingratiating manager greeted them, taking their coats and making them feel important. Beloved. He wondered if the writers dined there. Perhaps it was their favourite restaurant. Then he looked around at the tables of animated Brooklynites. It was quite possible that all the other diners were writers. Or artists, or actors, or gallery directors. It was Park Slope, after all.

There were no tables available in the restaurant, but the manager found them two seats at the bar, where he and his wife continued talking over a sumptuous bottle of Montepulciano, plates of antipasti, bowls of ravioli di zucca and risotto pugliese, a tiramisu with two spoons and two espressos. A celebratory meal. Decadent by their standards. This was how their relationship had first unfolded, face-to-face in dimly-lit restaurants, while the polyphony of other conversations encircled them, before the last train home and urgently undressing, before marriage and parenthood arrived and exhausted them, limited their conversations to difficult discussions about frustrating children and ailing parents, work and money, sex.

He came to in the faded grey light of the bedroom. The apartment was quiet. The radiator had now been fixed by their host’s boyfriend. She left them an apologetic note with a couple of consolatory craft beers. He rolled over to his wife and nuzzled against her, kissed her neck, and she rolled onto her back and kissed him. Her breath was faintly sour. He kissed her breasts and stomach, and continued downwards, but she batted him away as he neared the frills of her underwear. Don’t, she said, cradling his head. I’m too tired. And I need a shower. He stopped. They lay in bed for another hour. Then he got out of bed and went to the bathroom.

After breakfast, they decided to walk into Manhattan, threading a route through Gowanus and DUMBO and over the Brooklyn Bridge. Another day untroubled by cloud. Walking beside his wife, a kind of melancholy took hold of him, and he stopped talking, only speaking to give short responses to her queries. In his mind, he was back in Amsterdam, some twenty years earlier, on a trip with a former girlfriend, a meeting which when they had bought the flights and booked the accommodation they had referred to as a dirty weekend, but which had turned out to be nothing of the sort once they arrived in the Dutch capital. Save for an awkward sexual encounter on the first night, they hadn’t touched each other all weekend, despite sharing a bed the spare room of a Dutch lady’s house, the cheapest accommodation they could find, an hour on foot from the centre. It was November, and that weekend it rained constantly. After that confusing first night, he lapsed into mutism. They bought some skunk in a coffeeshop, and stumbled around in a stoned stupor, him wondering why on earth he was there, why he hadn’t made the trip with someone else, and knowing for certain that their dalliance, which had originated during his season in the French Alps, continued when he gate-crashed a seasonnaires reunion in the Cyclades, and culminated in his following her home to Cornwall, where he lived with her and her mother in a ramshackle terraced house in Lostwithiel, spoiling their bijou lifestyle and souring the atmosphere with his sulks and strops, all because he was paranoid she would meet someone else and quickly forget about him. A short-lived, destructive romance, which was finally, undeniably, mercifully over. No doubt, her gratitude was far greater than his.

During those years of involuntary celibacy as a young man, when he wanted desperately to meet someone, but had been incapable of attracting the opposite sex, he had taken comfort in the fact that he believed himself to be different from other men. The barmaid-bothering, beer-swilling, crotch-grabbing, manspreading, mansplaining members of his fraternity. I’m not like other guys, he would tell himself, trying not to sound like Michael Jackson. He was right. He wasn’t like other guys. He was worse. While other men took pride in unreconstructed dickishness, he tried to hide it, pretend it didn’t exist, or when it revealed itself, he would excuse it as part and parcel of his thwarted creativity. The tortured artist fallacy. Being a failed artist didn’t make him any less of a dick. His dickishness was no less egregious, no less pernicious, than that characterised by the odious orange blancmange who was about to assume the office of the Presidency, a gurning, griping man-baby who strutted around like he had been crafted from gristle, jism and cheap silicone, a post-coital condom in a Brioni suit, who had been carried into office on a wave of masculine rage by all the other men who were unable to quell their discomfort, their pain, at being born with their balls in place of their brains.

Men like him. For when push came to shove, they were all the same. White men rampaged across the globe, cracking skulls and laying pillage, enslaving and othering. What was it de Beauvoir said about his breed? Representation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with absolute truth. Failure of the imagination. The white man’s burden.

The Sunday streets were evacuation-quiet as they proceeded to Manhattan, walking abreast of each another without speaking, the distance between them growing greater with each step. His wife was perhaps imagining herself a New Yorker, but he didn’t ask her to find out. Instead, he was back in the rain of Amsterdam, stalking the circular streets with their treacherous cobbles, dark canals and looming trams. As they neared the apex of the Brooklyn Bridge, thronged with sightseers, his wife asked him to take her photograph, and he refused, gesturing towards the other tourists who were doing the same. It’s a fucking cliché, he said. He knew he was being horrible. He didn’t care. The fault for that morning’s schism lay entirely with him, his incapability of reconciling being present within a given moment or being too present within it. His bipolarity, oscillating from hypomania to dysphoria in a matter of moments, varied from day to day, becoming increasingly acute at times of stress. Perhaps it was not failure he was afraid of after all, but success, or happiness, knowing that after the dopamine high came the depressive crash. The rebalancing. The evening out. The fall. 

