If you, like me, are about to start at a university this month – and what a university – you will probably be thinking about a few things.
Worrying is probably more accurate – seriously fretting, becoming afeared.
You worry about your health – but not too much. You worry about the chance of your being unhappy or lonely. You might even worry about how you’re to do all the work expected of you. You will if you’re like me, anyway.
But one thing in particular will make you fret no end – will make you shiver with fright in the early hours and quake, like a leaf, during otherwise restful intervals.
You’ve got the grades – results demonstrating your aptitude, the aftermath of interviews which confirmed your boastful self-descriptions, all the trappings of academic success. And you are going to Cambridge, after all.
But still you cannot escape the most obvious, the most essential, fear – and yet it is something you’d barely given a thought to before all this.
You can be serious; that’s fairly obvious. You can, at times, work hard. But how – how on earth – can you transcend the mundane, avoid sinking into a swamp of dullness: how can you become interesting? And how can you do it quickly?
It’s all there, in the annals of the university, of your college, too – probably. The interesting people, with their wisdom and profundity and precocious intellectual development – and, when the mood took them, their side-splitting capacity for mirth.
They are your betters; they are your superiors. But now, through a quirk of fate you admit seems foolish now, they are your peers.
The same system produced Oscar Wilde, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, Bertie Wooster – OK, they all went to Oxford, but you get my point. And now you.
Numbered among that company, thinking there’s been a mistake, you numbly sit and think. What if my contemporaries are the equal of those eminent Oxonians?
What if I’m the only dullard? The thought is terrifying.
And so you resolve to better yourself.
You buy (and buy into) some canonical English fiction – heavy on women writers, too. (Better safe than sorry on this front.) Austen, Bronte times three, Woolfe. You buy them all.
You buy them all and dumbly stare at the books as they form a frightening little pile.
They’re meant to be good – all of them. But to you they look like an obligation. There’s something vaguely menacing about the hundreds of unread pages – a reading list of life, with the exam tomorrow.
So you do the logical thing. You put it off, you run, you duck and cover. And eventually it’s too late; there are other exigencies, more inane preparations; no time left.
But novels necessitate an abnormally long commitment. Why not music, films? They require less effort.
You try music first. Mozart is pleasant, but distracting; Bach is naturally pleasing, but decorous. You pick The Smiths. They’re interesting. Morrissey is sad. He’s sad about a lot of things. Maybe you should be sad, too.
At this point you’re close to despair anyway, your efforts thwarted – and what difference does it make?
So you sit down to watch some cinema, something improving: you pick Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. You picked wrong.
It’s tedium unadulterated, straight from the source.
Bored out of your mind, you end up watching Mean Girls for the fifth time. It seems wrong, but it feels so right.
You’ve finally found your level. Maybe being interesting isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. That’s your hope, at any rate. You hope you’re right. Lord knows, it would be the first time.
This piece was originally intended for publication elsewhere. In that it was unsuccessful: it seems I started something I couldn’t finish.