It’s A-level results day on 18 August, which means a lot of people who maybe once years ago sat some exam have a great deal of opinions, bons mots and tales of struggle and survival to share with… well, each other. No teens are really watching are they? Who knows?
But which one of these educational experts or university of life graduates would make the best boyfriend? Let’s see!
“Don’t worry about it. I didn’t get any A-levels and look at me now!”
Look at him now! Jeremy Clarkson sipping champagne in St Tropez and trying not to assault anybody! Richard Branson, a zillionaire who still looks like Santa left under the grill too long! Simon Cowell, still has no idea about jeans. None of them got A-levels! Not a one!
What do they all have in common? They have lots of money and live a perfectly decent lifestyle. And yet.
Hand on heart could you ever truly say you wanted to be them? Or shag them? Ending up being sewn into your dad-jeans every day with a hairstyle that a magician couldn’t fix, let alone a barber, is the best advert I can think of for retaking those A-levels over and over again until you’re in your mid-fifties.
Date rating: 2/10. 4 if you really, really like Talksport, cava and collapsing into a heap of cholesterol on your 61st birthday.
“Just follow your dreams!”
Following your dreams is actually harder than it looks, because some people dream about being an astronaut or being able to walk through walls. Following your dreams does take hard work, yes, and usually, I’m afraid, rather a lot of self-confidence and MONEY. Got none of that? Um, well, maybe see if there’s a Marilyn Monroe quote out there to help you along.
Men who tell you to follow your dreams have usually achieved theirs – which is great – but they’re only really happy for you to follow yours if a) it does not in some way interrupt the express ride to their own achievements and b) you are funding this yourself. Oh, and c) they don’t have to talk to you about them.
Date rating: 6/10. Think of all the fridge magnets he’ll buy you at Christmas.
“Let me tell you about my victory over adversity.”
You think you’ve had it hard? He’s had it harder, you know. There may well be some Venn diagram overlap with the “Follow your dreams” guy, but this one will have tales of grit and hardship.
There are some odds to be overcome, a struggle to be had and – because every boring story told down the pub needs a hero – a huge, exaggerated victory.
Yet he makes it sound so easy! That’s because he has left out the four years he spent working at CarpetRight, crying in the stockroom.
Date rating: 5/10. Hours of fun to be had saying “Axminster” at random intervals.
“It’s not the end of the world.”
Says the media darling tweeting only to the clique he’s worked with, or met networking, or wants to meet, or might find useful, or screwed, or wants to screw, or wants to write for, or wants to write for him, or… you get the general idea.
Failing A-levels is not the end of the world to him because he is 34 and editing out double-spacing or hyphens that think they’re en-dashes in agency copy. Now that is the end of the world.
Date rating: 3/10. That should read a 4, but he hasn’t spotted the typo.
“I just, you know, got my A-levels, went to uni, got on with it and that’s it, really.”
What? No humblebrag? No Hollywood ending? This can’t be happening.
People who ‘just get on with it’ are myths – the unicorns of social media. If you find one, hang on for dear life.
Date rating: 7/10. Perhaps you could ‘adapt’ their story into something more exciting when you’ve finished tweeting your own. It’s what your followers would have wanted.
“I can’t believe I got my A-level results 17 years ago.”
Should you maybe not be thinking about something else, then? Maybe time to let go. Men who are amazed at the concept and passage of time tend to be dull over-thinkers, endlessly pondering their own mortality and forgetting to take the rubbish out.
Date rating: 4/10. They tend to be poor sleepers, worrying for hours at a time about something they said in 1984.
“Teenagers don’t care about your advice anyway; they are not reading your feed. You are 100.”
Every kingdom needs a ruler and when it comes to Twitter’s echelons of superiority, this arch commentator thinks he’s it.
He will compose his snide, wryly amusing tweets and press “Tweet” with a maniacal flourish, like Dorothy Parker ordering another round of absinthe for the Algonquin Round Table.
The trouble with kings is that they are never fully in control. And they never look up. But if they did, they would see that the sky is not the very top after all; there is… more!
