The University Challenge: Or, An Alternative Guide To University Life

I wrote this about 2 months ago, but hadn’t quite got round to finishing it.     

       We all know the stereotypical life of a university student. It’s been promised to us since we got sick of our barely-teenage lives; infuriated by the school uniform rules and parental oppression that comes with being fourteen, the sober realities of waking up at half-six every morning to commute to school and the Greek tragedy that is living in a dead-end rural town, where half the shops are boarded up and the other half are charity shops or estate agents, whilst your friends have the luxury of being a ten-minute walk from the nearest record store (or, at the very least, a branch of WHSmiths). As sixth formers, the myth of university life is even more tantalising: the prospect of spending a minimum of three years partying, rotting one’s liver with alcohol and doing whatever you want, whenever you want – so, basically, the permanent state of living a typical sixth former’s weekend (albeit without the obligatory underage-run-to-the-toilets in Wetherspoons). Naturally, we’re vaguely aware that we’ll have to pull the occasional all-nighter for an essay due in the next day, but it’s little more than a potted plant in the background of the University Daydream. And – if you believe Facebook, at least – this does seem to be the reality for the majority of new students. Fantastic!

            …That is, unless you’re not particularly given to excessive (or even moderate) drinking. Whether it’s for religious, financial, gustatory or medical reasons – or even just not wanting to make a knob of yourself by flattening people in clubs or having to clean up the next morning when you “chunder EVERYWHERE” – you’re doomed to lead a less-exciting lifestyle than your units-be-damned, spirits-chugging peers and housemates. Indeed, I spent Fresher’s Fortnight panicking more about the fact that I hadn’t had my five-a-day than participating in the sort of debauchery that Nero* would be proud of. [*The Roman Emperor, not the British coffee shop chain.] So, here are some of the things I’ve learnt about university life that the ‘university myth’ fails to fill in for you.

  1. You have not experienced pain and suffering until you have walked back from Asda with four of the world’s heaviest shopping bags.

Oedipus killing his father and sleeping with his mother? Being burnt at the stake? Listening to Be Here Now in all its wretched, ridiculous entirety? None of these things is as horrific as carrying two weeks’ food shopping back from Asda in the dark, by yourself, on a route you don’t know which includes walking through a near-deserted industrial estate and especially when people occasionally walk past and not offering to help, despite you making feral noises of pain as your fingers begin to swell and your hands are decorated with welts. You begin to question your very existence. You contemplate jumping in front of one of the scarce cars because your hands just cannot cope. It takes five times longer than it should do to return to your flat. Imagine this scenario, then imagine – halfway through your epic struggle – your parents ringing to tell you that your gerbil died in the night. Soul-destroying is not the phrase. But come now, put away your tear-drenched handkerchief – it’s character-building, finger-strengthening, and convinces you to finally get round to putting a taxi firm’s number on speed-dial. Everyone wins. 

    2. Television becomes, by turns, the highlight and bane of your day.

The relationship between students and television is well-documented; Countdown’s Wikipedia page even references the fact that students make up a large demographic of its audience (indeed, a [not-half-bad-looking] maths student at Cambridge won the last series, getting the word ‘orgasmed’ in the final). The Jeremy Kyle Show is as much of the fabric of student life as Pot Noodle and paralytic drinking. But it’s not until you find yourself swearing manically at the screen during University Challenge when an overly-smug team captain (yes, York Clemo, I’m swearing at you) or becoming genuinely disheartened by failing to get any more than a five-letter word during Countdown (or, inversely, shrieking with delight as you manage to do better than Rachel Riley during a numbers round even though you scraped a B in GCSE Maths whereas she’s got a 2:1 in Maths from Oxford) that you realise just how central television is to your life. If you don’t have a television, don’t worry; you’re probably a) far more efficient a student than one who finds themselves captivated by lunchtime showings of Badass Cops; Chasing Crims ‘Til They Flip Into A Ditch And We Nick ‘Em*, and don’t stir until they’ve got the Countdown conundrum five hours later, and b) far happier owing to the fact that you won’t have been exposed to the mind-numbing, eardrum-offending dross that is The X Factor**. [*As you may be able to ascertain, I invented this title; the existence of such shows, however, is far less imaginary. **If you, too, thought that people had recently become strangely irate with a 19th century German opera composer, collect £200 when you pass go.]

3.    The more of a social recluse you are, the better your knowledge of critically-acclaimed albums becomes.

Ah, Spotify! When I was lousy with Fresher’s Flu and barricaded myself in my room, a quarantine for my germs, you were my best friend. When all my housemates go out without telling me, you’re my shoulder to cry on. When I need something to soundtrack my Tetris addiction, you’re there for me. But do I abuse you by listening to the latest musical turds that the sewer of the mainstream coughs up? Of course not. I honour your eargasmic bounty with direction from Blue Calx [shameless plug – it’s a fantastic music blog. Read it!] and critics in general. Just a few of the artists I’ve “discovered” since being at university thanks to Spotify; Neutral Milk Hotel, The Dandy Warhols (their music other than the ubiquitous/perfect ‘Bohemian Like You’), The Magnetic Fields (whose EP, House of Tomorrow, became my first ever Amazon purchase approximately an hour after I first listened to it; it’s that good) and Echo and The Bunnymen. Ventures out of my room usually involve some sort of musical ulterior motive as well – the campus library is a veritable treasure trove, proven by the fact that it holds a copy of Elastica’s debut album, and I’m well-acquainted with the charity/CD shops of Truro and Falmouth as well (tally so far: 13 CDs, 4 singles, about £60 spent – having said this, if one seeks immediate profligacy of one’s student loan in such a manner, then it helps to have a similarly-inclined friend to encourage reckless CD-buying). To conclude, then; less time spent socialising equals more time spent being educated musically. I know what I prefer.


4. Your procrastination skills become more finely honed than ever.

You have an essay due in a week. Which of the following things do you do? A) Do intensive research on the essay, write it, proof-read it and write it again. B) Play on online Pokémon emulators for three hours, play Tetris until you’re at world champion-level for another three hours, read half a page but become so exhausted from such taxing physical exertion that you take a nap, paint your nails three times and then decide you can’t read with wet nails, so end up on the computer again, leaving your essay until the last day and writing something that a playschool child would be ashamed of. I don’t think I need to tell you which one your typical student would do; and yes, procrastination is so entirely necessary that you do end up playing on Pokémon emulators – anything is better than post-structuralism, after all.

5. The innocent picture of Cornwall that was painted for you as a child is wrecked by a 3am punch-up in the Falmouth branch of Subway.

A rare evening spent out on the lash! What a treat! And indeed, it’s fun to get dressed up and bond with your flatmates; that is, until a trip to Subway in the wee hours turns violent as two inebriated males begin a verbal war of words in the queue about sandwiches. From here, it progresses to squaring up to each other; then, to punches and a headlock in a corner by the tables that have been placed out of the way. Even your deadly dull West Kentish hometown, ridden with a plague of chavs (with particular infestations near the public toilets, kebab shop and War Memorial), never sinks this low. But then they scarper, and the police only show up five minutes later. And you can’t even have a hot sub to make you feel better.

And there you have it. If you’re a loser, the university life is less about vodka and vomit, promiscuity and pizzas or squalor and slacking than Subway scraps and Scrabble, Pokémon and procrastination or ASDA and albums. But, in its own little way, it’s quite fun anyway.


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