16 September 2011

Tunnelling out of prison with a spoon

What was unacceptable to people in my attitude to my situation when I was thrown out at the end of the ruined education is still unacceptable today. So here is how it arose.

When I was thrown out without a paper qualification to enter any suitable academic career, I accepted that my life was ruined and that I had certainly, but for the existential uncertainty, lost my destiny. And that might be expected to lead to the dropout position; you are excluded from the sort of career which you need to have, society offers no ways, so (perhaps) you will give up on trying to get anything out of life and drift around until you are dead. But while on the face of it I had lost my destiny, at the same time I knew that I would pursue it however hopelessly, recognising that I still needed academic status and a hotel environment, and that, unless and until I got them from a university appointment as a Professor or at least a Research Fellow with a high salary, I would aim to make the money with which to buy for myself an institutional environment with ancillary staff.

The fact that I saw myself as working towards what I needed to re-start my life does not, and never did, arouse any sympathy.

I saved half my pay at the Society for Psychical Research (reduced as it was by taxation), which was something like £8 a week. Doing so, I aimed at an independent research establishment with ancillary staff. Eighteen months later I would have grants to support my studentship at Trinity College, Cambridge, and save half of those as well, but for the first 18 months I was saving half of only my salary.

This aroused no sympathy; no one that I had known in the past came to enquire how I had got into so terrible a position or to offer help of any kind. Even former teachers such as Miss Bookey and the Reverend Mother, who had once supported me in a meaningful way, stayed away and kept silent, implicitly reinforcing the idea that my rejection by the University of Oxford was realistic and not anomalous.

I remember the horror with which I viewed my position; at least, I remember that I did view it with horror, although as my position now is somewhat alleviated I cannot entirely reproduce the feeling at that time. I had never intended to become an outcast without hope of return, but it had happened, and existentially that was what I now was. All I could do to help myself was to save what I could from my permitted cash at the end of each day to add to my capital. Another few shillings towards the cost of at least one residential college and at least one research department. Hopelessly disproportionate, of course, but that was what I was aiming at.

I have never met anyone who reacted in this way towards being thrown out: starting to build up the necessary capital to buy what one might otherwise have got by having the right sort of career in a university. Other people ‘get used’ to the sort of life they can have as dropouts, adopting compensatory ‘interests’ or social life, and expressing philosophical acceptance of their situation. Or else they become drugged zombies, in which case they, too, express philosophical attitudes towards their position.