Date rating: 7/10. At least in his own small bubble, he’s top of the heap. You might enjoy the odd bask in his glory when he passes 8 retweets and texts you excitedly about it.
“Everyone moaning about people talking down to teenagers who don’t care about your advice anyway – you are the lamest of them all.”
Kings give way to emperors and here’s our Lord and Master, who has recently become the sole heir of Twitter in its entirety thanks to a few strategic deaths or social media hires. His plinth is the highest of them all (as far as he knows) and this meta-God can only shake his head in disappointment as we all fall into the same trap we do every year when A-level results come out.
“They just don’t get it,” he cries out into the wilderness, from the tallest window of the uppermost floor of his lonely palace. “They… they are just as bad. They’re worse. You’re all terrible.”
Date rating: 9/10. He’s the one. He knows it all. And if you’re lucky, his head might burst and then Twitter will all be yours.
“I am going to write a blog about things people say about A-levels on Twitter.”
No. I’m stopping now. Don’t fuck this guy.
More like this:
– What your man’s favourite Spice Girl says about him
– 21 people you should never kiss at festivals
– 25 men you should never date this summer
– 33 things your date will worry about while waiting for you to turn up
Another year, another set of birthday candles for Madonna. She turns 58 today. For the 30 or so years Madonna has been putting the cat among the pigeons in the A-list, she’s gone from boom to bust to high to low to tasteful to tacky and everything in between – but she’s always been big.
While most of her indiscretions have been eventually forgiven – or at the very least politely ignored because, hey, it’s Madonna – the one thing Madge is never allowed to forget is one of the very few things in her life she cannot control.
There are plenty of reasons to roll your eyes at Madonna: the slow degeneration of her music material, the ever-increasing cost of tickets to see her perform live, the walking nightmare of problematic hell that is her Instagram account, but Madonna’s crime seems to be the one that most of us commit eventually, if we’re lucky. She got old.
Madonna has always delighted in challenging people’s perceptions of appropriateness. From drying her stubbly armpits in a dirty washroom in Desperately Seeking Susan and flicking herself off on a giant bed while two gay men in conical bras looked on during the Blond Ambition tour to portraying the violence of war in the withdrawn video for American Life, no taboo seemed too small for La Ciccone to overturn.
Aside from a very staid decade or so where Madonna had a misguided, but spirited, go at being a submissive wife to director Guy Ritchie, her frankness, refusal to conform and power to shock have been her lifeblood; they have kept her career ticking over and front-and-centre for over three decades, a feat few other popstars – male or female – can boast.
Almost everyone has an opinion on Madonna, and the criticisms against her stack up like building blocks in a Guinness World Record attempt to reach the moon, but, thus far, Madonna has always been able to count on at least one demographic for continued, unwavering (and some might say blinkered) support – gay men.
Back when Madonna was still young enough to make it on to the higher reaches of those all-important, horrific ‘Sexiest Women’ lists that even the most highbrow of magazines insist on publishing, her stance as an awkward, complaining outsider spoke to the gay community in a way few have managed before.
While some might argue her status as a pioneer may be exaggerated and seriously flawed, she at least gave the impression she was doing something new. She championed gay rights, spoke out in defence of her gay friends and hired gay dancers for her tours, and gay men and women lapped it up, long before ‘Mother Monster’ wobbled along in shoes shaped like an armadillo to tell everyone they were ‘born this way’.
Madonna’s openness about sex, and ability to unashamedly enjoy having it, set a precedent for almost every female pop singer who came after her. And all was well with the world, because Madonna was still young and wrinkle-free.
Sex is no longer the sole property of the young. Everyone’s eyes have been opened to the idea of silver shagging. Even Hollywood, the high altar of youth and beauty, has given the nod of approval to the idea of wrinkles as sexual leads, but it seems Madonna’s brand of sexuality is strictly off-message.
