Saturday, 20 October 2012

Ways an English Literature Degree Will Ruin Your Life

As I’m sure most of you reading will know, I am the proud ‘owner’ (if that is the right word) of a BA in English Literature. Now, I know what you’re thinking: My GOD, Katt, how are you unemployed*? I know, I know, shocking.
            Anyway, even though my degree did morph me into a walking cliché, being that I am now a qualified English teacher, I loved it. I don’t even care how nerdy I sound when I say I really love reading and want ALL the words in my face as fast as humanly possible. However, there are certain ways I have noticed my perceptions of the world being changed by studying literature.
            Technically this blog should be entitled ‘Ways reading will ruin your life’, but a. I don’t want to make reading sound like a bad thing; and b. I want my £10,000 piece of paper to have SOME practical use – i.e. this blog dedicated to it.
            Here is a list of the most prominent dangers to look out for should you study/ plan on studying literature at any point in your life. If anyone has any more to add, I would thoroughly enjoy reading them too!

*I’m not actually unemployed. I stand around wearing an oversized yellow uniform, attempting to look fierce for a security company. But it’s only part-time and casual so I think I’m OK to claim otherwise for comic effect.

Unrealistic expectations of relationships:

One of the more obvious reasons a literature degree can ruin your life is by creating an unrealistic slant on relationships you may become involved in. I’m sure here I should probably be writing about Heathcliffe and Cathy and that kind of thing, but I’ll be honest and say I have never got through Wuthering Heights ever. I’m sure I should like it considering the level of weirdness and necrophilia involved (SERIOUSLY!!!) but no.
            I know this point is totally hypocritical coming from me given my pathological hatred of romcoms for this precise reason (don’t even get me STARTED on Bridesmaids... actually, I may write a blog dedicated to the rage that film invokes in me). But this is my blog and I can be as big of a hypocrite as I like so there.
            ANYWAY, I defy anyone to have read a book and not thought ‘ohh if only’ when reading about a wonderful romantic encounter. In novels, particularly the ones I used to fawn over from Medieval times, you’ll always find true love conquering and being a motivation for a whole range of different conquests. However, it is not from the expecting wonderful romance forever stance that I make this point...
            Think of the last book you read that involved a relationship. DID ONE OF THEM DIE?! DID ONE OF THEM LEAVE?! All of the most perfect relationships in literature end HORRIBLY. I really wanted to put in some examples here, but then I figured I might ruin several novels for you. The point I am trying to make is that if you’re lucky enough to be in love, perhaps it would be wise to invest in people-sized bubble wrap, and watch the skies for falling pianos and suchlike. And that sniffle he/ she has developed? SEND THEM TO THE DOCTOR. NOW.

Never look at violence the same

SWORD FIGHTING. How crazy manly is that? Nothing can show your hatred of another person better than thrusting a sword straight into them. Oh wait, no... a degree in literature will teach you that ANYTHING involving swords/ arrows/ needles/ stabby things/ basically anything that goes into another person for the purpose of hurting them is sexual. Taking some examples from some of my best scoring essays:

On Dracula: Sorry, I am going to ruin Dracula for you here if you haven’t read it. Incidentally, if you haven’t read it, you are not missing out on anything. Every time something exciting starts to happen, they have a meeting about it and suck all the fun out of it. It’s like foreplay followed by a running commentary and evaluation of the situation at hand rather than just finishing the job. In short, an unsatisfying read.
            Where was I... Oh yes, at the end of ‘Dracula’, the ‘gang’ manage to successfully stab Dracula in the heart and he dies and the world is safe again (may be slightly paraphrased). That sounds alright doesn’t it? My essay concluded that Dracula was the real winner because, even though he died, he was penetrated by the man whom he loved all along.
            Given the heavily sexual subtext running below the surface of ‘Dracula’, I don’t think this was entirely unreasonable to argue, and if you do read it, then you will probably notice a certain degree of effeminacy to the antagonist, which could well be indicative of homosexual tendencies.

On WW1: This is my literary baby. If it’s a novel about WW1, guaranteed I have either read it, or will devour it as soon as I hear of its existence. But even WW1 is not free from the clutches of violent sexual imagery. Frequently soldiers in WW1 novels (just as they would have in real life) noted how they were virgins and, should they die, then they would never know the touch of a woman (or man, or horse, or whatever should take their fancy).
            As you can probably imagine, these characters often find themselves torn apart by shrapnel. Which is death by penetration. Which is obviously them being violently raped by war. Boom. (Excuse the pun).

