Wednesday, 25 March 2009

An Evening in the Big Smoke

Last night I trundled down to London for the official launch of a report I co-authored. There were many PIPs (pretty important people) and a few VIPs there, both academic and professional. Besides interacting with real people who are gainfully employed, interesting and fairly sociable, the highlight of the evening was after the event when I was given a back stage pass to the oldest and most ornate and theatrical court in the Royal Courts of Justice, the Lord Chief Justice's Court from the perspective of the bench.

Do I sound smug? Not a good start as far as the blog tone goes, particularly for a woman, but I will make sure that you think I am a hapless, harmless little creature by the end so that you still feel like you could have a drink with me so please keep reading.

Being in London dramatised the plain fact that I have clearly been in the Oxford bubble and in the write-up spiral for too long. As I boarded the train, I felt like Maria leaving the convent for the bustle of the Von Trapp household and I sensed that I was utterly provincial asking for directions at the Tube station.

Before I arrived at the launch, I made someone want to cry. That's not really what I set out to achieve each morning (as I brush my teeth) so let me explain. Having crawled out of my student comfort gear, and having made it on the train to the big smoke (which carried people I didn't know. Let's really paint the scene. There were wider factors.), I decided that I would get my hair cut with the hour I had spare. These things can be neglected. I was really looking forward to the hair wash and I don't think that was particularly unreasonable given I was coughing up £50 ("London prices", I said to myself using an old lady's voice and shaking my head).

So I was led to the basin by this young girl with diamond-textured black stockings under cute shorts, who I had tacitly assumed was (a) about 18 and (b) experienced. As soon as I lay back, ready to allow the thesis outline I had been working on that morning to leave my body, she took to my hair in a way that was no less than beastly. She carelessly pulled my hair, especially around the facial line, and grinded her knuckles into my scalp. She banged the shower head into my ear (that had been clanging the whole time as the coily bit had detached - not her fault granted, but it did not help) just as the water turned hot. I turned around and said (with very few barbs in my tone, maybe only a little one), "I am sorry, this is really just not enjoyable for me. I am not enjoying this." She asked her colleague to finish off - a little too quick to give up looking back on it.

As I lay back into the hands of a spotty boy, I thought "I am not leaving here with any hair. That's it, I've done it." And, you know, I didn't get off too lightly. The hairdresser, as she pulled my hair straight with a brush and hairdryer, told me that I had made the 14 YEAR OLD, WORK EXPERIENCE GIRL want to cry. Once coiffed, I went over and apologised to the young girl for making her feel unfairly criticised. "I am just an uptight student," I said. The hairdresser started talking about how everyone in Oxford must be intense and serious, and so then I tried to prove that I wasn't always so intense and serious, but in my black suit, and with my acute jumpiness, and lack of middle ground small talk, it wasn't an easy sell. In fact, there's pretty much no way you can prove to someone that you're a mellow person. By engaging in the debate, you're already finished. The only way to prove it is to giggle like a child or stare at them with slow-blinking eyes and a fixed half-smile until they look away. I tried to make jokes. No, I should have just given up or better yet demanded that they hurry up and clean my feet in the manner to which I am accustomed in Oxford. My exit was not particularly regal: the classic pull the door, then go to the other (locked) one to push and then go to original to push.

I have heard from many PhD students that towards the end of the slog, your capability for medium-level, respectable chat is lost; that anything irrelevant to your thesis or not complete slosh (like Lily Allen's underwear or an episode in The Wire) is too challenging. It did take me a few conversations at the event to untie my tongue and to sensibly engage. I gradually got it together, had an enjoyable time, and was asked to contribute some of my thesis work, and offered the prospect of a small research job.

Nevertheless, unless there's a very, very good reason, I have decided that I am not going to heavily populated places until I have submitted. It's simply too spooky for everyone involved.

I wrote this post this morning. I have just come back from an academic practice symposium. It was re-energising to share ideas with other students about our academic careers and communities. I have also been left with some good practical guidance for the "next step" (which I may write up as a more generic blog post soon). So maybe I don't actually need to hide away with Mother Superior until I am finished as planned. Perhaps I just need to connect with like-minded people who have had similar experiences until I am ready for that middle ground again.


Kate said...

Hmm, yes, the "pretending to be normal" game is a tricky one. Hang in there - I stayed away from most 'citizens' til it was all over. It's just a bit vile, isn't it?


Good Enough Woman said...

A profound truth: "In fact, there's pretty much no way you can prove to someone that you're a mellow person."

Conway said...

What if it's not reversible? Definitely on your way to becoming an eccentric, faux pas prone, socially awkward Oxford don... next stop is a facial tick and/or speech impediment. On the plus side, no one will be surprised if you don’t get your hair cut regularly.

Ink said...

First of all, funny but also I send you hugs because I very clearly remember that phase during which the rest of the world seemed overly bright and scrapish on one's raw and near-the-skin dissertation nerves. (Of course, you *literally* had scalp battering from rough shampooer, too.) But congratulations on the triumphant finish, all of the wonderful things that came out of participating (like-minded discoursers! work contributions! research job!).