Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Graduate

Stephen did his degree with the University of London International Programmes, working entirely at home, taking his exams by himself at the local college. So there was a big question about whether he should even attempt to attend his formal graduation, at the Barbican Centre, in the middle of London.

Stephen in his graduate gear. A very  handsome young man
in black gown and mortar board, looking wistful.
(He was actually watching the parakeets).
Well, last week, we did it and it was great. It's so difficult when you do any kind of work or study from home to get the full warm fuzzy from a job well done. Because of the modular nature of the course, and because he lost a year due to a downturn in his health, only one of Stephen's student friends finished the degree at the same time as he did. When he got his results last summer, we drank a bottle of Welsh champagne, but the enormity of six years work, finally complete, didn't really sink in (unlike the champagne).

You can see the very moment that Stephen graduates if you go here and fast-forward (goodness knows I wished I could have) to 278 minutes. He looks very serious, on account of his gravitas, now he has a BA (Hons) after his name and all. You'll also notice that he got an extra loud clap, on account of how well he did. Or possibly because of the wheelchair. After all, it is notoriously difficult to study Classics if you can't personally re-enact the twelve labours of Heracles.

In order to manage this, we had to get into London, stay over night, then get home after the graduation the next day.  We're in Surrey at the moment, so we paid for a hotel in the middle of London - less than an hour away, in good traffic - with a heavy heart. As it was, the traffic wasn't great and we took a scenic detour (wrong-turning), an experience which reminded us why we couldn't have possibly done the whole thing in a day.

When I was a kid, London was a terrifically romantic and exciting place and when I was a teenager, the city felt like destiny itself. I was going to go to drama school in London. I used to look at the Tube map and street maps of London, planning trips to the important places I should visit. London was at the centre of everything I was interested in, such a lot of creative work going on, so many interesting stories unfolding on every street corner, thousands of creative minds coming together to create the hippocampus of the British cultural hive mind. In Ipswich, where I grew up, a town of over a hundred thousand people, there were few book shops, let alone art galleries and no professional theatre for much of my youth.

Part of me still feels that way. Part of me was silly-excited about going into London, just to see it and be in its midst for twenty-four hours. I often have stretches of weeks or months when I don't leave the house, so in one hour in a car in London, I see more people than I might normally see in a year. What's more, I've always come into London from the North before, so there are all kinds of things I've never seen, coming in from the South West.

But it's massively inaccessible to me. I don't know how sick people cope with living in London at all. I don't know how an otherwise healthy person could survive a cold, if the symptoms started in the middle of the city. Too much is going on, too much noise, too many people moving way too fast - you'd lose all sense of direction, collapse on the pavement and get trodden to death! The only reason the pavements of London aren't strewn with the bodies of people who have died from minor infections or dizzy spells is that there are so many people passing through that the corpses get completely broken down and washed away real quick.

Sinister wheelchair picture! Two wheelchairs,
strewn with ladies' underwear.
I'm also disturbed by the contrast between conspicuous wealth and conspicuous poverty. Goodness knows that rural England and Wales have plenty of both, but when the two sit so physically close together, it makes me nauseous. And the dirtiness of London - far dirtier than any other city I know - exacerbates this contrast. You get these posh shops and hotels with freshly-polished glass doors with gleaming brass handles and immaculate hulking doormen stood outside, but if you look up to the higher floors, or down the side of the building, there's dirty walls, broken windows, rubbish floating about and occasionally far-from-immaculate people sifting through that rubbish.

Being a car passenger, in London, is wearying enough. My back and neck were thoroughly done in by the sudden jolts and halts as other drivers changed their minds. I tried to ignore what other people were doing around me, much as I do when I'm being pushed in a wheelchair through a crowd. I tried to ignore that, in London, there are billboard ads which refer to the fact that the viewer is most likely stuck in traffic. They have slotty ones which change the ad every few minutes, on the basis that you're going to be sat there long enough to take in several adverts.

Anyway, we somehow made it to a Travelodge which was very well placed for us, had a staff who treated us like we were staying in a five star hotel and a lovely big accessible room with soundproofing on the windows, a wet room and a big bed. We had a picnic tea and slept pretty well considering that, despite it being a Monday night and the room overlooking a back street, the traffic and noise of people on the streets outside never quietened down.

Stephen, graduated. The same
handsome young man holding
a glass of champagne and smiling.
The next day, we trundled along to the Barbican, parking just along from Princess Anne's Bentley (she's the chancellor of the university). We had our photos taken and Stephen was fussed over by a small regiment of staff who didn't know quite how or when to get him onto the stage. At one point, in their confusion, they thought we were both graduands, and I almost saved a great deal of time and money by being graduated at the same time. Trouble is, I couldn't make up my mind quite what I wanted a degree in. Divinity sounded like fun.

They planted Stephen and his Dad on the stage and left them sitting up there for about twenty minutes, in front of a full auditorium, entirely by themselves. I've been on the stage at a few theatres, but never anything so grand as the Barbican. I once saw the Royal Shakespeare Company do Romeo & Juliet there. It was dreadful, but even so.

When the graduation did get underway, it was as tedious as I imagine most graduation ceremonies are, except for the bit when Stephen finally got to cross the stage. It was an extremely international affair, being the International Programmes, and it was great to see so many different ideas from around the world of what you wear for a graduation. It was also quite funny to hear the English woman, who announced each person, struggle with names from all corners of the globe. As a result, when she did have an British-type name to work with, she said it with ten times the volume and confidence.
Me, looking tired and proud. A woman
with a glass of champagne and a very
lovely tartan jacket.

On our way out, we pinched the free booze and cupcakes, which Stephen's sister became so enthused about that she planted five on Stephen's lap before escaping to the carpark. Stephen is gluten intolerant and allergic to dairy. I think each of us could write a book about "Things I have had other people place on my lap, when using a wheelchair."  I've certainly had small children, electrical appliances, rolls of wallpaper and important documents. Perhaps one day, I'll have cupcakes.

Oh and Stephen left his walking stick on the stage. He e-mailed the Barbican after to suggest they donated it to the props department, by way of thanks for accommodating him so well.


Lisa said...

I love that the mic picks up her saying "he's after that one."

And wow, that really is some extra loud, extra long applause.

spacedlaw said...

Well done!
Divinity sounds like too much fun to truly be all that much.

Your thoughts about London reminded me of what China Mieville wrote recently (

Stephen said...

@Lisa - if you want to see someone with mobility impairment who really knew how to work the crowd, go to 264!

Jess said...

Congratulations, Stephen! Very well done to you, sir. I'm applauding extra loud and long, but that's just my usual, awkward over-enthusiasm. Woo! Woooooo! Yeah! :D

So what we may infer, I assume by that second pic, is that women in the audience began flinging their underthings when he got up there? Ooo er.

starrlife said...

Oh congrats to the loved one of Goldfish! What a fab achievement!