They walked beyond the apex of the bridge and down into the financial district of Wall Street towards the 9/11 memorial plaza, the final destination of his ill-tempered psychogeography. He had never visited pre-9/11 New York. He saw the attacks on the TV at his parent’s house, during that lengthy post-university interregnum. The last time he and his wife had been in the city, for his thirtieth birthday almost a decade ago, they had passed the graffitied hoardings of Ground Zero, behind which the memorial was still under construction, its costs supposedly spiralling out of control. The name given to the memorial by its architects was Reflecting Absence. Now, as he moved through the crowd and stood over one of the immense waterfalls, watched the water descending into the square void, pouring down in a silver curtain, and as he scanned the names of the victims engraved on the parapet, the one or two commemorated with a single flower, he thought about everything that had occurred which had brought this memorial into being, the innocent lives devastated and destroyed by needless acts perpetuated by men, and he came face to face with his own complicity. His complicity, and his insignificance.

 

vi.

As the plane banked on its final approach to Gatwick, from his aisle seat he caught a glimpse of Sussex fields bathed in the soft amber light of the rising sun. The trees were just starting to turn. He had left the Highlands on the cusp of winter, while England was still casting off last days of summer. When he emerged from the Underground at Euston, the air was warm and heavy, almost balmy, reminding him of being in Paris, or even New York the previous December, but not London. It was like stepping into an old photograph, everything unchanged and in its rightful place, except him, a man out of time, coming up for air. Back from the dead.

Ahead of the viva, he met his supervisors for coffee in a small basement café just not from Gordon Square. Both were enthusiastic about his thesis and seemed to have a confidence in him, and his research, which he himself did not have, and which he was certain he would not be able to live up to. The three of them walked back to the university, and he made his way up to the Keynes Library, the site of his cohort meetings and his conference, the high water mark of his time in academia. Then the examiners arrived, two male professors with ornithological surnames, one skinny and tall, the other stocky and short. A double act. Vaudeville. Good cop, bad cop. Tango and Cash. Their very presence in the room, benign and personable as they were, was nevertheless highly intimidating, and his entire body tensed as they busied themselves with the. Both placed a copy of his bound thesis on the table in front of them. Side by side they looked enormous, an obscene amount of paper for a spurious case, like the court papers for Jarndyce and Jarndyce, and he imagined either would do serious damage if used as a weapon, though they would probably be more useful lying at the bottom of a swimming pool, waiting to be retrieved by a child in their pyjamas, or as drawing paper for his young children, the extant fate of his many redrafts.

After the cursory introductions, things began to happen quite quickly. Already he was quaking in his chair. First, some general questions to soften him up. Why did you choose? What made you decide? Can you explain? Questions which were easy enough to deal with. This is a piece of cake, he thought. Then they turned the screw. Give us a definition. An example. Show us where you prove. He hesitated. Prevaricated. Vacillated. Now he was failing, he knew it. They could smell the fear on him. His armpits grew damp, and he struggled to maintain eye contact. Gonna burst into flames! They moved in for the kill. The portly examiner riffed the pages of the thesis. This thesis is far, far too long. It was, and he couldn’t say he hadn’t been warned. You should never use secondary sources in a PhD dissertation! Why on earth hadn’t his supervisors told him that? I’m not convinced that you fully get to grips with Lacan. How he hated that bastard Lacan. And there are quite a few punctuation errors. We’ve made a list. He and his wife had both proofed the thesis. That was that, then. He was screwed. They asked him to leave so they could decide his fate. We will call you back in a few minutes.

Dismantling his thesis had taken them little more than an hour. He sat on the stairs outside the Keynes Room and put his head in his hands. He was convinced he had failed, or that he was looking at major corrections. Six months to a year of additional work. He thought about how he would have to apologise to his supervisors and his wife. Six months to a year. It was like a prison sentence. He wasn’t sure if he could do it.

He went to the toilet. When he came back down, they were waiting for him. Ready to go another round. He returned to his chair. Gathered himself. Prepared to take notes. The portly examiner addressed him.

Thank you for your time today, I know that you have a flight to catch, so I’ll keep this brief. There are a few problems with this thesis, but I think these could be resolved with some additional work. The main things to think about would be reducing the size. Then addressing the secondary sources. Return to the original texts, which we see you have used elsewhere. Your reading of Lacan, which is generally sound, could be more sophisticated. And then the typos that we mentioned need to be corrected.

He stopped taking notes and put his pen down. Are we talking major or minor corrections here?

The examiner looked puzzled for a moment. Then he laughed. Minor corrections. I’m sorry. I should have made it clear when you came back in. You’ve passed. This is an excellent thesis. What I’m describing are issues which you absolutely should address if you decide to turn the thesis into a monograph. Which we think that you absolutely could.

Certain chapters are very strong, added his colleague.

Very strong. And the typos will obviously need to be corrected. But the thesis itself is of pass standard. And we are both satisfied that you have successfully defended it today. He extended his hand across the table. Congratulations, Doctor.

Congratulations, Doctor.  

Afterwards he went for a drink with his supervisors at the Euston Tap. It didn’t feel real. It felt as if it had happened to someone else. Someone good. He stayed for one drink, then left to catch his flight back home, where he drank a bottle of prosecco, and went to bed. The next morning, he was back at the house in Hopeman, slightly hungover, kneeling on the wet law, pulling weeds out of the flowerbed with his fingers.