In the Sixth Form, some people occasionally referred to me as a cynic. I’ll be honest with you, this label has been applied to me since leaving school as well. Dr Hadley, my old head teacher, also once accused me of being a dilettante. Given my high quality performance in the third year of Sixth Form he should have taken that back, but I don’t recall him doing so officially. He was the only person to ever use that particular label to describe me, though others, including my mother, use different terms to suggest similar things in my youth.
I always found both accusations upsetting, as I never thought of myself as either of those things. So I thought I would dig into the origins of the terms. Currently I am about as far away from an English-language reference library as it is possible to be, so I must rely on the Internet. I’m not linking out though – just take my word for this everyone.
The Free Online Dictionary‘s primary definition of cynicism is the modern one – “An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others”. I’m pretty sure that was what people had in mind when they called me a cynic. Wikipedia points out that the term has its origin in a school of Greek philosophers whose “philosophy was to live a life of Virtue in agreement with Nature”. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy however, snootily adds that to call the Cynics a school “immediately raises a difficulty for so unconventional and anti-theoretical a group. Their primary interests are ethical, but they conceive of ethics more as a way of living than as a doctrine in need of explication.” How naughty of them.
I’m starting to like the Cynics – mainly because they don’t sound like cynics. Here is Wikipedia‘s list of their main principles:
- The goal of life is happiness which is to live in agreement with Nature.
- Happiness depends on being self-sufficient, and a master of mental attitude.
- Self-sufficiency is achieved by living a life of Virtue.
- The road to virtue is to free oneself from any influence such as wealth, fame, or power, which have no value in Nature.
- Suffering is caused by false judgments of value, which cause negative emotions and a vicious character.
Sounds pretty good to me – them Cynics don’t seem bitter and twisted. That’s quite a shift in meaning that has taken place to end up with what we understand by the term cynic. Wiktionary explains the shift by suggesting that modern uses of the term are “in contemptuous allusion to the uncouth and aggressive manners adopted by the members of the school”, rather than with reference to their philosophy. Apparently (at least this is what the other philosophers told the Ancient Greek media) their philosophical outlook went hand in hand with plain bad manners. Hmm …
Wiktionary describes a dilletante as someone who “dabbles in a field out of casual interest rather than as a profession or serious interest”. The word is Italian, the present participle of the Italian verb meaning “to delight”. Well, yes, in the UK we are generally of the opinion that delight and seriousness cannot go hand in hand.
One of the things about the modern definition of a cynic is that once you have become one, there’s also the assumption that you will never change back. Cynicism is a one-way ticket, because once your faith in people is undermined, you can never retrieve it, seems to be the accepted wisdom. But sometimes there’s a reason for cynicism, or what looks like cynicism. As a teenager I didn’t have much faith in life, or in people – and I had some reasons for my doubts. I feel rather differently now. As for being a dilettante – well no, it was more a case of not being able to make anything work, because of fears about being visible, about daring to think I might have something to offer, to stick my head above the parapet. Those fears are close to having gone now – they linger a little – and whatever led people to see me as cynical is hopefully long gone. I’m struck by the judgemental nature of those old perspectives on me – that it never occurred to any of those labelling me that there might be reasons, underlying problems causing me to behave the way I did.
It’s now September 1978 and I’m not feeling especially cynical but possibly slightly Cynical. I’m looking forward to going to university to study English, my favourite subject. I’m hoping it will be as exciting to study it in Manchester as it was at A-level. I’m also looking forward to being away from home, although I have only the most tenuous understanding of what that may be like. Moving to a safe distance from the deteriorating relationship between my two parents, which also manifests in an increasingly problematic relationship with me, seems like a plan. I pack my trunk full of books and clothes and box up my hi-fi and they get sent slowly to Manchester by rail. I leave after them but arrive before them. Rail freight in those days is pretty slow and clunky.
