A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

 Episode Five

From Fresher at Fifty to Graduate at 52

The peacocks are quite possibly the most vivid memory from my first graduation. Back in the summer of 1988, we had lunch in Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House Hotel, where the savvy waiters hovered refilling glasses of red wine with the tempting mantra ‘you deserve it’. It’s hardly surprising that when we finished eating, and repaired to the garden for some photographs, this new graduate was spotted crawling along the grass trying to persuade the showy birds to play bonnie for the camera.

Unfortunately, Jennifer didn’t quite manage to persuade the peacocks to pose with her.

There were no actual peacocks* present in December when my fellow graduands and I gathered in the rather grand King’s Hall for graduation number 2 – or ‘congregation’, as it’s called at Newcastle University, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t memorable. For one thing, there was something rather awe-inspiring about walking the same route as Martin Luther King had taken when he received an honorary degree from the university back in 1997. For another, it was great to catch up with some of the friends and acquaintances who were graduating on the same day.

And frankly, it was also pretty great to have got to the point where I was graduating at all.

It was back in 2017 that I decided to study for a research degree in children’s literature, working for the MLitt part-time over two years. Looking back, I had dived into the application process in a fit of naïve enthusiasm, without any real idea of what it would be like. I had imagined it might be tricky to navigate professional commitments with my new life as a student (stopping work was never a financial option for me) but had blithely supposed it would all be fine, really. I also had vague apprehensions that academia might have moved on a bit in the last 30 years, but confidently felt that I could deal with that: bring it on, said my 50-year-old self.

I’ve written in a previous blog about the various challenges, particularly in re-learning academic writing and balancing the various demands that are inevitable at my time of life, including my dad’s increasing care needs. Surprisingly (at least to me), however, the experience of doing the degree was that, overall, it alleviated rather than added to these stresses. Even at the height of dissertation writing, with deadlines looming, I was able to lose myself completely in writing, rewriting, and yet more rewriting – so much so that I once ended up on a train to Glasgow instead of Edinburgh because I was engrossed. That kind of feeling is pretty wonderful.

On reflection, doing the degree also gave me some fabulous opportunities. As well as doing my own original research on mid-20thcentury girls’ books, I sat in on the undergraduate children’s literature course, which introduced me to things I probably wouldn’t have otherwise read (Patrice Lawrence’s Indigo Donut was a particular favourite). I spent some time in the Seven Stories archive wallowing in Noel Streatfeild’s diaries and letters, which was great fun and a new experience. I heard some fabulous speakers at university events and made some good friends. I also learned to think and respond more with greater critical clarity – not just to literature, but in all aspects of life.

I can’t say that I really felt I truly got to grips with academic writing, and my dissertation (on radicalism in Mabel Esther Allan’s early books) could have been infinitely better. But I did okay, and my overall degree result was sufficient should I decide to apply to do a PhD in the future.

I miss my life as a student and my frequent trips to Newcastle. Yes, it was tough, but it was also wonderful. I’d very much recommend it; indeed, I might, at some point, be back…

*when I say there were no ‘actual’ peacocks there in December, I think my dad’s smile on the day suggests he was ‘as proud’ as one.

Jennifer with her father

 

Jennifer, we hope that you will soon be back at Newcastle. 

For blog readers wanting to know more about the MLitt programme, see the Children’s Literature Unit page on the Newcastle University website. Highlights of the Seven Stories Collections can be seen here

Being Human Festival: From Source to Sea

17 – 18 November 2018, Seven Stories

As part of Being Human Festival: From Source to Sea, Seven Stories, in association with Newcastle University, is hosting several free events. Read on for details and come along!

Once upon a Tyne

17 November, 11:00 am – 12:00 pm; 13:30 – 14:30 pm

Discover the original scribbles and doodles behind children’s books in this hands on session with the Seven Stories Collection. This insightful session will be led by the Seven Stories Collections Team and the Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University.

Inspired by the Tyne and the rivers, seas and oceans that feature within the Seven Stories Collection, explore manuscripts from authors including David Almond and Robert Westall, and artwork from illustrators including Polly Dunbar.

Session lasts 60 mins and is suitable for everyone interested in children’s literature. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.

Undiscovered Land: Write like David Almond

17 November, 2:30 – 4:30 pm

‘Writing will be like a journey, every word a footstep that takes me further into undiscovered land.’ David Almond, My Name is Mina.

Join Ann Coburn, children’s author and Lecturer in Creative Writing at Newcastle University for a free creative writing workshop.

