A Self-Portrait by Hayley Jade Cannon
Since my first day at University, reading English at St-Anne’s, I have learned more about myself and the way the world works than I have learnt about any novel, poem or play. I grew up in Luton with my Mum, Dad, little brother Jordan and various pets en route. I have always had a very stable family life and my home, the house I’ve lived in for as long as I can remember, is a happy one. I think my parents compliment each other well and made a good team with regards to raising my brother and I. Their roles are very fixed in my mind. My Dad is the breadwinner: he pays the bills and paid for my music lessons; while my Mum dealt with me on much more of an emotional level. She listened (listens) to my problems and was never judgmental or prudish in the way I imagine many mothers to be. My parents’ real strength however, when I actually stop and think about it, was that these ‘fixed roles’ were not really fixed at all. My parents were not just parents, but real people; and as I have got older, I relate to them more and more in this way. Some of my most vivid memories are those moments when my Dad did something very Mum-like; the afternoon he sat down and gave me advice on my first boyfriend, relating my own end-of-the-world saga to experiences he’d had. Or when Mum became Dad and told me ‘get on with it’. Those words had far more resonance coming, infrequently as they did, from her instead of him. These days it’s all got very interesting. Recently exposed to the adult world, my Dad advises me on form-filling and C.V.’s, while my Mum slips me the odd tenner that makes me feel, reassuringly, like a kid again.
I’ve been at Uni for a year and a half now, and I have exactly a year and a half to go. I’d always assumed that getting into Oxford would be my greatest achievement, but on arriving here it quickly became apparent that my biggest achievement would be to stay. I always came top of the class in school, but was never one to boast or show-off. I would get embarrassed if I had to tell someone my G.C.S.E results because their reactions always reminded me that I was somehow different to them, and I didn’t want people not to like me because of that. In hindsight though, I can see that I must have derived a lot of confidence from being a high achiever; although I can honestly say I was unaware of this at the time. At Oxford it’s easy to feel average, like there’s nothing about you that makes you special. I now see that at home I was only ever a big fish in a small pond. In the first year I played at being class-clown. I was always the first to make some cutting joke whenever the opportunity arose. But now I think that this was just me trying to find other ways to stand out, alternative ways to be special. For a while I felt the façade I’d cultivated served me well. People often asked me to be their tutorial partner and I had frequent invites to the pub. But I didn’t go to Oxford to be some other clever person’s drinking partner.
At the end of my first year I got my first ever shoddy report. I felt like I’d been found out, like my tutors had finally cottoned on to the fact that I was only just hanging on in here. Oxford is hard. The work is hard and there’s a hell of a lot of it. In my first year, uprooted, away from home for the first time, this was very nearly too much for me. I spent so much of my first year feeling down. But this report, I feel, has triggered something of a change in me. I’ve realised that I spend more time worrying than I do working, and if I could only learn to channel this mental energy into doing the things I should be, my marks would improve. I have a love hate relationship with the way I think. I am a sensitive, perceptive person and I think a lot. At best, these are fantastic tools to have. If I wasn’t so acutely aware, I’d probably never be able to spot the subtle nuances of a text, let alone write about them. These characteristics are the source of creativity, but they can also be dangerous. Left on my own for too long, I have a tendency to think myself into a depression. Using these tools on yourself, applying them inwardly, can be very destructive. My goal for this term is to get a report that’s better than the last one; and ultimately, I’d like to leave Oxford with a 2:1. I very nearly didn’t write that, the bit about the 2:1, because I’d be so disappointed if I made this goal official and then failed to see it through. But, I guess that goes to show how much it means to me, and so I’d better leave it in.
One of the strangest things about being a student, something I’m surprised other students don’t comment on more often, is the way you lead a double life. Students live in two different places, have two different sets of friends and, in the case of Oxford versus Luton, have two different lifestyles in each. Luton has a reputation for being a bit of a dump; in fact we’ve just won the title ‘Crap Town 2005’. I’m inclined to agree yet, for me, Luton has a lot over Oxford. The friends you have at home are special because you’ve known them all your life. They have known you as a child, as a teenager and as you are now. More than this, they have seen all sides of you. I believe that between old friends, a kind of unconditional love is born, or something very close to it. You can have cross words safe in the knowledge that you won’t incur any long-term consequences. You can screw up and you’re forgiven - that is such a privilege.
