Chapter 1: Balliol College, Oxford.


“Prior to sudden death it’s believed that your whole life briefly flashes before your eyes. Prior to death by cancer it is somewhat similar, except that you have time to write some of it down.”


Last night I dined in the Great Hall at Balliol College, Oxford. For a godless Cornish git like me who attended a jumped-up Polytechnic in the North East of England, it all seems reassuringly just like the Harry Potter films promised it would be.  Long wooden tables with benches, great vaulted ceilings high above, stained glass, dark wainscoting and of course the constant veneer of oil portraits all around the hall. I arrived before dinner in plenty of time to peruse the great canvases and slowly made my way around pausing briefly in front of each work. Heath, MacMillan, Jenkins. Politicians, oh well. I had hoped for a Dawkins or a Hitchens. Too soon perhaps?

I would have made a great academic me; I have my own tweed jacket and everything. I was once attending a science lecture at the RI after work (when I worked in London), and the young lady next to me, who I had never met before, asked “Excuse me, are you a Geography teacher?” I’m not. I normally confess my profession to be “freelance IT Consultant” as that portrays just enough dullness and familiarity to stunt any further questioning on the matter. A more accurate description for those who insist on digging a little deeper would involve an awfully monotonous discussion on the definition of software testing strategies and the management of test engineers to allow organisations some degree of confidence when deploying their shiny new IT system. There’s nothing the technology journalists like more than a large failed IT project lying on its back with its uncoupled interfaces flailing in the air, especially big titillating public sector ones like the ones I seem to end up managing.

At present though I’m working on a major new computer system within the IT services department at The University of Oxford. It suits me well. It also affords me the opportunity to strut around Oxford in my Harris Tweed, waiving my university card at the porters to gain access to their college grounds. I often spend my lunch breaks in the shadows of a dreamy spire or two eating my overpriced artisan sandwich kindly dispensed by a local Hipster. There’s no better place to silently contemplate what a marvellous professor I would have made, whilst fishing out extremely well-groomed beard hairs from my lunch.

There’s a garage on the A34, south of Oxford that I often stop off at on my home for fuel. I normally exchange a bit of light friendly banter with the jolly chap who works there whilst stocking up on extra strong mints and getting the VAT receipts that my accountant fixates about. On one of our early encounters he clearly clocked the shabby tweed, my general disheveled demeanor and, crucially, my Oxford University lanyard dangling around my frayed twill check collar. He enquired as to what I lectured in. Missing the immediate opportunity to pass myself off as sage old professor I simply confessed to working for the Universities IT Services department. My appearance however clearly trumped my frank confession as on my subsequent visit to top up on diesel he commented again on the professorship he had now clearly assigned to me; I didn’t correct him this time. My failure to set him straight on that occasion of course made it harder to correct him on future occasions, and to be honest; I was rather starting to enjoy the harmless role-play. Without blatantly lying, I concocted plausible and (fairly) honest answers to his various questions on academic life, exams and students with just enough ambiguity so as not to break the spell. In the impending event of more specific questions on my particular area of expertise I pondered what I should be a professor of. Perhaps Evolutionary Biology, as I have read a fair few popular science books on the subject, or perhaps Particle Physics. I’ve read a little bit about that too, and I’m pretty sure I could blag it when he asks. Yes, bugger it, I’m going with Particle Physics. I shall be on the cusp of a breakthrough of the theory of everything that has so far eluded Stephen Hawking. I shall finally combine Einstein’s general relativity with Max Planck’s quantum theory. I shall have a new and devilishly cunning idea as to how gravity can be successfully implemented into the standard model along with the weak and strong nuclear forces and the electromagnetic force. I shall read up some more on it, well at least enough to understand what that last sentence means, or indeed if it makes any sense at all. I shall be ready for him. I shall be a Physics God, but without the grinning shiny face and Manchurian accent. I shall amaze him with my profound insights into the wonders of the universe. I’m ready for his next question. Alas, he never asked again.

So I may not be a respected old academic at the University of Oxford, or even it seems, a terribly convincing impersonator of one. Nonetheless, as a member of university staff, even as a freelancer, I get to go to the annual department Christmas dinner at one of the colleges, and this year we’ve bagged Balliol.

Dinner was fine by the way. So long as there’s a piece of dead cow and a cheese board somewhere on the menu I’m a happy bunny. However, after last night’s culinary indulgence I’m still feeling completely bloody knackered. In fact, I’ve been feeling absolutely bolloxed all year. It’s clearly the commute. As much as I love Oxford and my academic fantasies, the daily drive from my small hamlet on Salisbury Plain to Oxford is a complete and utter pain in arse. I tried getting the train instead for a few weeks, but the service was just as unreliable as the A34. Being stranded at Pewsey station staring in vain at the cancellation board turned out to be even more tedious than staring at the back of a queue stationary lorries on the A34 northbound.

So as much as I love Oxford, the answer is clearly to find another job with a slightly shorter commute. My role at the University is coming to an end soon anyway. Most of the system I have been working on over the last 3 years is now up and running. There’s just a few loose ends to tidy up before the programme winds up. Three years also seems like an entirely appropriate amount of time to spend at Oxford. I’d therefore started to look for my next role a few months back. Maybe I should go back to a permanent position this time? Get my teeth into a really meaty programme of work, one that’s not so bloody far away at least. Furthermore, who can predict what the future may hold, I’ve really enjoyed freelancing but it could well be good time to go back to the safety and security of a permanent role, with sick pay and health insurance – you never know.

I’d been to interviews, second interviews, even a third interview for one role and I’ve completed assessments and tests for three different roles and much to my pleasant surprise I had actually received offers for all three roles over the last two weeks. Having eliminated the least appealing role, I’d spent the previous weekend weighing up the pros and cons of my two finalists. After much deliberation, and canvassing of opinion on Facebook, I had finally settled on an exciting and senior position as an Integration & Verification Architect on an Air Traffic Control system based close to the South coast. It’s not the Particle Physicist Professor Role I had in mind, but its impressive enough to regale the nearby garage forecourt attendant should he ever ask. The location may be a lot closer than Oxford, but trading my lunch breaks at The Pitt Rivers, The Bodleian and The Ashmolean for a Wagamama and a Subway on large business park is a tough ask. Still, I’m, knackered, the commute’s killing me, it’s time to bite the bullet. I rang the agent yesterday morning and accepted the new role.

I’ve still got a month left at Oxford though and there’s things to do. I have three consecutive meetings this afternoon for example. To ensure maximum comfort during my afternoon meetings I popped into the toilets quickly to empty my bladder before my meeting marathon. I stood facing the large white Victorian porcelain urinal and watched in dismay as I pissed a thick crimson stream of blood.




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