My First Term at University College London, part 2 – (aka – Hominid Man, The Ghost and How Not To Annoy Your Relatives With Your New-found Education).


If you missed Part 1, you can read it here, if only so that you may come to an understanding of the weird psychological effect that teenage communal living was having upon our brains, in the dilapidated loony bin that was Chaos House East. But enough about home life… for this edition I’m going to focus on my actual Archaeology studies and how for the first time in my life, I was learning in a way that truly opened my mind.

Each week was packed full of lectures, and what with Archaeology as a subject being so broad, we studied a variety of different approaches to the topic, including a specialism of our choice. I chose Ancient Greek, as I’d always found Classics fascinating, but the teacher could not have been more uninteresting. Sadly he was also my tutor, but more about him later…

One of my favourite disciplines to study was the evolutionary origins of humans. I can’t remember the exact title of the module, just that it was taught by a pleasant whispery little dude, whom we came to nickname ‘Hominid Man’. I think it was because his facial hair made him look not unlike the various Homo Erectuses and Ergasters that he was teaching us about.

One thing I found particularly fascinating about studying hominids, was the role that diet played in our evolution into the creatures we are now. Until I began studying at UCL, I knew nothing of how agriculture had come about, or what ancient people really ate. I was surprised to learn of the role that meat-eating played, in providing sufficient protein that our brains may grow much larger, endowing us with our homo sapiens intelligence. At the time of this discovery, I had recently become something called a ‘pescatarian’. I had been a committed vegetarian for the previous two years, but had decided to start including fish in my diet, as I had come to the view that I could no longer weigh up the suffering of a prawn with the suffering of a cow. I loved the taste of both, but for me, my vegetarianism was rooted in ethics. I was surprised however, to find that there was a word for people like me, who cared enough about animals to not eat them, but were also totally ok with crustacean murder. But it soon became clear to me however that nobody liked a pescatarian. Vegetarians hated us because we seemed like hypocrites, and meat-eaters hated us because we were basically just half-assed vegetarians. But it was Hominid Man’s lecture that swayed me back to meat-eating for good. I thought long and hard about the realisation that our very species was created on a diet of largely meat, fish, plants, nuts and seeds. It seemed deeply un-natural and un-balanced therefore, to take one of those dietary pillars away. I came to an understanding that there are many ways to care about animals and their welfare, that does not have to involve depriving yourself of animal protein. In fact, I still can’t see how being veggie really saves any animals, rather it just seems to waste them. I confided in my room-mate Arlene about my feelings, and being a staunch carnivore, she thoroughly approved of my new-found viewpoint. “I want to give my body the food that it has evolved to expect” I would enthuse, “the food eaten for tens of thousands of years by my ancestors”.

She agreed that we needed to get some meat down me, and so naturally we went out for a Big Mac…

I won’t spend this write-up arguing the finer points of meat-eating versus vegetarianism, but for me, the point was that it got me thinking for myself and I was able to make a conscious, educated decision, (something that many vegetarians assume meat-eaters have not done). I also came to understand that sometimes there isn’t necessarily a right and a wrong, and that often even the most intelligent ‘experts’ will completely disagree. In such instances, you have to rely on your own ability to weigh up the facts in conjunction with what you already know. This was a completely new experience for me, as our A-Level syllabus was largely geared towards memorising things and teaching us to pass the exam, and on reflection there wasn’t nearly enough independent thinking involved. “Question everything. Question us”, a lecturer once told us at the start of term at UCL. This seemed a bit heretical to me at at the time, as up until then teachers had been the pillars of all knowledge, but they knew how to get us to rebel in that place. They had different people give us a series of lectures on climate change, that involved drastically opposing views as to whether it was a real phenomenon or not. We had to gather the evidence and decide for ourselves which expert we agreed with. This was a really great way to teach young people that actually, even those at the top sometimes get it wrong, and that half the fun of understanding something is when you’ve been allowed to truly work it out it for yourself.

Probably my favourite subject during my first term at UCL was Social Anthropology. This involved the study of native societies, human cultures, and how our understanding has changed towards such peoples over the centuries. It fascinated me to see how different peoples around the globe had found their own alternative solutions to the problem of being human. The things that struck me the most, is that even cultures that seem wildly different to our own, are also remarkably similar when you get down to the very essence of what we are. Old people complain about young people, belief in gods and magic intertwines with daily life, psychoactive substances are ingested, sexual abuse finds itself an outlet, and value will be assigned to the currency of choice, be it little bits of metal or a bunch of yams. Ultimately everyone will live, work and love together for the better good – however they define this, or fight those that disrupt the process, and so a society is born. It occurred to me that we are all the same, in different ways, and once I realised this I felt intensely connected to the world.

