Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Shelf stacking? Yes, please.

Okay, so today I am struggling. The combined weight of assessments, work, bills and social arrangements are really starting to cement the creases in my forehead. The phrase "You students get it so easy" is chucked around so much, and I can believe it from looking at some of those beside me, but I'd really love it if someone could tell me the secret.

As far as I can tell being a student is the most stressful time in your life, if you make the choice to go do it. I'm going to have to speak from my own experience here and I admit I'm not the most organised person in the world, nor the best with money, but I still cannot see where the "easy" bit is.

Year One: First term for my degree was reasonably laid back, sure; introductory lectures, a few cheapy assessments, but mostly just going over everything to make certain people are on the same level. I went out a bit too much, pissed off a lot of people, made friends with others. Instantly though I found myself running out of cash and had to get a job. So, a recommended 40 hours of study per week, plus 14 hours in a shop. Obviously it's your own choice how much study you do, so let's say I was around the 30 hours combined. Christmas passes and things step up a gear - a few more assessments and now you also have to think about finding somewhere to live. The remainder of the year is spent finding this house, passing your exams and working out how you're going to afford the summer rent (with no grant money for the summer period), how you're going to move your stuff, and where you'll live for the inevitable gap between your halls contract running out and your rented private digs kicking in.

Year Two: My course set off at a blistering pace for what, technically, should be the easiest year. My house was sorted for the remainder of the degree, job to keep me ticking over, and spare time to study. This is all fine except for trying to get time off at Christmas to travel the 300 miles home to see family for said job leads to argument with boss and me being a melodramatic tosser and storming out. Sudden bloody rush to find another job three week's before the stockings are filled. Year two ends a few months later with more panicking about paying summer's rent. Any stress here was probably my own doing, admittedly.

Year Three: The real hell pit. I find myself at the top of this week with the following things on my mind: three different assessments to be completed for Friday; graduate applications to be filled in with appropriate inspirational gaff; bills to pay; hours to work at my third job in as many years; house to tidy; housemate's Mum to fob off on the phone because I have no idea when he'll ever return; seminar and lecture work; readings; xmas gifts to buy; and maybe what I'm going to eat and how I'll fund that. Top this all with the exams after the holidays right around the time the lettings agent is going to start showing other students around my house as though I'm being moved into a retirement home in a few months. Then, with my difficulty of distance, at the very end of it all I have to work out where to live in the two week gap there happens to be between the end of my tenancy and my graduation. Really what I want to think about during my finals.

Of course, I'm just moaning about nothing you might reply, only eight months to go. I'll tell you truthfully that I'd rather be managing a mortgage, three kids, and a 40 hour week at this moment, because it's easier than this. I see a lot of students going out, relaxing, doing lunch and all that ra-ra, but I truly can't see how they have the time nor the capital to do it. There seems to be a huge, almighty bank of Mum and Dad out there available to so many young adults. I've been bailed out in an emergency, I'll admit to that, but it's the monthly and sometimes weekly payments a lot of my fellow attendees receive that make me wonder what actually goes through a lot of these minds. They will agree with me that University is stressful, yet I think the stress is astoundingly relieved with a standing order to your debit card.

I eat cereal, bread, pizzas, and curries. I have not bought an item of clothing in nearly a year. I could not afford more than two pints once a week and even that would be at a sacrifice of milk and essay writing time. Those of you that think being a student in the "noughties" is easy had better think again. There is a generation of students like me that have been screwed by loans, high property prices, joblessness, expensive public transport, ridiculously priced supermarkets, falling contact hours of learning, and privatisation.

A brief look at will confirm a lot of what I'm rambling on about, to you. They marvellously provide some quick stats for all you budding social economics lovers. Average student debt on graduation: £23k; 40% have to get a job while studying; large number of students seeking therapy with 10% suicidal. This site is a fantastic resource for those feeling the sting of the ticking time bomb that your brain has become, so long as you're not like me and actually do something about the problems face. Things could be worse, I could be doing a real science degree.

Why do students go home to a 9 - 5 at Tesco? To be stress free I'll bet.

Illustration by Hannah Wallace

Monday, 7 December 2009

Good news is no news

Congratulations! We saved the planet! Really, I'm not even being slightly sarcastic. Granted it's only on one specific point, but we, the human race, actually accomplished something together.

