Flying With Excess Baggage

The first thing I said to The Book Trust who administrate the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for fiction  which they wanted me to judge, was No. I found some excuse about being on tour. But the truth is this:  in my head it rang out “you didn’t go to university you friggin fraud”.

That I have written four books edited one faded into insignificance. That I’ve read in the most named universities of Britain and travelled the world as a writer faded into insignificance. That I’ve judged both the Arvon Prize for poetry and The Macmillan African Writers Prize faded into insignificance.  That my first book was published at 21 meant nothing. That I have been a writer full time for my entire adult life meant nothing. I was carrying the cross welded onto my back  by the Baptists foster parents. And it’s my cross and I’m clinging to it. Then there was the childrens homes.  The statistics for the university attendance of children who are in children’s homes/the “care” system  is atrocious.

Such as it is, this  contradiction, is never far from my mind. Not that I lack confidence, just that it equalizes with my past which says i’m all smoke and mirrors. This manifests in that I am constantly either proving I am not smoke and mirrors or giving the finger to anyone whom I perceive to be saying that I am. In other words I spend alot of my time shooting myself in the foot.

When the Guardian covered my first book Tender Fingers In A Clenched Fist  in 1988 beneath the headline it read  something like  “ Lemn Sissay proves that there it is not just the  Oxbridge set that get through”. For the next seven years I  secretly looked for the university called “Oxbridge”. That is after reading at Ruskin in Oxford Jesus college in Cambridge and many more of those two cities. It was a gentle click when I realised that
Oxbridge was a mixture of  the two.  Thankfully I hadn’t told anyone and it was my secret.

“No I said. I can’t”   I was on tour of America and Canada and realised that I couldn’t read the forty or so novels. “That’s no problem” said Tarryn  the overly cheerful Book Trust Employee. “We can pay for Excess Baggage”.  And so it was thus that with absolute dedication to the prize the book trust the judges and my enjoyment of reading I lugged forty books on tour around America and Canada, pretending that I had time to read.

Writers who did not go to university? There are many. But I couldn’t be bothered doing the research to list them all.  The previous sentence was a joke!  Not funny I know, but a joke all the same.  The list would include  Yates,  Edgar Alan Poe and  Gore Vidal and as women were only relatively recently encouraged into education I expect that previous to  a certain time there were no intelligent women at all who would neither want to vote or contribute to the culture of Britain. Please post me names of writers and artists  who did not go to university.

Truth is that my not going to university was a systematic, albeit unsaid,  approach by government through its social service, knowing that at 18 years old I was out of their hands and they had no legal social or emotional obligation towards me, to stop me pursuing education.  And what was important to me was what I was told was important to me. Get out get a flat  and get a job.  A stones throw away from dickens depictions.

In the days of singledom when a woman says  “what car do you drive?”  I take pride in two things. Firstly in saying I don’t drive, I immidiately opt out of the “how much do you earn” stupidness. And secondly I got an insight into who she was. All while simply  listening.  Likewise education. A black Oxbridge  novelist once said to me “so you’re the competition”.  In that I was a poet and he a novelist  clearly showed himself up for being – how can I put this – an arse. Even as a joke it didn’t work. But the sadest thing was, that this same  writer signed his book to me in Latin – a language which, however beautiful, he knew  I could not read. Neither did he translate.

 Education, in whatever form should be a right for all. But it is few that come to know it, such as I, as a gift. I am thoroughly educated. How you define education will and should reflect upon what and how much it means. I must remember to claim back the cost for excess baggage. I kept the receipts.

4 thoughts on “Flying With Excess Baggage

  1. It's interesting to me that a bachelors degree still somehow confers special status. I did not expect to go to university and was fortunate that at the time I went there were loans, grants and bursuraries available to low income students and the fees/cost of living was much lower. Having completed a university degree, I believe that they represent a high tolerance for hoop jumping, and a specific skill set that allows someone to take in information and regurgitate it as appropriate. Twenty years later I can remember little of what I learned because most of it had no practical applications to my life. I believe that having a university degree has as much to do with opportunity as intelligence.
    I admire people who have made a life for themselves without a secondary education or bachelor's degree. Their hard won knowledge and skills remain with them. My brother is a brilliant master carpenter. People pay a lot of money for his skills and treat him like crap because to them, he is merely a builder. I vividly remember being indoctrinated with the idea that I would not just be a university graduate, I would be a professional. I've met many other professionals, just about everything one can do that requires skill and intelligence is a profession. I have also learned that intelligence is meaningless without humilty, compassion.
    I also feel like a fraud. I did manage to get a degree, however I come from a working class background and have spent most of my adult life living below the poverty line. It seems to me that people who have the good fortune of a good education and well paying job have access to amenities which they often delude themselves into believing that they have worked hard for and are entitiled to, therefore people who have not had access to similar opportunities are somehow less than adequate, have not made sufficient effort etc. It's easier to swallow than to accept that many of the circumstances of our lives are beyond our control.
    We are all flying with excess baggage, some of us have the ability to accept it and others – well I guess they've yet to figure it out.

  2. I can really empathise with the comments here. I did get to University coming from West Bromwich which is one of the most deprived areas in England. One of two people out of a year of 150 to do so. I went largely as there was now work of any description in the 80s in the midlands and this was a decent alternative.
    I had an expectation when I got there that everyone was going to be so much cleverer than me. No what- they weren't! Most were significantly less clever and articulate than the people in West Bromwich who never had the opportunity to go because the schools were poorly resourced and expectations of achievement were low.
    Even now this is still the case- education has expanded but we still don't get enough kids from poor areas into schools. What we have largely achieved is to make it possible for all the middle class kids to get a degree.
    Okay feel strongly about this so enough of a rant. Your origins are for reference not for residence. Lemn you are an articulate gifted human being degree or no degree this ain't going to change!

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