January 8, 2009

What? More Crime and punishment?

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc — Duchess @ 6:28 pm

There’s a little game going around where you get a theme for the week.  I’m not much of a team player, but I got interested in the varied responses to this week’s topc: guilt.

I’m not very keen on guilt either, but confession is quite another matter, and I am rather hoping that is what our ring master really meant.  Otherwise guilt is pretty boring, right?

My confession of the week comes up just because it is newly 2009, a nice round anniversary of 30 years since my senior year in college (which came in just a little late, because I was on the Seven Year BA Plan) . It’s also coming up to thirty years since I left the US and moved to England.

By 1979 I had quit dropping out and had been on the straight and narrow for a while. I went back to school and made good grades. Early in the new year I got a call from my best friend (who might not be my best friend anymore, but I still hope she is).  I had applied for a major, all expenses paid, scholarship to attend graduate school in England.  I had to apply from my home region, which was California (though it wasn’t really my home; that’s another story) and that’s where my friend was calling me.

I had already won what I figured was second prize –a free round trip flight to San Francisco, where I would be interviewed at the British Embassy.

There weren’t cell phones in those days and my friend telephoned me at my boyfriend’s house in LA, where I had gone after the interview. I was especially glad for the free ticket because my mother was living in Germany and for the second year in a row, Christmas was a makeshift arrangement.   California seemed like a good plan, especially if someone else was paying.

When my best friend called me she put on a serious sort of voice.  She said the letter had come.  I answered, trying to be brave, I didn’t get it, right?  There was a long pause and then she screamed, Yes, yes you did!

It was a happy moment.  Next, there were things I feel bad about – like telling my boyfriend he couldn’t come with me – but that’s not what I want to confess.

I flew back to the other side of the country.  My best friend and I had a flat on Mass Ave in Cambridge above a shop that sold “Hot” Coffee.  We always thought the quotes made it sound like a rumour.  I went to classes and took exams and meanwhile began to pay attention to foreign affairs in a way I never had.  I was going abroad, a sophisticated word meaning most definitely not in Kansas anymore.

There was a revolution going on in Iran, and in England, charming literary folk that they are, they were having what is still known as the Winter of Discontent.  I watched the news and worried about who I might root for in a threatened election.  I was pretty sure the Conservatives couldn’t be right, but was puzzled between Labour and the Liberals. 

Of course my friends all knew I would soon be off to England, and a few took delight in bringing me fresh information.  You know that country you are going to?  It’s falling apart.

I watched the tele too.  Where I was going the garbage wasn’t being collected and the dead weren’t being buried.  Far as I could see the whole country was on strike.

One bitterly cold day I biked back to our flat, picked up the post, and trudged up the stairs.  It was so cold in the flat I turned on the gas oven.  Hovering over it I opened a letter addressed to me.  It said I would be pleased to know that I was being sent to study in Edinburgh.

I wasn’t at all pleased to know! I was cold and I wanted to go to Oxford.  Dead bodies on the street were bad enough, but Edinburgh was practically in the Artic Circle.

I consulted a friend who had held the same scholarship recently.  He said, Everyone wants to go to Oxford.  The scholarship committee try to spread people out.  You need to make a good academic case of why it is important to you to be at a particular university, and then they will listen.

I did mean to make a good academic case, I promise.  I was planning to study the 19th century English novel and I went to the library to find out who was on the faculty at Oxford working on that subject, so I could take out some books.

I scanned down the list and came upon the name Mr A O J Cockshut, which, I am sorry to say, made me giggle enough that I had to leave the library.

Finally we get to the confession:

I left the library, bicycled back to my cold flat, pulled out my typewriter and answered my letter.  I wrote that I was tremendously grateful for the opportunity to attend Edinburgh University, but, as it happened, I had set my heart on studying with Mr A O J Cockshut of Oxford University whose work and scholarship I especially admired. 

I later came to know A O J as Tony.  He focused on the ceiling as he spoke and kept, along with his wife, a painfully thin mistress who always followed him several paces behind.  After twenty years or so the mistress faded away, or died of an improbably broken heart, and the wife remained.  While he was a Fellow of the college Tony was famous for mainly admitting red headed girls to study English.  After one year I ditched him as supervisor for someone considerably more distinguished.  Tony retired years ago and kindly invited me to his party.  I went, but I could tell he wasn’t certain who I was.  He repeatedly asserted that women never turned down offers of marriage.  I thought it was a curiously emphatic, but not inconsistent, position to take on such an occasion.