While it’s no surprise heterosexual men have zero interest in seeing Madonna in her knickers – they are, after all, force-fed a whole new bevy of beauties to adore daily, all young enough to be their daughters – it’s much more disappointing to see that some of Madonna’s detractors are the very men who gave her a leg-up to her pedestal in the first place.
Trawl any so-called fan forum and you’ll see the same disparaging remarks: outrage at her supposed ‘pussy popping’, refusal to ‘grow old gracefully’ (an awful, po-faced phrase whose retirement should come much sooner than Madonna’s) and complaints that the erstwhile Material Girl is as old as their own mum. I know, right? She has birthdays! And the numbers keep going up and up!
“Ewww” said one forum member, in his late 20s, “nobody wants to see that dusty old vagina any more.”
The irony being, of course, that gay men don’t usually ever want to see a vagina, be it in the first flush of youth or swathed in mothballs.
“God, her scrawny arms are horrible,” noted another armchair model scout, “and her hands are all gnarled.”
Gay men, it seems, are now in charge of what is sexy and what is not. Despite their previous interest in women’s looks usually being limited to slagging off their clothes (another totally ridiculous notion; why the hell do women listen to us?) and cooing over their hair once they’ve finished blow-drying it, all of a sudden these guys are the go-to experts when it comes to what the world should find shaggable, even if they don’t want to do the nasty with her themselves.
The idea that one’s sexuality is redundant once grey hairs become the ruling majority leaves a much nastier taste in the mouth than any French kiss from Madonna would. Remember the outcry when she appeared on stage with Canadian rapper Drake and gave him a snog? What was that really about? The fact he didn’t know it was going to happen? Or her age? (Spoiler: it was her age.)
The media has long been puzzling over what to do about Madonna’s refusal to put her dress back on. Since she deftly shimmied over that magic line into her 50s, actions previously deemed ‘shocking’ or ‘thought-provoking’ are now rebranded as ‘sad’, ‘desperate’ and ‘attention-seeking’, as if Madonna is in any way unique as a singer to want all eyes to be focused on her.
Vanity Fair scratched its chin over the whole topic of Madonna’s sexiness as she prepared to turn 50 in August 2008: “Madonna made her fortune selling sex–what will she sell when the thought of sex with Madonna seems like a fetish?” it mused.
At 2015’s Met Gala – itself a seven-hour love letter to bad taste, filthy lucre and vacuous celebrity – Madonna bared her arse to the baying paparazzi. Out came the usual commentators moaning Madonna had let them down, and why couldn’t she just age gracefully. Why was she trying to be young? All her former allies were present and correct, knitting at the guillotine: gay men, middle-aged women, her peers.
Madonna’s propensity for showing us what’s inside her thong has long been dismissed as a publicity stunt or an attempt to stay relevant, but if anything her knicker-flashing has led to lower returns when it comes to record sales. The much-hyped Erotica failed to ignite much reaction in the shops, except for “Ewww, she’s got a toe in her mouth”, and she was younger and tauter then. What hope for her now?
The big mistake we’re all making with Madonna is we think she’s doing this so we will find her sexy, that she wants us to desire her, envy her, find her attractive. I don’t think that’s what she’s about. As a younger star she pushed the boundaries of sexual freedom, of what it meant to be a woman unafraid to do what they liked, who weren’t in thrall to any man. Now, at 58, Madonna is making us think yet again. Why do we have to put our bodies away as we age? Who exactly makes these rules? What’s the golden moment the big switch, where one day you are still young enough to bare your flesh while the next you must hide down a well?
While my own interest in Madonna as a popstar wanes with every so-so record, the one thing I do think she’s getting right is saying an emphatic “fuck you” to the ageist brigade, most of them still young enough to be able to think of their dotage as a far-off prospect, as fantastical as a fairy-tale ending.
But old age does not wait to be awoken by true love’s kiss, nor validated by a handsome prince clambering up the ivory tower by way of a long plait of golden hair. Age is coming for all of you, and no amount of denial or mock horror at Madonna in her scants is going to change that. Madonna is living it now.
