Olly Mann goes stationery shopping but finds himself on an unexpected trip down memory lane instead…
It all started because I wanted a lever arch file. Generally I’m more of a box file man, but a new project is generating a significant stack of notes in sub-categories, thereby screaming out for a chunky folder and colourful dividers. So, off I trotted to WHSmith—relishing not only the distraction, but also the opportunity to snap up a discounted Mary Berry book and two-for-one pack of Sharpies—when suddenly I remembered: Mum’s attic.
Stored away in her ceiling rafters are a dozen lever arch files, most embellished with a gold University of Oxford logo, containing notes from my undergraduate degree. When I shoved them up there in 2002, I thought they might be required for my forthcoming literary career; surely, it would only be a matter of months before I again had cause to reference my notes on Chaucerian dialect and the contribution of immigration to mutual intelligibility. (Instead, my first graduate job was researching a show for ITV about gobby estate agents).
But I had also wanted to keep the folders themselves. In the student’s union shop I had shelled out an extra £1 per folder—the equivalent of a pint of Strongbow in the college bar—to get ones emblazoned with the university logo. I’d been the first in my family to go to university, and I was proud to get into Oxford, of all places. I wanted to milk the opportunity for all it was worth: the world-class tutorials, the student media scene, and, yes, the chance to mince around town clutching at stationary inscribed in Latin.
"As I ventured into Mum’s attic, an Aladdin’s cave of junk revealed itself: a bicycle pump, a moth-eaten Santa outfit, gravel for a goldfish bowl…"
For roughly three years, Mum’s been hassling me to remove my dusty stash of Oxford merch from her attic. I’ve always refused, because a) she and her house guests can’t see what’s up there anyway, so what does it matter, and b) it’s a really old house that’s pretty draughty in winter, so dumping piles of paperwork up there is basically providing her with insulation, so really she should thank me.
But, finding myself in need of a lever arch file, it seemed silly to go and buy one. As I ventured into Mum’s attic, an Aladdin’s cave of junk revealed itself: a broken bicycle pump, a moth-eaten Santa outfit, 3D glasses for a Sega Master System, gravel for a goldfish bowl, some counterfeit Louis Vuitton holdalls. It was hard to focus on the prize. But, right at the end of the loft, sandwiched between some faded Halloween decorations and a upside-down Betamax, there it was: my hoard of folders.
I’d envisaged it being pretty straightforward to chuck out the scribbles contained therein. It is painfully obvious I will never again require my teenage thoughts on the travel diaries of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. But, as soon as I opened up a folder, to rip out the pages, I found myself scanning the content. You know, just to be sure.
Hours flew by. Nostalgia, I guess you’d call it. I’d forgotten so much! Not only the literature I had studied—did I really write three-thousand words on Tennyson’s portrayal of fruit cake? How is that possible?—but the style and tone of my undergraduate writings, too: the footnotes I had to tediously double-check after each draft; the anonymised candidate number I was required to print in the header of my thesis; the double-spaced font that (I believed) gave my work the impression of intellectualism… but also, happily, doubled my page count so it appeared that I’d done more work than I actually had.
Reappraising the red marks in the margins, I reflected that the tutor who made them—who seemed scarily omnipotent at the time—was in fact younger than I am now. There was one essay in particular, about Harold Pinter’s presentation of the past, that he picked apart like a carcass. But, considering his comments now—some phrases I’d employed were too journalistic, some points I’d made were tautologous—they all seemed entirely fair. At the time, I’d thought he was being deliberately harsh on me, because I hadn’t shown up to all his classes. But now I realised: if he had really wanted to punish me, he wouldn’t have bothered reading my essay at all. He was just trying to kick me up the bum. It worked.
I thought back to my classmates who, the moment they graduated, threw their notes in the bin (recycling didn’t really exist in 2002), or, in one flamboyant example, built them into a massive bonfire. I was glad to have a moment to look again at my archive.
A few hours later, I did throw the notes away. But I couldn’t quite bear to part with the essays. I dusted the files down and, half a bottle of Flash later, repurposed 11 of them. But one now has “University Work” written on its spine, and sits proudly on my office shelf. I probably won’t open it for another couple of decades. But I suspect the fifty-something me will be pleased I held on to it.