Do you think I enjoy this inability to read ANYTHING serious and not be weighing up the innuendo and sexual imagery?! Stupid question... I do most of the time. But still, as is the case with the previous example, it can be HEAVILY inappropriate! And don’t even get me STARTED on Arthurian battles.

Unhealthy obsessions with past events

This is something I have already touched on, but literature can leave you feeling in some way connected to past and/ or fictionalised events, in a way you really have no business being connected to. In my case, this falls into two major areas: WW1 and King Arthur.
            I am sure historians feel the same way about whichever period they feel most interested in, but the method by which you learn as a literature student differs. Almost everything I learned about WW1 came from novels. Now, even the most thoroughly researched, accurate novel cannot escape the inevitable emotional ties to characters readers may feel. If you’re reading about WW1 in a text book, you’re going to be faced with facts such as how 60,000 people died on the first day of the Somme, and you might say “oh no, that’s a big number” because 60,000 is, essentially, just a number and the concept of that representing an amount of lives lost is incomprehensible. Though you can appreciate fully that it was a horrific event in an abstract way, you’re not necessarily emotionally invested.
            When you learn about these things through the medium of literature, YOU WERE THERE, MAN. Characters you have grown close to over a period of maybe hundreds of pages are dying horribly in front of your eyes. Tears are streaming down your face as you’ve found yourself in a shell hole filled with dying and decaying bodies, moaning for the end to come or so disfigured you cannot tell even which side they were fighting for. To make it worse, the book is written in third person, over the shoulder narration, which means there is a strong likelihood that the character you are sharing thoughts with is going to die too in the end. And to make it EVEN worse, you know that everything you’re reading is based on FACT so you can’t even tell yourself it’s only a story.
            While studying for A Levels, I became so intensely engrossed in WW1 that I would frequently argue about how much of a travesty it was that it was not commonly taught in schools. It got so bad that I lost my faith in everything: humanity, the country, religion. I was having nightly nightmares from The Front and bursting into tears every time I read ‘Dulce et Decorum Est’. (It got so bad that my mum banned me from reading any more WW1 texts for fear I was going insane, and bought me some timid novels about dogs and autographs).
            Anyway, my point here is that if you’re studying literature, you never know when an obsession may strike and then, before you know it, you’re full on living in a past dreamt up from the pages of a novel.

Empathy for the clinically insane

I’m sure we’ve all heard the phrase “an unreliable narrator”. I spent a long while explaining the concept to my A Level classes during my five months as a teacher. Often this is fairly harmless and occurs most frequently in first-person narration. It can merely be the case that your opinion of another character is entirely based upon the character you’re following’s observations, and these may well turn out to be not all they seem. Or you may start to realise that thoughts don’t quite add up and make sense. Take ‘Hamlet’ for example. At first, the eponymous character’s father died a few months back; by Act 4, he is claiming it was a matter of days before!
            Anyway, some of the greatest novels (in my sick and twisted opinion) are those that make you uncomfortable. I’m not necessarily talking about unreliable narrators; I’m talking about protagonists who are most definitely not quite right. The most obvious example that springs to mind is ‘A Clockwork Orange’. Once you’ve managed to unpick Burgess’ web of prose, you’re at one with Alex’s psyche. Given Alex’s lust for ‘rape and ultraviolence’, it seems bizarre that you may grow attached to someone who is so abhorable. But in spite of yourself, you will almost certainly find yourself rooting for him.
            More disturbingly is the effect of ‘American Psycho’. The film adaptation sees Christian Bale rather fabulously hacking his peers to bits in quite a tongue-in-cheek manner. Come on, who hasn’t laughed at the bit where the naked chick runs down the stairs as Bale chases after her, crazed and wielding a chainsaw. The book is absolutely not funny in any way, shape or form, and it is one of the most difficult books I’ve ever read. The most horrific murders are left out of the film adaptation, but on a number of occasions, I had to stop reading for a while lest my eyes widen to the point of falling out of their sockets.
            The part that is not different from the film though, and that is the most disturbing about the novel, is that you don’t hate Patrick Bateman. Not even when he’s wandering around a dead guy’s flat with a dead woman’s head stuck on his still-erect penis do you think ‘this guy is awful’. Or perhaps that was just me and my questionable taste in men.

