Thomas Bray | This post was originally published November 5, 2012

Thomas Bray
Thomas Bray

Picture the scene: it is a drizzly Sunday afternoon, and I am walking back to my home village, along roads which I have trodden in sorrow and joy, the trees amongst which I played as a child now giving up the last of their leaves. My mother accompanies me; we are both taking in some dampened air whilst waiting for the roast to finish and the potatoes to turn crisp. Slowing her pace, my mother turns to me, and asks how the PhD is going. I give her some non-committal answer, something about working hard and going through the motions. Taking my arm, she says, No Tom, it’s okay. You can tell me how it’s really going. I thrust my hands deeper into the pockets of my winter coat, which is out for the first time this year, and begin.

Hard to say, really, what with teaching and seminars and training and all that. I think I’m onto something, something important, I really think that it’s a project that’s worth doing. No, the project isn’t the problem it’s me that’s the problem. I am throwing myself into the research, whole-heartedly, ten hour days spent in the archives, another two hours in the office planning and emailing and reading. That’s fine, though. The real problem is that I can’t switch off. Wherever I go, it’s with me. I’m burning my toast more often than I care to admit, simply because I’m thinking about words, all those words, thousands of words of notes and ideas and material. Is this what I’ll be like for the rest of my life? Can’t I just do something where I get to clock off for a while, watch some bad TV? I went to go and see Sam the other week, and he’s perfectly happy, living with his girlfriend, saving up for a house, and, y’know, beginning a career. I can barely save up for a bag of penny sweets, let alone a nice house in London! Am I even doing any good at this whole PhD thing? Am I anywhere nearer completion? Time’s ticking away, y’know, and I feel like I have to start taking it more seriously, but I’m already exhausted. If I had some indication that I was a good student, if I could score some postgraduate points or something, then I would be fine but no, its just the same routine, read and think and write, read and think and write. Am I wasting my life away? Am I going to find myself in ten years time, no friends, no partner, but a nice doctorate, the chance to tick a fancy new box on application forms? Is that going to be me, the boring historian at the party, sipping squash and ranting on about the archives? Shouldn’t I be helping people? I mean, I’m teaching, of course, and that feels great, sometimes, but it also feels, sometimes, like I’m just wasting their time with my failure to understand, to understand them and what they need. Occasionally, just, like, once a month or something, I wake up in the middle of the night, and I am hit by the overwhelming realisation that I am forsaking a wonderful girl that I love, and good friends, friends for life, and you and Dad as well, of course, just so that I can wake up and spend my entire day, my entire year, working on something which I enjoy but at which I am hopelessly, irrevocably, laughably well useless.

We were almost home, and my mother seemed deep in thought. I felt like I had plucked out every anxiety from the pit of my stomach and laid it bare for this woman who knows me better than anyone. She pushed open the gate, placed her hand on the door, but then paused, and turned, and looked me in the eyes. She opened her mouth to speak, then gave a tiny shake of her head, and then opened her mouth again, slowly, deliberately. My glasses were steaming up, and I was hungry, not just for food, but for reassurance, for a raft in these turbulent postgraduate waters.

Well, she began, well that’s, y’know, that’s nice, Tom. Keep it up. Sounds like you know what you’re doing. And with that she walked inside, kicked off her wellies, and turned on the Antiques Roadshow. I was left outside in the rain, my glasses now opaque with moisture. I can’t see my own front door. I thought to myself. There’s a metaphor here somewhere. Better yet, there’s a blog entry. And so it was.

In other news, the potatoes were perfectly done. That, at least, counts as a win.