Thomas Bray | This post was originally published 19 August, 2013
Edit: Since publishing this post, I have been informed by a few learned people (some real, some less so) that I in fact spent a week on a narrowboat, not a longboat. Before you write a new batch of disgruntlement-mail, please be aware that I have recognised this slip-up, but that I have decided to keep the references to ‘longboats’. This is because Vikings used longboats (Vikings are cool), and because my cleverest joke in this article, detectable only by 0.427% of the population, revolves around the word. Thank you for your comments, and I apologise for any inconvience it may have caused to you or your PhD.
Please excuse me my long absence. I have just returned from two very confusing holidays, and it has taken me a while to recover. Even now my eyes are slightly glazed over, and I have a near-morbid fear of prime numbers. It’s a long story. If you stop me on the fifth floor of the library, I’ll tell you and then run away.
The first holiday was to Sri Lanka, and was all the various shades of interesting and eye-opening and oh-my-days-that’s-a-monkey-with-a-cricket-bat you can imagine. I will leave that one aside for my memoirs. My second holiday, and by now everyone I know has been well briefed on this one, took place on a longboat with four of my oldest, dearest friends. Before I went, I had visions of an easy, relaxing week, laying on top of the boat reading books and perhaps occasionally giving a thought to my PhD. In the evening, maybe we’d stop at a canal-side inn, where we would play cards and amuse the locals with our humour, charm, and dashing good looks.
I was wrong. So, so wrong.
In hindsight, the maths is simple. Five fellows in their mid-twenties + rather cramped longboat x an interesting amount of fun-inducing juices to the power of seven days = …well, I can’t do everything for you, use your imagination. Needless to say, my memory of the week is very clear in some places, and slightly hazier in others. My initial vision was not actually all that far off, except that I neglected to include the profanities, the partial nudity, the sheer, sheer debauchery. I am not ashamed to say that not once during the endless games of Risk, the constant jumping off boats and across water, and the omnipresent searing of meat and burning of toast, not once did I think “Ooohhh, I wonder what will happen next with my research?”
It might come as no surprise that by the end of the week, things were getting a little…tense. We happened to spend the final night in Leamington Spa, and since I once, in another chapter of my life, happened to live there, I thought I could keep a lid on things. I was wrong (seriously, why do I keep making predictions? This is why I’m an historian, because I am so useless with the future). In all honesty, proceedings were unfolding at a relatively civil level, until we walked into the final pub of the night (which shall remain nameless). My friend, who, incidentally, is about to get married, walked up to the bar, his face contorted with barely-contained glee, and announced:
“We shall have five pints of your worst ale, and all of your packets of crisps.”
“All of our packets of crisps?” asked the slightly bemused bar-staff.
“ALL of your packets of crisps!” my friend thundered in response.
The night went downhill from there, culminating in a half-hearted punch, a bottle of half-finished Diet Coke being thrown into the Grand Union canal, and a voicemail message which may confuse future generations of the NSA.
When we were all safely off the boat the next morning, having returned it to a very relieved proprietor, I found myself sitting on the edge of the water, and taking check of my personal state. Body: pretty much decimated. Mind: none too sharp, dulled by excess. Soul: utterly destroyed, its last fragments jettisoned somewhere around Tamworth. Happiness: through the frickin’ roof.
And then it dawned on me. I didn’t need a week on a longboat with four old friends to achieve this particular state of affairs. Oh no, for the last two years I have willingly, perhaps even enthusiastically, been on a different kind of longboat, an academic longboat made up of pieces of paper, Internet searches, and cups of tea. If there is anything which batters me, mind, body, and soul, and yet keeps me coming back for more, it is my PhD. Little did I know, but all that time floating through the Midlands not thinking in any way whatsoever about my research was actually preparing me for a third year in which I am assured that my resolve will be put to the ultimate test. And now I am back on campus, back in the archives, back in the strange abstract world of what happened once and may never happen again.
And yet, every morning, cycling over fields with the sun rising over the blooming corn, dodging dogs and freewheeling down hills, my mind is on only thing: what will those dusty old journals tell me today? Sometimes, at the end of a long day with little to show for it, when the wind is strong and the path back home seems a bridge too far, they seem to say, ‘Mate, darn lucky that you made it through that longboat holiday’. They may have a point. Bring on third year, I say, I have already looked deep into the abyss…and darkness, thy name is barge.
P.S. Inspired by my friend’s crisp-related antics, I tried walking into the archives and announcing, ‘I would like to order ALL of your documents’. They didn’t take it to it so well.