There are many more reasons a literature degree can ruin your life. For example, I was going to write a section on how it makes you sound like a pretentious dick-hole by accident, but I feel this speaks for itself in my casual referral to famous texts. Also in my passionate hatred of ‘King Lear’ even though it’s, like, ohmygod, totally famous and Shakespearian. BUT I decided that the angles I have covered were enough to get my general point across and I hope you have enjoyed ploughing through this – belated – blog post.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

How to Fail Your Driving Test

Those of you reading this who know me, will know that I have a special talent for embarrassing myself spectacularly given half the chance to do so. So I thought, what better way to open this blog, than with an account of all the magical ways I found to fail my driving test.

Driving test number 1 was the stuff of legend amongst my friends for a while and, gradually, I learnt to laugh at my idiocy. I was 17 years old, and had been learning to drive for about 9 months. I felt so certain that I would definitely have built up enough motoring prowess to pass, and I was convinced that my parents would definitely love me more if I passed my test at 17 (not that they didn’t love me anyway, I just felt it was always a failing in my family’s eyes that my knowledge of cars extended solely to what colour they were and if I found them aesthetically pleasing).
            SO, on the way to my driving test, I was feeling pretty nervous, but also quietly confident. I was a driving GODDESS. Better than at least 99% of drivers on Sutton-In-Ashfield’s roads. What’s more, I was going to ace this test with no minors. Such was my ideal scenario as played out in my head.
            HOWEVER, somewhat inevitably, things did not go to plan... I drove out of the test centre and turned left as directed. I drove towards the traffic lights I was to eventually turn right at as I was told to, and as I approached, they turned amber. Somewhere in the murky depths of my useless brain, I remembered my instructor telling me that if the lights turn amber as you approach them, it can be safer to continue than to stop. This certainly does not apply when you’re driving at about 20mph up a hill, with no cars behind you, and the light turns amber with a plentiful stopping distance. I thought it would impress my luminously-clad examiner and show him how confident a driver I was if I drove through it. My foot went down on the accelerator; his foot went down on the dual-control brake.
            I knew full-well that as soon as the examiner uses the dual-controls, the test is failed. But as I sat at the traffic lights at the crossroads I was to turn right at, I convinced myself that it was OK; that because the test had only been going for about 2 minutes and I wouldn’t have actually killed anyone if I had been allowed to go through, I might still get away with my error.
            The lights turned red and amber, and then green. I drove out into the middle of the crossroads, and turned the wheel right... almost into the path of a car travelling straight on from the opposite direction. Again, the examiner’s foot slammed onto the brake until there was a safe gap for me to turn right through. I hadn’t been taught about the rule RE: roads with no arrow filter, where you have to wait. Shaken, I exited the crossroads, and my examiner asked me to pull over when I found a safe place. A normal part of any driving test, so I wasn’t overly fazed. That is, until he uttered the immortal words that will remain etched in my memory for all eternity:

“In the interests of public safety, I am terminating this examination.”

That was it. In under five minutes, I had accumulated a serious fault, and a dangerous fault, bad enough to earn me the mythical ‘walk-back’. I trotted behind the examiner in his fluorescent DSA jacket, with every resident of the town knowing precisely what must have happened, until I got back to the test centre and had to wait with one of the other driving instructors (whose student passed, if you were wondering) until mine returned. And that is how test #1 ended up.

My second driving test occurred in the September after the first one. Sadly, I was feeling MUCH less confident this time around, but secretly hoped that my humbleness would be rewarded with a blue certificate. I’d given myself a pep-talk in the bathroom mirror and told myself that I would NEVER make a mistake while driving ever again ever.
            True to form, I stalled while pulling out of the test centre. I then drove as carefully as I could around the rest of Sutton, until I was asked to perform a parallel park. I had never messed one of those up, like, EVER. Even the first time I ever did one, I was fine. So when she told me to pull up alongside the silver car and park behind it, I was secretly rejoicing. I slowly edged up beside the silver car (I can’t mix up my vocabulary as, like I explained before, I remember nothing more than the colours). I reversed and checked my blind spot before spinning the wheel left, then right, then left again and beautifully into position....
            HA as if that’s what happened. After I checked my blind spot, I turned the wheel left, then left it way too late before turning it the other way, so I bumped the kerb. Then repeatedly tried to rectify it for the next several minutes before the examiner said: “OK, I think I’ve seen enough. We’ll leave it there for now shall we? Drive on and follow the road ahead.”
            She was so nice about it that I thought maybe she really was letting me off the hook, having seen how gracefully and non-swearily I handled the situation. I was so busy concentrating on how nice she’d been that I forgot to look when turning at a T junction. Nothing happened! But it certainly was one of the things listed at the end of the test.
            Yes, I made it through the entire 40 minute test. But in that 40 minutes, I had managed to accumulate 1 dangerous fault, 2 serious faults, and 16 minors. Considering you’re only allowed a maximum of 15 minors in one test to pass, I had failed on FOUR COUNTS. Impressive.