Sometimes you have to look quite far outwards, in order to see the realities of your innermost world – and so I suddenly found the hypocrisies of my own society standing out to me like never before. Such was this new-found feeling of understanding that I had the immense urge to broadcast my knowledge to the world. Or rather, my family, who were entirely unprepared for the precocious creature that returned home to them at Christmas, after a three month absence. While they seemed pleased that I had come to my senses and was eating turkey for Christmas dinner again, I noticed that some of my more ‘enlightened’ observations on the realities of life only seemed to cause contention. “But cigarettes, are also drugs” I would casually state, to my horrified grandparents, who would fervently protest that cigarettes were entirely normal and acceptable and certainly not disgusting things like drugs. “But every native society has it’s own drug” I would go on, “For example, the Trobrianders of New Guinea chew betel nuts, to produce mild euphoria. How do we decide what is acceptable and what is taboo? It all boils down to our culture.” There would be a bristling silence as Nan attempted to watch Coronation Street without furthering the discussion. And don’t even get me started on her reaction when I stated that “It would appear that gender and sexuality are a spectrum, rather than two polar opposites. It’s likely many people are actually in the middle”.

Indeed, for me, home could be a pretty a lonely place at times, and I was one of the few who didn’t exactly relish going back. Top universities will teach you great knowledge, but what they don’t teach you is how to impart that knowledge to those who are less educated in a way that doesn’t annoy the hell out of them. Perhaps this ought to be a module in itself…

We did a great deal of studying and writing in that first term, and so it was only natural that this was to be balanced out with plenty of unabashedly wild partying at the weekends. That time I spent in London was the only time in my life that I have ever liked the taste of beer and we drank a great deal of it while out on the town. If the Trobrianders had their betel nuts, and my grandparents had their ciggies, we had our pints of Budweiser. I recall the best nights out were had in a little pub not too far away called The Rocket, where every night was 80’s night and the dance floor always full with revellers. They were forever playing 80’s rock classics like Bon Jovi’s ‘Livin’ On A Prayer’, which started to feel like my UCL anthem after a while, I had danced so often to it. Not only does it have the best trucker’s gear change in pop history, but it just seemed to encapsulate that feeling of youthful excitement and empowerment in a big, new world. And well, of being a little bit pissed…

Alcohol had it’s downsides though. I remember accidentally knocking a pint flying once with an overly expressive drunken hand gesture, and having to help with the considerable mopping up of our clothing. There was also an occasion when I was so inebriated that I couldn’t find my way out of the ladies toilets in The Rocket, as all the doors looked the same. I just bashed myself hopefully against every single cubicle door until the right one spat me back out into the pub again. For Arlene, as an American student, the British obsession with getting flat-out drunk in order to have a good time was perplexing. At 19, she wasn’t yet old enough to legally drink in her own country, but for a while she went along with social pressure over here to have a few when you go out. One day, she confessed to me that she didn’t understand why we couldn’t just enjoy ourselves without any alcohol involved at all, and it did cause me to wonder. Especially when suffering from the rum-mixed-with-vodka-mixed-with-Budweiser headache the morning after. As time went on, I felt less like partying and began to become more and more reclusive. Then a bit of mild depression started to creep in. I’m not sure exactly why, but it’s always been something I’ve struggled with. I started to crave a bit of peace, and so would skip the nights out with my mates, in order to stay in the room by myself, creating detailed sketches of pop stars to stick on my wall. Somehow the creative outlet felt soothing.

It was during one such night when Arlene was out with the others, that I attempted to get an early night. I lay there for ages, tossing and turning restlessly, wondering why I couldn’t get to sleep. I felt strangely alert, almost buzzing. It was peculiar. I was still awake in fact, when Arlene arrived back and she made sure not to turn the light on when she came in, so as not to dazzle me. I was lying there, when all of a sudden she shrieked “OH MY GOSH, TURN THE LIGHT ON!!” In a daze, I reached up and slapped the wall until I found the light switch.

“IT WAS THERE” she gasped, pointing next to my bed “I SAW IT MOVING BY THERE”. Now she was possibly a little bit drunk, but I am certain she was not shitting me here, because she looked properly terrified. I sat up in a panic. “What? What was there?!”

“I SWEAR I HAVE JUST SEEN A GHOST. BY THERE”. She pointed at a space near the floor by my bed. Barely breathing, we both remained very still as we carefully observed the segment of air in question. “What… did it look like?” I asked, cautiously.

“It was like, sort of… wiggling

I raised an eyebrow. “wiggling?”