Through a series of creative exercises you will start your own story inspired the work of celebrated North-East writer David Almond. Learn how to convey a sense of place in your writing and incorporate elements of memory, history, magic and transformation.

Session lasts 2 hours and is suitable for adults. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.

Tales of the Tyne

18 November, 2:30 – 3:30 pm

‘They thought we had disappeared, and they were wrong. They thought we were dead, and they were wrong. We stumbled together out of the ancient darkness into the shining valley.’ – David Almond, Kit’s Wilderness.

As the mines closed and the shipyards fell silent, the North East saw the end of a long and vibrant tradition. Where next for the communities who had grown up with the old industries woven into the fabric of their lives? David Almond’s wild and beautiful stories explore the end of the old North East, and the possibilities for new beginnings.

Join Dr Lucy Pearson from Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit for a talk on how David imagines these endings and beginnings, followed by a tour of our Where Your Wings Were exhibition focussed on David’s work.

Session lasts 60 mins and is suitable for young adults and adults. Tickets are free and can be found here. No visitor admission is required.

 

Find out more about the Festival over on the Vital North blog.

 

Two Postdoctoral Positions in the Children’s Literature Unit

We’re really excited to have two postdoctoral posts available here in the Children’s Literature Unit at Newcastle University, each lasting two years (if full-time). The successful candidates will work on projects funded by Newcastle University’s Research Excellence Academy and Research Investment Fund. These offer the opportunity to work closely on the Aidan and Nancy Chambers collection at Seven Stories, or to pursue a postdoctoral research project of the candidate’s own design. The former would suit someone with experience in working with literary archives and an interest in developing this experience further, as well as someone with an interest in one of the many areas covered by the collection, which spans the whole of Aidan and Nancy’s working lives. The latter will be more independent in scope since it involves a project of the candidates own, but we’re interested in work which aligns with research interests in collection and archives, heritage, or diversity and inclusion.

Research Associate in Children’s Literature (REA) – B131592R

This post will be attached to the project ‘New Stories of Modern British Children’s Literature: the Chambers Collection’, and will map research pathways into the Aidan and Nancy Chambers archival material newly acquired by Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books. Applicants for this post should supply an academic CV and a cover letter in addition to completing the electronic application form.

Research Associate in Children’s Literature (RIF) – B131593R  

This post will support research aligned with one of these three broad themes:
  1. Developing collections, archives and exhibitions of children’s books, with a particular focus on how we tell national stories of children’s literature.
  2. Children/young people and heritage.
  3. Diversity and inclusion in histories of children’s literature.
Details of how to apply for this post are given in full in the online ad.
Successful candidates will be based in the Children’s Literature Unit, within the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, and will be joining a large and successful team of academics, doctoral students, and other postdoctoral researchers.
Applicants should have been awarded a doctoral degree in children’s literature, children’s culture, 20th-century publishing or a related area (or be in expectation that the award will be made by 31 October 2018), and should be able to demonstrate ongoing research interests that align with one or more of the designated areas.

For informal enquiries relating to these posts, contact Professor Matthew Grenby(matthew.grenby@newcastle.ac.ukor Dr Lucy Pearson (lucy.pearson@newcastle.ac.uk).

David Almond Fellowships for Research in Children’s Literature

Newcastle University’s School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics and Seven Stories, The National Centre for Children’s Books are pleased to announce that the application process for 2018 David Almond Fellowships is now open.

Further particulars

The awards recognise both David Almond’s contribution to children’s literature and his connections with these partner institutions: he is a patron of Seven Stories and an honorary graduate of Newcastle University.

The Fellowships aim to promote high-quality research in the Seven Stories collections that will call attention to their breadth and scholarly potential. The two awards of £300 each are to facilitate a research visit to the Seven Stories collections in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK of at least two days by a bona fide researcher working on a relevant project.  Applications will be considered from candidates in any academic discipline. The successful applicants will have a clearly defined project that will benefit from having access to the Seven Stories collections (please see indicative information about the collections below). All applicants should consult the Seven Stories catalogue as part of preparing their applications.  A well-developed dissemination strategy will be an advantage. Priority will be given to the importance of the project and best use of the Seven Stories collections as judged by a senior member of the Children’s Literature Unit in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University and a senior member of the Collections team at Seven Stories.

Some previous David Almond Fellows have gone on to take up fully-funded PhD studentships at Newcastle University, others have disseminated their research into the collection through book chapters, peer-reviewed journals and conference papers. One of our former Fellows said of her visit that it was ‘a wonderful opportunity to work in the archive of Seven Stories… it is undoubtedly an invaluable asset for researchers internationally, and something the city can be extremely proud of.’