This test occurred nearly a year after test #2, as shortly after taking test #2, I had had a little mishap while practicing with my dad, where I had misjudged the speed of traffic entering a roundabout and then I don’t really remember much apart from being stranded in the middle of the roundabout with a car beeping at me and my dad desperately trying to pull the handbrake on. I didn’t crash thanks to the quick reactions of the beeping car, but it was very close and I took a few well-earned months off driving.
Anyway, once I felt confident enough to start driving again, I had a new instructor and a new test booked. My examiner for test number 3 took an instant dislike to me on account of the fact that at my ‘towering’ height of 5 foot 2.8 inches, I was about a head taller than him. He made a point of telling me before we had even got to the car that he had a wife and a child. To be honest, I was concentrating more on not vomming up the snakes of nervousness whirling around in my stomach, than on whether or not this man with a chip on his shoulder was getting laid.
This time I made it to the end of the road before I stalled the car. Go me. The first time I was aware I had failed this test (oh come on, you knew where this was going; that wasn’t a spoiler!) was when I was driving down a road with traffic parked on both sides. Another car came pelting from ahead on the other side of the road, and I had to make the “difficult” decision of whether to drive sliiightly too close to the parked cars on my side, or crashing into the oncoming car. Apparently my decision to do the former was wrong(?!) and as soon as the car had passed me, the examiner gently touched my steering wheel and told me I was too close to the parked cars. Examiner intervention = test fail. Again.
I was pretty cross because I was (and still am) sure I was in the right, but nevertheless I continued on with the test for the experience if nothing else. Driving along the dual carriageway, the examiner asked me to “take the next exit, by the traffic lights.” There were traffic lights about half a mile in the distance, so I got ready to indicate to come off, when I noticed a slip road appear to my left. I asked, confused, if this was the one he meant. He said it was, so I swerved haphazardly onto it, forgetting to actually change into a gear and ended up revving in neutral for a moment, entirely losing control of the car for several seconds.
            The result of at the end of the test was one serious fault, two dangerous faults, and seven minors. Well. At least I hadn’t failed on minors...!!

Test number four occurred after a two-and-a-bit year gap. Once I could afford to buy myself driving lessons in university, and I’d realised I would need to be able to drive should I get a job, I decided it was high time I got this pesky test over with. After about six months of lessons, I found myself in a new waiting room, awaiting my fourth examiner.
            In-keeping with tradition, I stalled as we left the test centre. However, the examiner, having seen how desperately nervous I was (seriously, I was white as a sheet and shaking so much I’d dropped the car keys twice while getting into the car), kindly told me to turn off the ignition, take a deep breath, and start again.
            WELL. I had the test from hell. As soon as I’d left the test centre, there were policemen on motorbikes whizzing about all over, directing traffic. Then we entered a queue of traffic, and as soon as that had begun to clear, an ambulance came tearing up behind me and I had to deal with that. Then, about 5 minutes later, a car broke down in front of me and I had to manoeuvre around it. Then, when I merged onto the dual carriageway, it was busy despite being early afternoon. Then a lorry broke down in front of me just as I was getting ready to exit. After this, I was asked to reverse around a VERY steep, VERY tight corner, and to do an emergency stop. Then I approached a left-hand bend and encountered a mahooosive lorry waiting to turn out of it and blocking it off. Guess how many seriouses I had? None. I had passed all of these things absolutely fine, with only a handful of minors.
            My fail occurred at Culverhouse Cross. I was asked to turn left when the lights turned green. Dutifully, I turned left as instructed, and then came face to face with pedestrian crossing markings on the road, and red lights either side, so I stopped. A moment later, I realised that the red lights were for the traffic on the opposite side of the junction, and had a car NOT chosen that moment to drive behind me from where I’d just come from, I would have got a minor. But, in true Katt-style, it was another test-failing serious. The examiner did note that she wished she could have just given me a slap rather than a fail, so I suppose I win in the most minor way possible.

Test number five was my lucky one. Despite going the wrong way* in the bit where I was supposed to direct myself in accordance to a map the examiner had shown me, and despite positioning too close to the centre line when turning on a tight, right hand bend, the examiner saw it in his heart to pass me with two minors. BOOM.

And that, ladies and gentleman, is how to fail a driving test four times, in the most spectacular ways possible.

*certainly a sign of things to come.