In the late 1970s it is a good time to be a student. Your fees are paid, and the local council gives you a generous grant. In my first two years there is also a parental contribution but my dad comes up with the dough,at least to begin with. The council also pays for one train trip there, and one train trip back, each term. Fundamentally, particularly by comparison with today, students are loaded. There are one or two times where I get slightly reckless with my money given how much there is of it, and that I’ve never had to budget before. Those lovely people, the banks, are very keen to set me up with a credit card which leads to the odd tricky financial moment. But by the end of my degree I have no student debt and a summer job to go to.
My dad drives me up to Manchester at the beginning of the first term. I have a place at St Anselm Hall of Residence and there is already someone at the hall I know. PT was in the year above me at school. He was pretty much the first person I spoke to on arriving at Goffs and coincidentally he is the first person we meet when we arrive, as he is something of a big wheel at ‘Slems’ (as the hall is affectionately known by its student occupants) so he is doing the meeting and greeting. The hall is male-only and organized on traditional lines with a whiff of Oxbridge – we are required to wear academic gowns at mealtimes, for example. That part of college life I am fairly instantly at home with as it is reminiscent of the closed society that was my prep school days, so I fit right in.
I also manage to make some good friends that first year – NB, AH, AK, MD and JB in particular. Domestically, all is warm and secure. There are no evening meals at weekends but we have little gas rings on our corridors to cook with, and there is a pie and chip shop round the corner, always with long, studenty queues on a Sunday night.
Being in the city itself is quite exciting, although I never make as much of the opportunity as I might. I’ve had the chance to return a few times recently and although Manchester has changed quite a bit it’s still one of the places that feel like home. Norwich, where I live now does. Manchester does. Chonburi does. Central London feels like my stomping ground when I’m there – in fact coming back to London as Natasha is generally a blast. Cuffley, believe you me, doesn’t feel like home – I couldn’t wait to get out of the place.
The shops in Manchester are good, and so are the pubs, and the student gigs. I have beery fun getting to know my friends, but then there is the course itself …
I do not enjoy the course. I am prepared to concede that part of that is down to me, but part of that is also down to them. The part that is them is the structure of the course. At the time Manchester offers a very traditional course in English Language and Literature conceived along Oxbridge lines, which I hadn’t fully appreciated in advance. You do the lot – starting poems in Old English such as The Dream of the Rood which begins
Hwæt! Ic swefna cyst secgan wylle,
hwaet me gemætte to midre nihte,
syðþan reordberend reste wunedon!
(I know, I know!)
… and ending three years later at the Second World War, with the grudging option to squeeze in the odd thing that’s more recent. I overstate the situation slightly, but that’s how it feels, as though books are cascading onto my head from a huge library bookshelf.
Teaching … is variable. Tutorials (again Oxbridge style) are often OK, depending on the tutor. Lectures are often dull. I remember one particular lecturer on Shakespeare, although I forget his name. He would read dialogue from the plays with his two index-fingers raised and proceeded as follows.
- First speaker (male) – read speech in basso profundo voice, wiggle left finger.
- Second speaker (female) – read speech in ridiculous high-pitched squeaky voice, wiggle right finger.
- Ignore titters from audience as they will subside in successive weeks from sheer boredom.
In tutorials, this same lecturer would sigh about Shakespeare and say “Well, I suppose we must see the plays performed sometimes”, i.e. he’d really rather that didn’t have to happen and we could just sit in our rooms and contemplate the texts. This kind of thing sets the tone for me – some (though not all) of the lecturers would really rather the rest of the world would just stay away. In my second year there is controversy along the departmental corridors when Monty Python‘s Terry Jones has the cheek to write a book on Chaucer. Dilletante. I remember one of my tutors talking angrily (and inaccurately) about that naughty man “Terry Palin” …
So I don’t find much of the teaching engaging, and I find the amount I am supposed to read daunting. This becomes much more intimidating in the second year which is filled with giant eighteenth and nineteenth century novels.
I pretty much cope in the first year, although I find seminars and tutorials increasingly intimidating, and start to speak in them less and less. I am daunted by the apparent confidence of many of my fellow students – unlike at A-level, I no longer know what I think about anything. Outside of Slems I find social life (particularly girls) scary, although I do get involved with drama, for which Manchester is getting a high profile, as you will see. I am soon to be rubbing shoulders (slightly) with a star of tomorrow ….