Eligibility for the award

Applicants must hold a first degree or higher from a recognised institution of higher education.

Note: non-EEA applicants are reminded that to take up a Fellowship they must hold an appropriate visa. Neither Newcastle University nor Seven Stories can help with this process. Please see the UK visas website for more information.

Responsibilities

Fellowships must be taken up before the end of December, 2018. Recipients are expected to spend at least two days in Newcastle and are encouraged to time their visits to enable them to participate in events organised jointly or separately by the Children’s Literature Unit and Seven Stories.  (Please note: successful applicants must contact Seven Stories and agree a date for the visit prior to making travel arrangements; normally a minimum of two weeks’ notice is required before any research visit.) Acknowledgement of the Fellowships must accompany all dissemination activities arising from the research.

The Seven Stories Collection

Seven Stories is the only accredited museum specialising in children’s books in the UK. Its collections are a unique resource for original research, particularly insofar as they document aspects of the creation, publication and reception of books for children from the 1930s to the present day. The steadily growing archive contains material from over 250 authors, illustrators, editors, and others involved in the children’s publishing industry in Britain.

Researching the Seven Stories collection could enhance a number of research topics. Examples of research areas and relevant collections:

Makers of children’s literature: children’s book history 1750-2000

Children’s books have been under-represented in book history scholarship. Seven Stories’ holdings can be used to investigate the forces which have shaped the children’s book. Areas of interest include editing and publishing, education and bookselling, diversity and race and changing technologies.  Key archival holdings include the David Fickling Collection, the Aidan and Nancy Chambers / Thimble Press Collection, and the Leila Berg Collection.  The recently catalogued Noel Streatfeild Collection also provides fascinating insights into the life and times of a leading children’s author during the mid- twentieth century.

New adults: the growth of teenage literature

Seven Stories’ holdings represent the opportunity to investigate the development of teenage literature from a number of perspectives: holdings include detailed evidence of the process of composition from early draft to published text; evidence of socio-political contexts, and evidence of the publishing contexts. Key archival holdings include the Aidan and Nancy Chambers / Thimble Press Collection, the Diana Wynne Jones Collection, the Philip Pullman Collection, the Beverley Naidoo Collection, and the Geoffrey Trease Collection.

Inclusion and diversity

Seven Stories is particularly interested in supporting studies which explore themes of inclusion and diversity within our archives: race and heritage, disability, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socio-economic status, religion and culture. Projects in this research field might be cross-cutting, looking at a number of different archives within the Seven Stories Collection.

Children on stage: twentieth century children’s theatre

Seven Stories holds the complete archive of David Wood, one of the most prolific and influential playwrights for children in Britain. Projects based in this archive may approach the topic of children’s theatre from a number of perspectives, including theatre history and adaptation. Other relevant holdings include the Michael Morpurgo Collection and the recently acquired David Almond Collection.

More information can be found on the Collection pages of the Seven Stories website. Most of the artwork and manuscript collections are fully catalogued*, and the catalogues can be searched online via the link provided on the website. A list of many of the authors and illustrators represented in the collection can also be found on the Collection pages.

(NB this is not a complete list of the collections).

Please see also the Seven Stories Collection Blog, containing a variety articles describing or inspired by the Collection.

Application process

Applicants are asked to submit the following items by 1 June 2018:

  • an application form
  • a curriculum vitae
  • a brief proposal (of 1,000 words maximum)
  • one confidential letter of recommendation (sealed and signed; confidential letters may be included in your application packet or recommenders may send them directly)

Applications may be submitted by email or post.

Email: Kim.Reynolds@ncl.ac.uk

Post: David Almond Fellowships, School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics, Newcastle University, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 7RU, UK

* NB Thanks to a major accrual, recently received, cataloguing of the David Almond archive is ongoing – the records are expected to be online by 30 June.  An interim listing is available on request. Please contact collections@sevenstories.org.uk

Images from Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books, photography by Damien Wootten.

 

Looking at Children’s Books with Dr Brian Alderson

Unfortunately, this event is cancelled with many apologies from Brian. We hope to reschedule these talks in the autumn.

Children’s books history expert Dr Brian Alderson will discuss:

“Maurice Sendak, but ‘sc.’ rather than ‘inv’.”

