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  • Oxford, a lifetime ago, (last summer) was even more dreamlike than usual.

    It was the time of my final exams, probably the last exams of my life, and probably the only ones that any employer will ever really care about. Three years of work, condensed into 9 papers, set to define the trajectory of the rest of my life. Bathos or catharsis? Hard to say.

    Either way, the 9 papers added up to more than 24 hours of exams. Put like that, the task seemed almost insurmountable. I had to prepare myself for questions on how to fix the global economy, how to solve complex algebraic equations, how the US political system works, why the Latin American political system doesn't, why wars start and why they don't, how to design a tax to save the world from global warming.

    At Oxford, as at most universities I imagine, there is no such thing as ready. The more you learn the more you realise how unprepared you are, how much more thought and analysis and fact there is out there; and how intelligent and knowledgeable the person setting the paper is, how easy it would be for them to outmanoeuvre you, how that won't be an excuse if you fail.

    How no exams you have ever sat were as arduous as these, the stakes never higher...

    Strangely, the carnation helps. It is tradition, and Oxford has plenty of those, for existing students to take on "children" from the year below when they arrive, such that each college is populated by an (often incestuous) genealogy of non-blood relations. Come summer, children buy carnations for their parents' final exams, and parents buy carnations for their children's preliminary exams.

    You wear a white carnation for your first exam, pink for the ones in the middle, and red for the glorious finale. Along with the suit, gown and mortarboard (carried, not worn), they form an armour of sorts, which is donned before going into battle at the examination schools.

    I'm not sure when I took this photo*, but the presence of the white carnation, as yet unworn, suggests it was a day or so before I went into the fray. My reflection in the dark window looks pleasingly studious, but actually I was only studying the screen of my camera. Evidently I had had enough of revision and turned to narcissism.

    Three weeks later, I wore the red carnation for the last time. I didn't know it yet, but I had passed.

    *Actually, my camera informs me it was May 30, 2011, at 9.06pm. Oh to have such a good memory.
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