There is someone at home (I’m not sure what to call him: friend? ex? Our status is forever in flux) who I could write a book on regarding this subject. We split up for the first time two years ago on Valentine’s Day, but have been on and off ever since. Nic is someone who’s seen me at my worst and has been there for me at my most vulnerable. He is loyal in spite of himself at times and makes me feel so secure and protected. He has come to represent all that I love about Luton, about home, that I miss when I’m at uni. High-flyers are often so ambitious they have little time for anyone other than themselves, but Nic has always had time for me. But (and here’s where Oxford has it over Luton…) I’ve met people at uni who I’ve experienced such an immediate and intense connection with, people whose minds I admire, that it makes me think to have this and romance would be the most amazing thing possible. Half of me aspires to this ideal, while the other half can’t let go of what I’ve already got. I’m not very good at not being with Nic because this always leaves such a big, empty void, and I miss things about him. But I’m not very good at being with him either because I feel the presence of an absence in our relationship. Sometimes I resent education because it irreversibly changes the way you think, and if you’re not in the right room with the right people, you find yourself feeling very isolated, no-one else quite thinking in the same - or sometimes even similar - way to you. It’s very confusing when you feel lonely sitting in a room with someone you think you love. Maybe I need to reconsider where I sit from now on. Maybe I don’t know how lucky I am. Right now, I can honestly say I don’t know what to believe.
In the future I’d like to travel. I’m not motivated by money, but there are so many places I want to see that I’m starting to think about it more. I’d love to live on the continent for a few years, somewhere the pace of life is more relaxed, where people eat and drink together, and there are no such things as alarm clocks or time-tables. If I were to raise a family though, I can’t imagine settling down anywhere other than England. I would love to have children but I reckon I’ll be thirty-something before I do. My Mum, like so many women in her generation, had me in her early twenties. But the way I feel now at twenty (well nearly twenty), there are still too many things I want to do for me before I even begin to think about having a baby. If and when I do have children, I’d like to live near to my own parents so they could play an active role as grandparents. My Mum would never try to stop me if I decided to bring my kids up abroad, but I know she really wouldn’t like that so I don’t think I would. As it happens, this all suits me fine any way. I would like to live close to my family.
If I had to choose one person whom I admire, it would have to be Simon Armitage. I once went to see Carol Ann Duffy and Benjamin Zephaniah read their poetry, and Simon Armitage was there. But at the time, I didn’t really know who he was and didn’t appreciate his work. It was only a few months later when I was flicking through the programme I began to read his poems and take them in. One of the nicest afternoons I have had was when I sat in my garden, under our willow tree, and read Book of Matches from cover to cover in the sun. Poetry is often too dense to read for any length of time, but there’s a simplicity about Armitage’s work that is so warming you feel impelled to read on. Everything he writes rings true and he has a remarkable talent for capturing the beauty of the everyman and the common-places of the everyday. My favourite poems of his are To His Lost Lover, ‘No convictions - that’s my one major fault’, ‘Thunder and lightning hardly ever upset me’, ‘I am very bothered when I think’ and ‘It ain't what you do, it's what it does to you’.
If I had to think of one message to give to the world, it would be one encouraging tolerance. A few people, when I’ve told them I study literature, have asked me what transferable skills I’ll gain from this. How can ancient Anglo-Saxon texts, for example, be at all relevant to anyone today? The most important things I have learnt from studying English are that no matter how different people appear to be, there will always be truths that unite us all, and that anyone can learn from anyone else. At Uni I have had to read very old texts that, left to my own devices, I would not have ever considered giving a go because the language makes them seem so inaccessible. More often than not though, the initial battle with the language has paid off and I have come away from these texts with messages from our distant ancestors that make them seem much closer, much more like me. Some of the recurring themes in Anglo-Saxon literature are the transience of material goods, loyalty and the opposition of community spirit versus isolation. All of these themes are relevant today. It is easy to be prejudiced against authors, against people, who at a first glance seem nothing like ourselves. Nine times out of ten though, if you dig deep enough, you can find common ground. I may not be able to design a car or devise a business plan, but reading widely teaches you to embrace diversity. It is the best cure for ignorance, second only to meeting all the world’s different people in the flesh.
As I’m coming to a close, the thought of being misread and judged keeps playing on my mind. I can’t help but feel somewhat under scrutiny as I offer up this description of myself. Writing a portrait of your self is liberating but quite scary too. When you converse with people face to face you can witness their reactions and defend your self if they disagree with you over something. On paper you’re susceptible to being type-cast because everything you write seems that much more concrete. People are infinitely complex, and they are always changing too. Any portrait you create, even the most honest one, can only ever be a snap-shot of a person in time. And there is always more that can be added to a portrait, something that could make the difference between the reader liking or disliking the subject, perhaps. Much of this portrait has been dedicated to discussing the acceptance of others. Without wanting to undermine this message, I think what I would also like to ask is for people to accept me.