Dr Alderson offers expert insight into the history of children’s literature and his children’s book collection, which he is donating to Newcastle. The Looking at Children’s Books talks are presented by Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit in partnership with the University Library and Seven Stories: The National Centre for Children’s Books.

An Evening with Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan

Liz Flanagan, teaching fellow in creative writing and author of Eden Summer (David Fickling Books, 2016), recently chaired an event at the School of English with Brian Conaghan and Sarah Crossan to explore their co-authored verse novel We Come Apart (Bloomsbury, 2017). Here are some of Liz’s thoughts on the evening.  

I was delighted to chair this event. For me, Brian and Sarah are two of the most important contemporary YA authors, and I love the fearlessness of their writing, both in its form and content. They tackle urgent and complex subjects, while telling stories in unusual and innovative ways.

Liz introduces Sarah and Brian.

Sarah and Brian’s working relationship began at the award ceremony for the Carnegie Medal 2015, when Sarah was shortlisted for Apple and Rain, and Brian for When Mr Dog Bites. At that time, Brian was thinking of writing a novel in verse and he asked Sarah about the form. They began corresponding via WhatsApp, sending messages and chunks of text back and forth in what became a swiftly unfolding digital conversation. The whole novel was written this way, its authors working in different countries, not meeting in person until afterwards.

Sarah and Brian discuss their collaborative way of writing with Liz

We Come Apart is a love story that doesn’t shy away from darkness and difficulty, beautifully told in verse, with two narrative voices. At the early draft stage, the authors each wrote a section and sent it to the other, in a kind of creative tennis match. At first, Brian wrote the character of Nicu and Sarah created Jess’s voice. Both authors spoke about how different this was from their usual creative process in having to relinquish control of planning and respond to what they received. They found the quality of their writing improved because they were working collaboratively. They also learned about their own process by seeing the differences in the other’s working style (it definitely sounded as if Sarah was more of a planner than Brian!). However, in the later editorial stages, the process slowed down, and both writers worked on each character’s sections. A love story seems perfect for this dual narrative approach, with its layered perspectives, so that each character is shown to be struggling via their own interiority, but is also seen with compassion and understanding through the eyes of the other.

The authors described their careful approach to the depiction of difficult topics such as the domestic violence of Jess’s home life. Sarah wanted to write the scenes just explicitly enough, so that any young person who had experienced similar abuse would recognise what was happening; but so that it wouldn’t be traumatic for those readers who weren’t yet ready to understand the violence of the situation.

I asked Brian and Sarah about the issue of writing in the voice of someone from an under-represented group: in this case, that of Nicu, who is Romanian, of Roma ancestry. Brian talked about his experience of working with Roma teenagers, and how that fed into the creation of Nicu’s speech patterns, and both authors cited the extensive research they’d undertaken. They discussed the importance of privileging and amplifying ‘own voices’ narratives, while also resisting the idea that, as writers, we can only create from our own lived experience.

The conclusion to We Come Apart feels nuanced and in keeping with the subtle balance of light and shade within the novel as a whole. Sarah spoke about one particular tantalising WhatsApp exchange as they approached the end. She could see the little dots told her ‘Brian is writing’, but it took long minutes for the response to appear. They finally wrote three versions of the ending. I had an odd experience on first reading the novel: I think the ghost of the ending not chosen was haunting my perceptions, and I was braced for a more brutal denouement that didn’t come. However, on second reading, I could more fully appreciate the satisfying end to Jess and Nicu’s story.

Inspired by speaking to Brian and Sarah, I now want to experiment with collaborative writing in my own practice. I’ve started a conversation with a writer I admire, intrigued by the potential for surprises and innovation that these authors describe, and I’ve also devised a workshop for collaborative writing that I’ve begun using in my teaching. I’m very grateful to Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan for sharing their experience of working together, and to Dr Lucy Pearson for inviting me to chair their conversation.

Sarah, Brian and Liz

The event was organised as part of the Newcastle University Postgraduate Open Day, and presented in association with Seven Stories. Photographs by Rachel Pattinson.

An Invitation: Open Day at the Children’s Literature Unit

Wednesday 7th February, 3:30 – 5:30 pm

We would like to invite you to visit our Children’s Literature Unit on Wednesday 7th February 2018 from 3:30 to 5:30pm, as part of Newcastle University’s Postgraduate Open Day. 

If you’re considering an MLitt, MPhil or PhD, come along and find out about studying children’s literature or creative writing for children and young people in Newcastle. Meet current students and discuss your research project with potential supervisors, and find out more about our outstanding research collections with staff from Special Collections and Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.