Still not sure what I'm talking about? Do you all really have sieves for memories? Alas it appears you have forgotten all about our precious ozone layer. Bang! There it is. Now you are recalling the headline after headline, the countless news bulletins, all the graphs and scientists; all talking about the massive hole being burnt into the ozone layer like a lit cigarette being stubbed out on an eyeball. Many a sharp intake of breath was broadcast as questions were asked as to what was happening and what it meant for us, the sentient beings of the Earth. CFC gases! That was the problem. Too many companies making products with absolutely no regard for the atmosphere: hairsprays, deodorants, air fresheners, fridges; all laying about the place letting off gas and not giving a flying toss. These CFC's were all meeting up in the upper atmosphere, you see, and having a party with the planet's protective layer more wretched than male students dirtying up your daughter in freshers' week. The problem with this huge hole, apart from having to wear factor 4,000 sun cream, is that it was right over Antarctica, and so all those extra UV's were nuking the place and making it melt somewhat. The message was simple: cut the crap, get rid of the CFC's, and we'd all be fine.

A decade or so later and we've done it. Yes, there are still some nasty gases about, but the main point is that we're back at recovery levels and the hole is closing up, healing itself (according to several reports, including this one in The Guardian). Celebration time, right? Wrong! Because guess what, that massive hole was actually acting as a big chimney for all the nasty greenhouse gases we're churning out. It was letting the UV rays in, in exchange for the heat out. So in return for repairing the damage done we've effectively placed the lid back on a dry pan with the gas on full. Sheer, ironic brilliance.

The thing is that I'm suddenly not so concerned with global warming because it has proved that if we all pull together, buy the right products, think about what we use, lobby the right people; we can actually achieve something. Why wasn't a bigger deal made out of it in the news? Simply because it's good news. Fixing a hole is never going to make a headline spot when there's global warming danger, riots at Copenhagen's summit, and Tiger Woods' marital affairs to compete with.

Illustration by Hannah Wallace

Saturday, 5 December 2009


The Christmas run did begin again and dispelled myths that St. Nick had cancelled the event this year. Aside from the usual complaints about it occurring earlier per annum I was more delighted to read about the possible decline of "celebrity" autobiographies (I use the "auto" prefix in the loosest term") in an article in The Independent the other week. Apparently sales are slumping for the, majority ghost-written, celeb life stories this year, and I am forced to agree with Liz Thomson in welcoming what we hope will be the end of an era. There is so much wrong with the autobiography craze that it's difficult to know where to start complaining. Forgive me for being pompous, but just for today I'll give it a go…

First and foremost is the age that these celebrities are: Kate Price, her books now virtually part of traditional Crimbo decorations, is releasing her fourth incarnation this year at only 31 years old; Fernando Torres, the baby-faced Liverpool striker, is 25 (check a wonderful review on the Amazon page, praising how "interesting font sizez [sic] and colours are used unlike the normal ones found in books"); and Leona Lewis is making her first outing at just 24 years old. I mean, seriously, how much can there really be to write about? What do you really remember about your pre-teenage life? Enough for a couple of chapters full of the odd memory, probably. So you've got ten or fifteen years to play around with in Times New Roman. Big deal.

What have these people really achieved? I'm sure they've had to overcome marvellous difficulties to get where they are now, i.e. B-D list, but quite frankly I don't believe that John Barrowman has had to push through difficulties similar to, say, Lance Armstrong. This is where the age argument does break down somewhat, because there are genuinely good life stories and achievements out there from younger generations. I just don't happen to agree that starring in Coronation Street since its conception is one of these exceptions.

Sure, I admit, I'm a Top Gear fan, and maybe Richard Hammond's biog about his big crash and, mercifully, his recovery is a wonderful journey of pain and rediscovery. Yet is it really comparable to the title sitting a couple of decimal places away from it in Borders, that of Sir Ranulph Fiennes? Here's a man that's run seven marathons in seven days on seven different continents after major heart surgery, is an accomplished author, served in the British army, has been awarded a second clasp to a Polar Medal, lost various pieces of his body in expeditions, been awarded an OBE, been presented with the Sultan's Bravery Medal while serving with the Omani Army, and despite a fear of heights climbed the Eiger and Mount Everest - of which he is the oldest man to do it. What I'm saying is, while the Hamster's story is probably good, and tears at the heartstrings, perhaps he should wait until he's retired and recount all the good old days in a couple of releases if really necessary.