Ageing is changing. We are living longer and, despite rising obesity levels, a growing number of us are more health conscious. Frivolity and fun and, yes, sex, does not belong to the young. Our bodies are our own, to do with as we wish. I may not find her titillating, and, yes, she’s attention-seeking, but I’m so glad Madonna does what she does. I will not be defined by my age; I will decide my own destiny when it comes to getting older. And so will Madonna. She still finds her body fascinating, and presents it as art in her stage outfits and photoshoots. Why does this confidence trouble us so? Remember how bored and downtrodden Madonna looked when she pretended to be the perfect English housewife for Guy Ritchie – do we want her back there?
How many of Madonna’s critics would be happy to walk so willingly, with head bowed, to the knackers’ yard once they hit 50 and beyond? And when they reach that era – where young people would have you believe there’s nothing but gummy smiles and osteoporosis, dicky bladders and forebodingly steep staircases – they should remember Madonna: uncompromising, unbroken, unrepentant.
Let’s hope when the naysayers approach their twilight years they still have someone close at hand to tell them they look great in their underwear, that they’re still hot and wanted. An empty bed, free of desire and passion, may as well be a grave.
More like this:
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– What Jackie Collins and The Stud taught me about the world
– Give me death by skinny jeans over bootcut misery any day
– Broverload – where have all the men gone?
A different version of this appeared on this blog in 2012.
Have you noticed how obsessed with gay sex straight people are? First they’re telling us Aids is a “gay disease”, then trying to tell us we shouldn’t be allowed PrEP on the NHS to prevent it. Next, they’re up in arms about chemsex. It almost makes you nostalgic for the days they joked about lesbians using strap-ons, or got drunk and asked gay men “who is the woman and who is the man?”
Now, no question is taboo, no subject verboten. Thanks to Grindr, which straight people don’t seem to realise paved the way for all their dreary flirtations on Tinder, what we do and the way we do it has never been more fascinating. We hook up! With strangers! And just do it! Then we leave! Ignoring that this is what’s been happening in straight nightclubs up and down the country since Elvis first swivelled his hips, straight people can’t wait to get right in there and have good old nosey.
Our latest infiltrator is Nico Hines, a British, heterosexual journalist commissioned, for reasons that I’m sure seemed very sound in whichever MDMA-fuelled meeting it was dreamed up in, to write a piece for the Daily Beast about gay athletes in the Olympic Village, who were – shock horror, clutch your pearls and kiss a chimney sweep – using dating and hookup apps to meet other people for sex.
Nico, like every good journalist, wanted to put himself at the heart of the story, so he uploaded his avi to a series of different apps, put out a few ‘stats’ and sat and waited. Whether it was a slow day at the Olympic village, or the Brazilian humidity had short-circuited everyone’s wires, I couldn’t possibly say, but soon our intrepid reporter was inundated with replies on Grindr, the most popular hookup app for gay men.
The story – its news angle so toothless it can barely manage soup and liquidised veg as it lies dying on its hospital bed of irrelevance – goes that gay men short on time are usually pretty direct when it comes to asking for sex. They ask for photos, share their stats and locations and cut straight to the chase. Nico claims that he was only ever honest with these guys in his replies – that he was not only a journalist but straight and married – but the act of putting your photo on an app like this is an understanding you are available. It is an invitation to be wooed, propositioned or demanded of; it is an acceptance of an invisible, unspoken code. “I am here for the same reason as you. I understand you. I want this too.”
Nico, of course, did not understand. Picking over grammatical errors and curious ways closeted athletes – many of whom are from countries where the discovery of their homosexuality would make life very difficult for them – hid their identity while they tried to arrange hookups, Nico gleefully, and almost spitefully, held up these poor guys to ridicule. Oh, he may not be directly taking the piss or making any specific homophobic comments, but the malice is there, thanks to the power of suggestion. Someone asked for his “sex foto”. Another sent him the location of his apartment so he could come and meet him. Some of them used odd photos to conceal their identity. How strange, Nico seems to be saying, how queer. Isn’t it funny how the dear little gays do it.