Register your attendance for the afternoon here. We look forward to meeting you soon. In the meantime, you might like to read about last year’s Open Day.

We Come Apart with Sarah Crossan & Brian Conaghan

We would also like to invite you to the event We Come Apart with authors Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan, chaired by author and Teaching Fellow by Liz Flanagan. This event is free, and will be followed by a drinks reception and book signing. 6:30 – 8:00 pm. Find out more about the event and book your place here.

Revolution in the Library! A Conference on the ‘Children’s ‘68’

Dr Lucy Pearson

The anniversary of 1968 approaches, and with it memories of radical change: workers and students united on the streets of Paris; draft resisters and anti-Vietnam protesters; flower power and violent revolution. The 60s revolution is usually regarded as a youth phenomenon, yet little attention is paid to the literal ‘children of the revolution’. This is the gap that Sophie Heywood proposed to address with her research network on The Children’s 68. On October 12th, CLU colleagues Kim Reynolds and Lucy Pearson headed off to Tours, France, for an interdisciplinary conference organised by Sophie Heywood and Cécile Boulaire exploring the many dimensions of childhood and ‘the spirit of ‘68’.

The conference brought together scholars from many different countries and many disciplines. For some of us, 1968 was clearly a landmark moment, while others questioned whether there was a ’68 moment at all in our countries of interest. Topics included children’s books, radical magazines, television, art culture, feminism and workers’ rights. What emerged from this comparative approach was that there were many correspondences across the experiences of different nations, but also that even within a single cultural context the ‘meaning’ of ’68 encompasses a variety of different and often conflicting ideas.

There were many examples of culture which tried to give children a voice or encourage them to resist the power of adults. Olle Widhe’s paper on the children’s rights movement in Sweden, for example, showed us books which encouraged adults to resist the ‘indoctrination’ of their children, and encouraged children themselves to rise up against the power of adults. Bettina Kümmerling-Meibauer, on the other hand, showed that West German texts sought to ally children with other marginalised groups: a collaborative revolution in which children helped to overcome the systems of power.

Kim Reynolds vividly evoked the feelings of power and possibility experienced by children and young adults in 1968 USA, and showed that while children’s culture failed to produce texts directly addressing the Vietnam War, these young people co-opted the adult culture of popular music to articulate their feelings and beliefs. Other papers, though, raised the possibility that the child was co-opted by adults as a symbol for their own ideologies and desires. Andrea Francke showed a range of exciting picturebooks which questioned the existing social order, but ruefully acknowledged that while these were exciting and important for the women in the feminist collectives who produced them, many children found them uninteresting. In David Buckingham’s paper on the controversial schoolkids’ issue of Oz magazine, he suggested that the magazine included both the authentic concerns of schoolchildren and a discourse around childhood which served the interests of the adult men who edited the magazine.

‘You can get anything you want, at Alice’s restaurant’: Kim Reynolds showed how song lyrics became a key part of ’68 youth culture.

One striking theme was the degree to which this ‘counter-cultural’ moment was institutionally supported and disseminated. Helle Strandgaard Jensen showed that the state broadcasting of Denmark incorporated radical voices into its children’s television. My own paper, on Leila Berg’s Nippers series, considered the intersection between progressive education and mainstream educational publishing and policy. Cécile Boulaire showed that even traditional Catholic publishers in France produced radical material in the form of children’s magazine Okapi.

Left: Leila Berg’s ‘Nippers’ books for children grew out of her activism on children’s rights. Right: Anti-authoritarianism for supper? Critics of Leila Berg’s ‘Fish and Chips for Supper’ complained that it gave children ‘the wrong sense of values’ and that ‘father should not be the object of criticism’.

Another theme which preoccupied me throughout the conference was the question of intersectionality. One of the most striking aspects of the May ’68 revolution in Paris was the way it brought together different constituencies: students and workers manned the barricades together.

Yet I felt that very few of the examples considered fully expressed such unity between children’s rights and the interests of other groups. Children are not only children, of course: they are also defined by their gender, class, ability, race etc. Many texts sought to explore the power dynamics of such categories, and many promoted the rights and agency of the child, but neither the cultural productions of the sixties nor our scholarship achieved a fully intersectional understanding of childhood. I wondered if this gap was a partial explanation for our sense that many of these radical ideas had not had as great a legacy as some of us wished.