“Yes, it was low down and moving around really fast”. There was a pause, while the hairs on the back of my neck stood on edge as our eyes remained transfixed on the space. “Maybe” I said after a moment of careful consideration, “it was the ghost of a small pet…”

We both agreed that this was the most logical explanation. After that, the conversation evolved into stories of Indian burial grounds and that spooky thing that Uncle Jim swore really happened to him back in 1975, and so needless to say, neither of us managed much sleep that night. What really got us spooked though, was when I later came upon a photo of Arlene that I’d taken at the very start of term, that showed an orb in the exact spot where the phantom pet had been seen. Unaware that this was in all likelihood a bit of dust, it had us completely convinced, beyond all reasonable doubt, that my half of the room must be haunted. So now, there could be no peace even at bedtime. Just great.

scan1-2

Me on my bed. As you can see, I made a point of surrounding it with images of tranquility and calm. I think this may have been my subconscious fighting back against Chaos House East. And no, I don’t know what I was thinking getting a perm in 2004 either.

When looking back after 12 years, it would be easy to gloss over the difficult times and just focus on the fun, but the signs were there early on that I was struggling to cope. I resolutely tried to block these out of my mind and continued to tell myself how lucky I was to be studying at a top university, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that wherever I was, I just never seemed to fit in. London was certainly no exception and I recorded in my diary: “Sometimes, some people here intimidate me a bit. There’s so many egos. Everyone thinks they alone are right, whenever an issue is debated. They hate it if you disagree.” I’d also written of my experience that it wasn’t “the inner peace I’d expected”. Now I don’t know who enrols at a London university, expecting to find ‘inner peace’, but there you go… In all likelihood, my discomfort was probably plain old British awkwardness, in the face of the very straight-talking students from parts of the world where pints of beer aren’t necessary for you to actually state what you’re feeling. I was still learning about cultural differences, and for this reason I felt more at home around the other Brits at times, who tended to seem as anxious about fitting in as I did. This didn’t seem to apply to the Americans though. Nothing phased the Americans. They seemed to blaze through life with a confidence that the rest of us could only marvel at. I’m sure to them we must have seemed pretty neurotic much of the time.

I really started to feel myself cave once I realised that I was falling far short of the top grades I had become used to at A-Level. I began to dread the essay reviews with my tutor, where we would sit one-on-one and he would precisely pick through everything that was wrong with it. I will omit any names, but let’s just say my tutor was a posh, reserved, waffly sort of man. He had the appearance of an academic who had bounded straight out of a 1950’s boarding school. He was a dusty old tome, personified. Suffice to say, I found him uninspiring, and we did not click at all. Despite me having apparently created a “well-written” essay showing “good understanding” of the subject matter, he nonetheless felt the need to give me a C+, only to cross this out and correct it to a C-, much to my chagrin. It turns out my main sin was the absent bibliography, and lack of citations. But the thought of all that referencing bored the pants off me to be honest. All I wanted to do was write the interesting stuff – and this is largely my problem in life. He would waffle his humourless way through whatever I’d written, nitpicking upon the tiniest of details. Little did he know, that not all of us have had upbringings that instilled us with a confidence of steel. Not all of us can be American. I sat there, quietly taking every little critical point he made as a sign that I should not be there. That I was out of my depth. That this place was above me and my aspirations. It was crushing and it was horrible and I returned to my room with my C- grade, feeling like a failure. Arlene got a B+. How the hell? She even wrote her essay with headphones on. Clearly I sucked.

There was also my anxiety disorder, which just seemed to feed on itself and grow bigger. I found myself occasionally suffering from terrifying panic attacks when in quiet rooms full of people, so during lectures I would opt to sit at the back, as I found this more reassuring somehow. There was a kind of unspoken seating code when it came to lectures; the super-swotty students would sit right at the front, normal people would sit in the middle and the back row was purely reserved for weirdos. So I found myself in the good company of the students who had nicknames like Fish, Skippy and Mushroom, who sported interesting clothing and purple hair. I didn’t know much about them, just that they liked their ‘cigarettes’, and that Mushroom wasn’t named for her love of veg. Actually she randomly asked me to go to Egypt with her one day – casually – as if suggesting we go to the beach. Naturally, I replied that it sounded like an awesome idea. When you find yourself in such a large space, surrounded by so much greatness and possibility, you begin to feel like you can make anything happen. I feel my time at UCL seemed to be defined by many contradictions. But in hindsight, I think this was probably the best kind of education about the real world.

Coming up in Part 3 – Why I dropped out, being ‘Bohemienne’ in Harrods and why we covered the kitchen in turkey stickers…

Carly

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