Among the most malevolent aspects of this noxious, patronising horror show is Nico’s disrespect for these guys’ anonymity. He reels off guys’ stats, their countries of origin and even the sports they compete in, under the guise of showing the variety of guys available and looking for sex. This is not only cruel, it’s irresponsible. As I said, a lot of these sportsmen come from countries where any revelation of their sexuality could result in their lives being made difficult or, in some cases, snuffed altogether. Whether we like it or not, a great number of people – increasing if the current political climate is anything to go by – think homosexuality is wrong, or shameful, or disgusting. These guys aren’t just hiding their sexuality because they’re worried about product endorsements – they’re trying to stay safe. Nico shows no regard for this, however, he’s got 1,500 prurient words to file. Why would he even think of the consequences of outing? He’s never had to; it’s not his world. He’s a visitor, and an inconsiderate one at that. And, let’s remember: this could literally get someone killed. Sexuality isn’t a game; it is not content. It is our life.
The sad thing is it’s a missed opportunity for the Daily Beast, if not for Nico. While the author may like to tell himself his was a human interest story and not a patronising smirk, there was a genuine tale to be told here. The story of how the Olympics, and the availability of hookup apps, is allowing gay athletes from homophobic countries to express themselves and have sex could’ve been genuinely informative and enlightening. It could have held these countries to account, asked what “inclusive” events like the Olympics can do to reinforce themes of freedom from oppression, maybe even talked to these athletes about what it was like to hide who they really were – and it could’ve provided work to a gay journalist to tell it.
The gay hookup apps we “hide” on exist because of straight people. You don’t like it when we’re doing our thing in public, you never have, so we have to find people who understand us, who want the same things we do. We can’t trust you in the real world, so we shrink into our own, we put up barriers to be among people we can believe in, and, sadly, those safe spaces we create are too often compromised by our own behaviour – we don’t need you making it worse and breaking our trust. We don’t need any more Nicos.
LGBT people don’t need straight people dipping their toe in to our sexuality and dutifully reporting back how weird and wonderful we are. We need them to make room – LOTS of fucking room – for us to tell our stories under our terms. We’re not here to entertain you, or amuse you; our life is not a cabaret act and you are not the peanut gallery. We’re here to tell you: you don’t get to speak for us anymore. You don’t get to expose us for your own pleasure, to out us before we’re ready, to control the conversation. You don’t get to show us off like an artefact, to be brought down from the top of the cupboard and dusted off whenever you remember we exist.
Move over. You’re getting it all wrong. We can drive from here.
I also wrote about this for International Business Times
I remember summer 1994.
Wet Wet Wet were no.1 in the charts for what felt like for ever, the weather was predictably unpredictable and my wardrobe was in desperate need of some serious investment, but the thing I remember most about the long summer was the uncertainty. I had finished my A-levels and was now waiting to see what would happen next. It was the first time in my life I had faced an absolute unknown. Before then, my life had followed order, a comforting, unchanging schedule: autumn term, Christmas, spring term, Easter, summer term, holidays, six weeks of boredom, autumn term. And so on, and so on, for what felt like centuries until suddenly, the jarring, scratching sound of the needle being wrenched from the record, the cycle broken. Summer 1994.
All those years of being told my best bet was to get out of my hometown, I’d never really believed I’d be able to do it. I still felt like a child, and going to university seemed like such a grown-up thing to do. It felt like a path that belonged to someone else. I ordered stacks and stacks of prospectuses from places I could never have hoped to get an offer from, and leafed through them with the bemused curiosity of the Queen Mother seeing a public lavatory for the first time. How quaint, I thought, that they all go away to, oh it says here to ‘read’ subjects – I didn’t even know what that meant. They were all impossible people, faces and dental work and hairstyles that belonged only in the glossy pages of a brochure. It didn’t seem real. What would I even study? I didn’t know what I wanted to be, or indeed who I actually was, at that moment. I would shut my eyes and try to imagine it, to see myself there, but saw only blackness, or the garish stripes of my bedroom wallpaper burned onto my retina. Looking back at this now feels like a season five character watching clips of a pilot episode, when their character was played by someone else. I see his face and can even close my eyes and feel his bony back resting against his headboard while he flicks cigarette ash into the little bowl he made in pottery class aged 11, but inside his head feels like a mystery.
