Well, there it is. I’m only 56, and I’ve finally achieved my last qualification (unless of course I go for a swimmer’s competency badge – I can’t swim at all, partly because a teacher once said ‘you are the wrong shape to swim.’ Bastard.)
Yes, I have an MA. This is probably the space, in case they chance on it, to apologise to any students on MA courses who have been taught by me. It’s true. You ended the course better-qualified than me. I just didn’t want to let you know that I felt a little fraudulent about it. I am glad, however, that I waited all this time. If I’d attempted to do an MA after my first degree, it would have been some cack-handed and constipated piece of prose about Malcolm Lowry. So the 35-year hiatus (not quite, but I’ll come to that) has been worth it. And I didn’t ever want an MA in Literature; I wanted an MA in Creative Writing. There weren’t any on offer when I originally graduated. I am quite glad that the phrase ‘Creative Writing’ has stuck around, too. For a while in the early 1980s, it went out of style, and ‘Original Writing’ had a bit of a vogue.
Now, of course, I could have had an MA (Oxon) if I’d wanted. When I reached the end of my three years at St. Catherine’s, Oxford, there was some small print on the final bill, to the effect that £13 would be deducted to pay for the automatic award of the MA after a decent interval of, I think, five years. I had a view about this. It wasn’t that I particularly objected to the weird system by which Oxford and Cambridge handed out Masters degrees to their successful undergraduates for a small consideration. I don’t think that even crossed my mind. No, my objection was that they were siphoning off £13 from my account. The small print said that you could opt out of this thievery. So I did. I kept the £13, and spent it, doubtless on second-hand records. I could in theory still cough up some money and become an MA (Oxon), I think, though the rate must have increased.
As I said, the ’35 year hiatus’ is not quite true, since I rashly decided to take a General Studies A level in 2001, partly because I was teaching it, and partly because of a small degree of guilt. Part of my job as a head of department was to tell students that taking only two A levels was Not Enough (which is true), and that, if they ‘dropped’ their third A level, which many wanted to, they might even be Liable For Payment. Behind my smiling-snarling facade, I was harbouring a bit of a guilty secret. I only had two A levels myself – having dropped the third (Economics) because I was pretty sure I would fail it. So – get a third A level, that was the hidden idea. I also wanted to see what I was putting my students through – it’s very educational having to sit and write for three hours at a go, when that’s what you’re asking the 18-year-olds in your charge to do. What terrified me most was not getting an A grade. The loss of face that would have entailed was colossal. I was quite bothered as the day drew nearer, which I needn’t have been. (Having said that, I did send for the papers – it was the first year in which they became legally yours – and one of the two markers objected very violently to my definition of what psychologists mean by ‘personal space’. He gave me 0 marks for my answer (he hadn’t read the marking criteria, I can tell you), and wrote the answer in the margin, with the coda ‘Simple as that.’ Bastard.) Amused by the process, I rang my mum. Two days later, a congratulations card arrived, with a ten-pound note in it. My mum was a great wiseacre.
Speaking of wiseacres, my Birmingham friend Mick has pointed out that, since I have a BA from Oxford and an MA to add to it, I can reasonably be called Bill Greenwell OBAMA.