These days I see him every couple of weeks taking a shuffling walk in the University Parks.  I know he doesn’t recognize me, but even so I have tried nodding.  I should know better.  He has never once met my – or anyone else’s – eye.

Maybe he feels guilty about something.


  1. We all have things to feel guilty about, but if it got you out of the Arctic Circle, no worries over here! Plus, he had his own guilt to contend with. Thanks for playing! You’re linked and forgiven!

    Comment by Sprite's Keeper — January 8, 2009 @ 6:58 pm

  2. Hm, I thought I commented, not so sure now. You’re linked!

    Comment by Sprite's Keeper — January 8, 2009 @ 7:03 pm

  3. It’s probably due to a life of walking around with the name of Cockshut that causes him to not meet anyone’s eyes. How else can he keep from seeing them laugh at him? It’s kind of sad when you think about it.

    Comment by Midlife Slices — January 9, 2009 @ 7:28 am

  4. oh god, I’ve missed you!

    Comment by ByJane — January 10, 2009 @ 12:23 pm

  5. I love this story. Does that assuage your guilt? LOL

    Comment by Smart Mouth Broad — January 10, 2009 @ 5:29 pm

  6. Well it sounds like you took more advantage of him than vice versa and *you* don’t have a guilty conscience!

    Quite. Though Edinburgh is amazing too – it just rains a lot more!

    I always used to think men who were into redheads were somewhat dodgy until I realised I’d have no one to date if I didn’t respond! Mind you my current lover is totally open-minded about colouring and height (and even loves me for who I am) which is quite impressive!

    Comment by The Poet Laura-eate — January 12, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

  7. Okay. I should have been clearer. I don’t feel remotely guilty about this or feel the need to be forgiven. I was just playing a game. And I turned guilt to confession, because that was the game I preferred.

    My silly story, pretending to want to study with a man with a silly name, got me to Oxford. Of course I could have claimed I wanted to study with someone else — there were any number of faculty members with rational names. But I guess that would have been a different kind of fib.

    My entertainment at a silly name puts me in good company. Evelyn Waugh’s son, Auberon, who writes several entertaining columns, once claimed that all the Fellows at our College were called Cock-something. That was after he had dined with Mr Cockin, an eminent bone surgeon.

    Not long after the article appeared, Mr Cockin had occasion to prod my baby son’s unusual broken arm and asked him if his daddy was a Fellow of the College. And I didn’t giggle even once.

    Janie — no, I don’t think it made my supervisor unable to meet people’s eyes. Like other Brits, I think he rather traded in the name.

    Laura — I’m not sure you are right about Edinburgh… it is a little colder than Oxford, but I don’t think it has significantly more rainfall. It certainly seemed more remote to my long ago American self. Meanwhile, it sounds like you are lucky with your current lover. We should all be so lucky. Current sounds like a good word to me.

    Jane — I, and I am sure others, have been missing you.

    Comment by Duchess — January 12, 2009 @ 3:54 pm

  8. I have puzzled over your admission for several days. You certainly did Professor Cockshut no harm with your so-called deceit. At least it provided you with a funny story about a clearly British eccentric (how I love them) — and you got to go to Oxford! Edinburgh wouldn’t have been bad, but we have a friend who did his graduate work in Glasgow, which is right up there with inner-city Detroit in some respects, so at least you were saved that fate.

    You know me, I love a good tale, especially with a happy ending for all!

    Comment by msmeta — January 14, 2009 @ 11:02 am

  9. I guess the thing I was actually confessing to was frivolity. I could have named any number of other people, with perfectly sensible names — some I might even have heard of if I had paid attention. And it would have had the same effect. I would have probably been more certain to have got to Oxford.

    But no. I preferred to pretend a passion for the scholarship of a man with a silly name.

    Just because it was silly.

    I’m glad I haven’t quite grown out of that tendency. But sometimes it gets me into trouble.

    Comment by Duchess — January 21, 2009 @ 3:56 pm

  10. You know, I always suspected that it was my hair that got me into Hertford College to read English in 1980. Good to have it confirmed …

    Comment by Catherine — March 6, 2009 @ 3:15 am

  11. Catherine — in 1980 I think it was a dead cert. (I’m sure you were very clever too.) I’m curious how you made your way to this post. I hope it wasn’t by googling Mr Cockshut. I reasoned when I wrote this that my dozen or so readers could have no possible connection and my “secret” was safe…

    Comment by Duchess — March 6, 2009 @ 11:42 am

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