But I remember being frightened. I had to get away from there. I knew it. I wasn’t from a well-off family; I saw what happened to children like me. They had to go off and get a job they didn’t like, because staying on at school meant you were even less experienced and, because this is Yorkshire in 1994, less respected than those who’d quit at 16 and started at the very bottom. Add into this my slightly… I don’t know, what am I calling this here? How do I describe my 18-year-old self without proving the bullies may have had a point after all? I wasn’t like the others, I knew that. Call them delusions of grandeur, or airs and graces, or a superiority complex if you must, but every day I felt like an alien that had been dropped in the middle of this place like some sick joke. My family were, depending on who you spoke to, fiercely proud of my intelligence and so-called refinement, and deeply resentful of it. My aptitude was almost a curse; I was mocked for it, the butt of family jokes. My uncles, with nary a qualification between them, distrusted me, I made them feel uncomfortable. That’s how it was if you weren’t like the others. The others wondered why; the others took your individuality as an attack.
“Don’t stay here, like I did,” my mum would always, always say, after a parents’ evening or while reading a school report. And yet I worried too about leaving her all by herself. Would she be OK for money? Should I stay and get a job and help her out. Summer 1994 was not, for me, the coming-of-age, fresh-faced look to the future it was for many of my middle-class schoolmates. I bit my nails down to the nub and worried about what might happen. If successful, I would be the first of my family to go to university. My chest heaved with both the scale of what I could achieve and the pressure on me to achieve this. Both families were divided over what my going to university would mean for them. It would be a good reflection on them that I’d made it, of course, but the trouble with reflections is you can see yourself in them. Some of them were not ready to face that mirror. One part of me thought I owed my parents this one, my only chance to give them glory, to do it first, be a trailblazer. The other part of me, however, thought it might be better if I didn’t get in.
I did get in, after a slight nightmare that I’ll no doubt come back to, and then the worry really started. First of all, I was going. There would be no hiding from adulthood now; it was coming for me, and I had about three weeks to get my head round it. I also had about three weeks too work out how I was going to survive. There were acres and acres of forms. Student loans had only just come in and were supposed to ‘top up’ your grant – how fucking twee and hilarious that sounds now, I was living in clover and never even realised. Because of my mum’s low earnings, I would qualify for a full grant, but the ‘full’ here was misleading. This was the scrawniest definition of fullness. It was a small amount, payable over three terms. I’d have to pay for my accommodation, obviously, and as there were no kitchen facilities in the university halls, I’d have to eat in the refectory, or I could rent privately. I was an embryo standing at the controls of a Boeing 747; I was terrified. The accommodation was so much money, although the food was included, how much would I have left? And what was this about a loan? I couldn’t get the loan. The word brought to mind loan sharks and bailiffs ripping doors off hinges, sights I’d seen many a time on the estate I grew up on. Loans were dangerous, my mum said, fear them. Don’t get one. “But you must go,” she said, “it’s your only chance.” And I thought about it, and I thought about what I’d do if I stayed, and I thought of being left behind while everyone else went away.
Because that’s what growing up in a poorer family is about, in a way – being left behind. Trips you can’t go on, the latest trainers you can’t have, the quirks and perks of being middle-class you never get to see until you have your face pressed up against the glass and are peering into someone else’s life. Drinks cabinets, breakfast rooms, furniture that is supposed to be old and look dilapidated, paintings on the wall, wooden floors, full fridges. You are always behind, trying to catch up, you are othered, you are less. My delusions of grandeur, my determination to be someone else would finally be quashed right here, in summer 1994. I would assimilate, I’d acquiesce, I would finally become one of them. My spirit would disappear, all because I was too frightened to get into debt, and too insecure to dream I deserved the chance to go.