To be honest, I don't really make enough time to read things other than the papers and books prescribed to me for my course and so there are few biographies, auto or not, that I manage to read. There is one that I have read over the last couple of years though, in both senses of the ambiguity: Memoirs of the Second World War, by Sir Winston Churchill. Now, before you accuse me of being some tory, Daily Mail reading, Murdoch loving plonker, I'd like to retort that it's a stunning book (the abridged version, it's long enough, thank you). Did you know it won the Nobel Prize for Literature? Even if it's biased, it's the most brilliant account of one man's struggle for a voice and leadership, for justice and accuracy, for freedom and the future. This man had an incredible life, and the thousands of pages written within those covers are only about one aspect of a mere twenty years of it. In my view, that's what an autobiography is about. Surely we want to read about men and women who have made their place in history, not what led Frankie Boyle to be "so abusive he's funny".

Maybe I'm really out of touch here. Perhaps these celebs are inspiring our lowly generations to pick themselves out of their crack habits. I can't help thinking of the timing of these publication releases though; yes, they are in time for the Christmas gift nightmare "What do I buy little Sarah?" scenario, but they're also remarkably close to the New Year's Honour's List - and I'm never surprised how closely the best sellers seem to correlate.

Illustration by Hannah Wallace

Smoking: the quitter's habit

So it's been a week.
A week without cigarettes. It's amazing how much more time I feel like I have, and so it's inevitably led to the start of the blog that I said I'd never, ever write. The thing about quitting is that one just has to stay busy at all times to try and beat those ten minute bursts where you can do nothing but think about how much you fancy a smoke.

I, like many others, have this long relationship with quitting smoking more than smoking itself. There's nothing worse than an ex-smoker going about their day complaining about other smokers; I've done it previously. I've lorded around the place passing judgement on those still enjoying the habit, whinged about how hard it is to give up, avoided my favourite drinking holes through fear of wanting one because of feeling like I simply couldn't enjoy the evening without a ciggy in the company of a cold pint. "They" say that once you're a smoker you'll always be one, and it's just a case of whether you actually are engaging in the sordid affair at that current stage in your life or not. I can see what people mean, because I certainly always feel it in the back of my mind somewhere. You feel an emptiness in your lungs, the cold air inside your chest; it takes a moment of realisation to understand that it's clean air filling you instead, and that that warm, thick coating of tar is working its slick way out of your body.

Personally I leave myself notes everywhere to remind me what's going on as the days without the death sticks pass: I'll live longer; my skin will have more colour; things stop stinking like shit; I'll actually feel awake in the mornings; I'll be able to taste and smell again, properly. The list is fantastic and the benefits seem endless. Imagine waking up after nearly a decade to find that you'd misplaced what chocolate really tastes like. The
NHS makes a lovely list of what actually happens:

20 minutes: blood pressure and pulse rate return to normal
8 hours: nicotine and carbon monoxide levels in blood reduce by half, and the oxygen gets back to normal
24 hours: carbon monoxide is gone
48 hours: nicotine gone
72 hours: breathing becomes easier as the bronchial tubes relax
2 to 12 weeks: circulation improves
3 to 9 months: lungs improve by 10%
5 years: heart attack risk falls to about half that of a smoker
10 years: heart attack risk is the same as non-smokers, and lung cancer risk falls to half that of a smoker

All that sounds wonderful, and it is true that you feel better. You can notice the improvement, but you have to look for it. It's so tricky looking at lists like that because everything seems such a long investment of time. Ten years? I'll be 35 - what happens until then? It's quite easy to think, "sod it, I'll take my chances," yet there's one more advantage.

So far, I've saved around £40; if I'd had the cash then I would have definitely spent it on cigarettes. Perhaps that's a huge benefit of being a poor student, I actually couldn't buy any right now even if I was desperate. Doing a quick calculation, I've spent approximately £12,480 on smoking so far in my life. It's an astonishing amount. So by quitting, not thinking about inflation, I've already saved that much over the next ten years.

Enough of the benefit loving, everyone knows it's hard. How does one do it? Patches? Meetings? Cold turkey? It's different for all. I have to just stop, stone cold stop. It's a bastard but I'm here, nearly 25, knowing that I want that extra time in my day, that I want to still have a chance of performing in my forties (or late twenties), and perhaps not do something stupid like die before I'm fifty.

Next time you feel the urge to unload at a smoker, take a step back. Sure, they cost the health system millions each year and you probably don't like the way they smell and breath on you, but they're probably feeling the same way. Not every smoker wants to smoke, they're most likely an habitual quitter like me.

Illustrations by Hannah Wallace