The conference closed with the accounts of practitioners: children’s librarians, curators, and educators. Alex Thorp, Education Curator at London’s Serpentine Gallery, showed some fascinating examples of projects which demonstrated the radical potential of play and the degree to which the young people of today continue to experience their relationship with the adult world as one of oppression. All the discussion in this closing session drew attention to a crucial gap in the conference discussion: almost none of our papers included the accounts of actual children. For scholars of childhood, the question of how to include the child’s voice is a perennial problem, but our subject really brought this to the fore. The network hopes to partially address this in an exhibition on ‘Le ’68 des enfants’ taking place May-June 2018, to be held at the French children’s archive Heure Joyeuse, preserved at the Mediathèque Françoise Sagan. Working with graphic designer Loic Boyer, the archive will develop an interactive exhibition which invites children to participate; accompanying workshops with illustrators will also help to bring children’s voices to the fore.

It was a stimulating few days which generated many productive conversations and (I hope) some lasting collaborations. For me, it was a great reminder of how interlinked different aspects of children’s culture are: I can’t wait to do more work with colleagues from other disciplines. Perhaps together we can revive something of the spirit of ’68!

Perhaps some of you were ‘children of ‘68’ – or the children of those children! What was the spirit in your country? And how has it shaped children’s culture today?

A Fresher at Fifty

The Occasional Diary of a Mature Postgraduate Student at Newcastle University’s Children’s Literature Unit

Jennifer Shelley

Episode two: an Ancient Monument

Driving to the station to catch the train to Newcastle University last September my mind went back to 1984 when I was starting university for the first time. Back then, my mum and dad drove me from Dundee to Edinburgh, where I was to spend four years studying English literature – and making friends that I’m still close to today.

Now, however, my mum’s sadly no longer with us, and rather than being an 18-year-old excited about leaving home for the first time, I’m 50 years old, married, and living in the Perthshire countryside with my husband, greyhounds and chickens.

But the me of today still has a few things in common with that eager teenager: for one thing, my taste in music hasn’t changed much – David Bowie is blasting out of the car’s CD player, just as he was back in the 1980s, although back then it would have been a cassette player. And the 50-year-old me was also excited about starting a new degree, although a bit nervous about what it would entail.

Jen in her halls room back in the 80s
Jen in her halls room back in the 80s

Even getting to this point had been a bit of a journey: having decided to apply to do an MLitt in children’s literature, one of the first steps was pulling together the information to prove I met the entrance requirements. Essentially what I needed was a 2:1 or higher in a related subject, so that should have been tickety-boo: but I hadn’t reckoned with my great age.

The application form required ‘transcripts’, by which it meant a documentation that showed all the courses I had taken – and the marks achieved – in my undergraduate degree. I had my degree certificate, but had never even heard of transcripts.

A call to my alma mater – the University of Edinburgh – confirmed that they could send me an academic statement, but the kind young man on the other end of the phone explained it might take some time. ‘You see, our records don’t go back that far, so we’ll have to dig it out of the archives,’ he said. Yes, it seems there is a room somewhere in Edinburgh University filled with big books containing the details of past students – and to retrieve mine would involve someone physically going to the room and wading through these tomes and taking a copy. This process was set in motion, and when the document finally arrived, it turned out to be merely confirmation of my first degree and overall result. The ever-helpful and patient postgraduate admissions staff at Newcastle confirmed that this was okay – they are happy to be flexible with mature students, it seems – so the application progressed, and ultimately was successful.

Arriving at the university campus in all its freshers’ week pomp also brought back memories, although there were of course some differences: this time, I was (sadly) largely disregarded by the eager young students peddling leaflets about societies, or offering cut-price beers or nightclub entry to people who looked like they might be freshers. ‘I’m a student too,’ I screamed (but silently).

After the process of registration was completed – one member of staff kindly confirmed I wasn’t quite the oldest she’d seen that day – I had an initial meeting with my supervisor, Lucy Pearson. More of an informal chat, we discussed my areas of interest and she recommended some initial reading. She also reminded me of events set up to welcome postgraduates, including a get-together (with quiz!) held by the Children’s Literature Unit, and a drinks reception organised by the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics.

The latter, I confess, was an eye-opener: chatting with a couple of recent graduates about to embark on PhDs, I enquired about their subject areas, and realised I didn’t even understand what they were. What on earth was ecocriticism, for example (when I found out I immediately started wondering if I could apply it to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School books – and why not?).

All in all, it was a lot to take in, and a lot to think about – would this ancient monument be able to cope?

 

We really hope so! In the meantime, if you missed episode one of A Fresher at Fifty, read it here.