But while I still felt like a child, I found enough will in me to go. I would try to avoid the overdraft (lasted three months), I would refuse the loans (lasted until the very end of my first year, incredibly) and I would do it on a shoestring. I would go, because I had this grant of £2,400 and it was the biggest fortune I’d ever been handed, but it was not a fortune made up of riches, it was a fortune of opportunity, of mobility.
£2,400. It wasn’t a lot then; it’s even less now. There was also the added thrill that the Conservatives had pledged to cut it by 10% every year, the difference being made up in loans. My dad bunged me a few quid when he could, and I worked here and there, and it was hard and I worried about money constantly, but knowing I had the grant, that it would always be there, always coming – albeit in reduced form year upon year – that kept me going. I didn’t see it as “free money”; it was freedom. Did I spend it on stupid, frivolous things? Sometimes, of course I did. It was a luxury I’d never had before – the opportunity for frivolity shouldn’t belong only to those who can afford it. Freedom should not be means-tested.
And now plans announced by the government earlier this year are coming into force. Students grants are over, even for the very poorest of families. Replaced by loans, which only ever existed to make up for shortfalls in grants, before becoming power-hungry and taking over altogether. George Osborne said that it was “unfair” taxpayers should pay for the education of someone who would “eventually earn more than them”. Putting aside the absolutely ludicrous assertion that graduates are in any way likely ever to earn more than someone in a half-decent job now, it seems that we’re only interested in “fairness” to these mythical taxpayers, rather than the unfair disparity between who can and cannot go to university.
Sure, everyone is ‘able’ to physically go because the loans cover all the fees and the space left by the grants, but would you go, if you knew you might be leaving around £30,000 in debt? Would you be sure it was worth it? Would you think you yourself were worth it? Could you, coming from a poor family were debt was a dirty word and even owing the milkman a couple of quid seen as a spiralling credit problem and a fate worse than death, imagine yourself borrowing – also a slur when you’re poor FYI, never borrow – such a colossal amount of money? How much pressure would you feel to make it work? While your richer classmates laughed it off and went merely to avoid getting a job and figuring out what to do with their lives – which, by the way, is a totally valid reason for going to university; life experience should not be underestimated – your time there would need value, you would have to come up with the goods. The richer kids get to enjoy their experience more, breezing through it with no money worries, just like competition winners, while you wait tables and say no to an invitation to Nando’s.
Would I still go? If summer 1994 were summer 2016 and I had all that in front of me, with the prospect of all that debt, would I do it? Could I? It’s been noted that since the introduction and increase tuition fees, there has been no significant drop-off in applications for university from children from poorer backgrounds. Riddle-me-ree indeed. So why is that? Perhaps the continued existence, until now, of grants has given them a safety net. Maybe the determination to better themselves, in the face of a government who warns them to live within their means yet encourages them to take on £20k of debt, is stronger than ever. Sure, they still go, but how is that experience for them? How do they feel, daily, thinking of the mountain of debt awaiting them, the pressure to succeed, the knowledge this is their one shot? Maybe it inspires them and drives them on to succeed. Or perhaps, in a much less Hollywood timeline, it eats away at them, compromising their mental health and any future potential, driving a wedge between them and their achievements, reminding them that life is about haves and have-nots.
Would I go? Yes, I would go. But every day would be like summer 1994. Gut-churning and heavy. Wet Wet Wet at no.1. And my summer 2016 would, I imagine, look very different indeed.
I have long been obsessed with finding something beautiful and romantic about an ending. I’ve never warmed to nostalgia or what-ifs, but to be somewhere and know it’s for the last time, and to anticipate the feeling of loss, to miss the person you are at that exact moment and never will be again, it’s always appealed. It’s the final second of innocence before the curtain draws back; the very last moment of joy before the scales fall from your eyes.
