The summer after first year was filled with work – paid work, and library work. I was surviving on five or six hours of sleep a night and spending the day in the university library. I spent the summer in Dublin so I could keep up my job and my library schedule intact. I read for my courses, and I read for my soul. I read all of Shakespeare’s plays and Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I still loved reading. My first year results were good. I didn’t get a first, but neither did anyone else on my course for that year, so I felt like I had done well. I won a prize for one of my courses, but when I went to collect it they said that it had already been issued and they couldn’t give it to me again. It had been book tokens. They re-printed the certificate, though, which I kept as a reminder that I was not, contrary to how I felt, stupid.
I had worked all summer so that I would not have to work during the first part of the year. The scholarship exams were in April, and term started in October. I had seven months to win the scholarship, and €100 a week to get me there, after rent. For lunch in my first year, I had bought a cup of boiling water (€0.35) and mixed a packet of powder soup into it. This year, I could buy a scone with jam (€1) for lunch. Life was good.
But studying for the scholarship exams was tough. You had to re-learn everything from the first year, including things I hadn’t especially understood the first time around, plus everything in the second year, including courses that hadn’t yet been taught. I went about it the only way I knew how. I read everything, learned quotes for everything, read critics’ essays and learned quotes from them. Somewhere along the way, I had lost any idea of having a critical thought myself.
While I ploughed the bibliographical furrows most the day, the lectures were increasingly disconnected from anything I had ever thought about literature, and the seminars left me feeling more and more out of my depth. I could not have spent more time in the library, but my ideas were all wrong. I had to give a presentation in one seminar. About halfway through my five pages of painstakingly prepared notes, the seminar leader interrupted me, shaking her head and saying, ‘no, no, no! You have got it all wrong. You haven’t thought about it at all.’
I had read all the books, but couldn’t understand a thing. It was the intellectual equivalent of ‘all the gear, no idea.’
That said, I felt confident when the exams came around. I couldn’t help but feel confident. No-one else had spent the whole summer in the library. Some people had only started putting serious library time in from January. But I had always been in the library, and, like the slow and steady tortoise, I thought that would work. More than that – it had to work. I had to win the scholarship, and be free from financial stress; be able to eat lunch with my friends who I would surely make and keep when I could go out with them occasionally or buy them a coffee in return for the ones they had bought me. I went into that exam hall – huge and daunting, decked with immense portraits. I had my exam rituals and my lucky pens. I had read everything.
Immediately after the scholarship exams ended, I contracted the worst illness I’ve ever had. My body completely collapsed. But I had to work. With high fever, I worked two jobs under a ‘trial’ basis, only able to keep my tips. I collapsed and was sent home from one, and I stayed in bed and didn’t show up to the other one, which I had forgotten I had.
The day of the announcement came, and I had never been more nervous. I had managed to get a new job, and skilfully managed to get the day off. I silently hoped I would not return to the job, but would spend out my ‘emergency fund’ the rest of the year, safe in the knowledge my rent was paid for the following two years, and more if I did a PhD as I dreamed I would. I remember hanging around the English department with another hopeful before the ceremony started. The Head of English came out, and stopped. He looked at my friend. ‘You’re Tom,’ said the Head of English. ‘I am,’ he replied. The Head of English nodded and continued walking. He hadn’t said anything to me. That’s when I first thought: maybe I haven’t won it.
As it turned out, neither of us had. The long list of names was read out, and I stood with the others at the back of the hall, increasingly despondent. Afterwards, we crowded to the board to see our results. All the English hopefuls, five of us, had got 2.1s – enough to not have to take the summer exams that year. But none of us had reached the magic first – the 70% needed to secure a scholarship. The Head of English sidled up to us. ‘No Scholars in English this year,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘It’s a real shame.’ Given that he had marked the papers, we felt his expressing this sentiment was a little inconsiderate.
In the two months after finding out I hadn’t won a scholarship and was exempt from all exams, I both worked and slacked. I did not go to lectures. I did not go to seminars. I did not go to the library. I did, however, go to the university newspaper. I met some people and started to write. I hung around and hoped I could find a place there.