Gary Day

January 30, 2004

The avalanche of papers spilling out of the pigeonhole can make a man suicidal -but just one good line could save him

I don't often think about committing suicide, maybe twice a year. Once in winter, and again in late spring. You can understand why people might want to top themselves in January. They didn't get what they wanted for Christmas; nor did they find themselves in the clutches of an attractive stranger on new year's eve. And then the days are dark, the roof starts to leak and the bills keep thudding through the letter box.

But spring? When the sun is shining and the birds are singing, and an old man's thoughts turn to socks and sandals? Why exit this great stage of fools when flowers bloom and the air is full of traffic fumes? Because of marking, that's why.

"To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven. A time to be born and a time to die" - a time to write essays and a time to mark them.

For it's round about these times of year that your courses return to you shredded through the students' brains. Your pigeon-hole overflows with essays like that magic pot in the fairy story that wouldn't stop making porridge.

Speaking of which, we were greeted on our return to work by a notice outside the post room announcing that "Pigeon-holes have now been rearranged in alphabetical order". Ah, so they weren't before? I'm going to have to revisit the alphabet. I was sure that "B" comes after "A" but before "C".

The notice must be a mistake. The pigeon-holes have actually been rearranged in reverse height order. No hierarchy is safe from our culture of continual upheaval. Tall people now have their pigeon-holes along the bottom row, while shorter people such as myself are along the top. Any higher and I'd need climbing gear. As it is, I have to jump up and down to see if there's anything there. Since this is not a dignified spectacle, it is best undertaken when no one is around. The final humiliation occurred when, stretching up to remove the mass of paper, I managed to bring it down on my head. What a life.

Where had all these scripts come from? There were never this many students at the 9am lecture on Monday mornings. And the seminars were equally sparsely populated, except by the hard core who persisted in showing up despite never having read the books. They would sit there waiting grimly for me to do something useful such as summarise the plot of Kafka's The Castle. I would say there isn't a plot as such.

"What happens, then?"

"Nothing really."

"What's the point of writing a book about nothing?"

"Well, it's not really about nothing."

"You just said it was."

"I meant that nothing much happens."

"Why are we studying it, then?"

"Because Kafka is an important writer."

"But he doesn't write about anything."

"He does, but he does it symbolically."

"What's the castle a symbol of, then?"

"Lots of things."

"Such as?"

"Er, well, the pointlessness of human endeavour." We all stop, feeling the truth of that at this moment.

Essays are the students' revenge. They follow the inexorable logic of a Greek tragedy. You bore them and they bore you. En masse. You recognise the words as English, but not the language. Page upon page, riddled with solecisms, spelling mistakes and non sequiturs. "The sisters agree that they do not wish to marry themselves." Is this why forests are felled?

And then there's the logic: "People need to be removed from reality to survive existence" - this is probably best appreciated if you're high on something.

Still, the first few essays, though cumbersome, are bearable, even affording a bit of light relief: "Mrs Ramsay reads allowed." But after the 15th, you wonder if you're in the wrong job. After the 25th, you laugh at the stipulation that assessment should measure outcomes. After the 35th, even Alan Titchmarsh begins to look interesting; after the 45th you're just bored. After the 55th, you become obsessive: is this a 42 or a 43? After the 64th, you start to hallucinate: surely they're all the same piece of work? And after the 75th, the cat decides it might be best to leave home.

And then, just when the universe starts to crack and you're wondering whether to book a one-way ticket to a Swiss clinic, you come across a line such as this: "Love is the real thing, it gives purpose, is experienced and endured." Yes indeed. You are reconciled to the world.

But there, in your pigeon-hole, are several thick bags. Because at some point in your career, you thought it was a good idea to become an external examiner.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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