I remember exactly the moment I started to feel this way. As a child growing up on a council estate, one of my favourite things to read were twee books about precocious middle-class white children and their extremely staid adventures. In the opening chapter of The Children of Willow Farm, the eponymous, entitled brats are to leave the house they grew up in London for a new life in the country. They are excited at what’s to come, but are already nostalgic for the good times they’ve had in their now empty London flat, running from room to room shouting their goodbyes, reliving everything that’d happened there and promising they’ll never forget. I recall being envious of them off to start somewhere anew, to have the luxury of saying goodbye to their childhood home. I knew if I was ever going to escape to the country, it’d have to be by my own hand – no rosy-cheeked relatives were going to rescue me.
So call me romantic or fatalist or a sadist whatever, but I quite enjoy that lurch in the tummy you get when you’re at the end of the road in some way. You know something is coming next, but you’re not sure what. You know you’ll look back on this moment as insignificant, a stepping stone, but right now it is everything, and huge, and you can’t picture life beyond it. The trouble with living in the moment is you think you’re as strong or as tall or as wise as you’re ever going to be. You have no idea.
Today something ended for me. A client, who I’ve been with for 7 years, has let me go. A combination of budget cuts, Brexit and new brooms sweeping right into every corner has meant that freelancers – for so long the invisible backbone in companies that worry about head counts and staff benefits – were to be cut, with immediate effect. Ordinarily, as I work mainly from home, I’d have got a phone call and that would’ve been that. But I had tec to handover and wisdom to impart, plus I did not want to be denied my final moment, so I went into the office. The very least someone can do when they’re telling you it’s over after 7 years – be it professionally or romantically – is look into your eyes one last time as they say it. I have always believed in doing the right thing, no matter how painful; I was determined to have it done to me. You can’t force a happy ending, but you can manage the severity of the blow of a sad one.
I don’t really know what I was expecting. Despite the feeling we live in an age now where we crave our soap opera ending, where there is no room for the flat or the mundane, I was not hoping for dramatics. I guess I was hoping to go out with dignity, perhaps even to make them see exactly what they were letting go. But go I would. If I’m honest, I was mainly interested in making sure they paid me what they owed me. I can’t eat a beautiful goodbye and my landlord does not recognise romantic endings as legal tender.
As soon as I got there, the never-agains started. Never again would winters lash my face or summers roast me as I trudged from the train station. Never again would I spell out my surname to the receptionist. Never again would the woman in the deli bar double-check it was definitely decaf I wanted. Never again would I roll my eyes at the appalling grammar of the ‘polite notices’ left in the bathrooms. Never again would I step into the lift and wait until the doors closed before turning to the mirror and checking my hair. Never again. There would be no next time. Tears did not sting my eyes, but I revelled in the odd hopelessness and beautiful desolation of the moment.
What happened in the meeting should probably stay in it, but it was bright and respectful. They said I smelled nice. They were sad. I didn’t say too much. When you don’t know what to say and someone’s telling you it’s over, it’s best to keep quiet. It forces them to talk; you are handing them the rope. I controlled my moment. And they’re giving me the money. There was no drama.
Exits, however, should always be dramatic. Walking out of rooms doesn’t have to be loud or hysterical or bitter – but you don’t want to be forgotten, either. Sadly slow-motion is not available in real life, and incidental music plays only in your head, but after I shook their hands and looked warmly into their eyes, I turned and walked purposefully down their gleaming corridors, my expression blank. It seemed that time slowed, and, in my imagination, the weary, swaggering opening of George Michael’s Praying For Time began to play. As the music got louder I pushed open the doors and walked out into the murky cloudiness of day. I did not look back. I never look back, not even when someone calls my name. It was gorgeous.
And as I strode away, feeling majestic and victorious and invincible, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was the security guard – I’d forgotten to hand in my entry pass. Typical. Denied my soap opera moment even to the very last second, I handed it over with the tiniest roll of my eyes, put my headphones back in and turned away again. The ending is a beginning. I am lighter. Free.
“Look around now,
These are the days of the beggars and the choosers.”
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