How easily can one's confidence be knocked by the marking of a student's essay? Doesn't the grading of an undergraduate's work reassure an academic of his own - that no matter the weak arguments, tired ideas or lazy thinking in the articles, the thoughts still look impressive next to the fumblings of an undergrad? That is what I had always believed in the years doing post-doctoral work in England, and in the five years of teaching at a perfectly adequate institution in one of Scotland's foremost cities. I had moved up from the south of England, after doing an undergraduate degree at Birmingham, and a post-grad at East Anglia. With a deposit from my parents, and a permanent contract from my employers, I managed to secure a mortgage on a one-bedroom flat near one of the campuses, and after half a decade my life felt comfortable and secure. I was seeing one of my colleagues at the university, but there was no commitment expected, it would seem, and certainly none forthcoming from me. I liked and cared about Hannah; I knew that I wouldn't easily find another woman so tolerant, so undemanding and so easy to be around. As I would spend a couple of nights a week at her place, and she would stay a couple of nights at mine, we always managed to give each other the space required for doing our own projects, for going out with our own friends, and while I occasionally slept with other women, and I knew she still felt close to a long-term ex-lover, there was an emotional affinity there. Life seemed about as good as it could be despite the occasional nagging uncertainty that I wasn't producing enough work and not always of the highest quality when I did. But these were no more than twinges; nothing so sharp as an existential pain.
That is, until the marking of that essay, or, more precisely I should say, two essays. The paper that initiated the trouble was not an essay from one of my own students, but from a student who was studying with Hannah, We both taught on the theory side, teaching film and photography students the arcane and abstract aspects of their work, for which most of them thought they were a semi-irrelevance next to the immediacy of their own hands-on projects. I'm not so sure if Hannah didn't agree, having given up photography as anything other than a passing hobby after finally deciding to do a PhD in the slightly more academically practical area of theory. For me, though, theory was always the thing - I actually believed that most good photographers and filmmakers needed to absorb it if they were to escape the clichs and predictable story-telling devices beloved by the mainstream. So Hannah had given this particular essay a low A, and had a number of harsh criticisms to make, but thought - she said to me - that if it was the student's own work it certainly showed promise. Looking at it I undeniably agreed, except that the promise it showed was the promise I'd supposedly fulfilled - the student had clearly plagiarised the essay from me. Lest this sound completely idiotic on his part - plagiarising from a paper by one of the lecturers at the university at which he was studying - a couple of things should be said. One was that when publishing I would use a more formal name than when I taught: I was Bill Smith for teaching; William A. Smith for publishing purposes. Secondly I'd published the article not as a faculty member here; but whilst doing post-doctoral work at East Anglia. The student clearly hadn't made the link.
But of course any sense of gall I had over the act of plagiarism was very much secondary to the troubled sense that my work was really no more than promising. Especially when Hannah had read a number of my articles and had always talked effusively about them. Were they really not very good, or were the others that I had shown her better than this one that I hadn't? I didn't talk to Hannah about this the next time we met up for dinner over at her place, but I did ask her a couple of questions about the student's work I'd second marked. Was it really so average I asked. She explained that it had a few good ideas in it but that the argument never quite went anywhere. I enquired how he might have improved the essay; and she proposed that he could have offered more of an argument and less a series of impressions. I slept over at Hannah's that night; but couldn't really sleep as I kept thinking of my own work, of the impressions I offered rather than the arguments I pursued. Usually when I stayed over I would go in to university with Hannah, but that morning I woke especially early and went straight home, picked up a pile of my articles from the flat, and took them into university. As I looked over them during a free hour, I noticed that Hannah had a case. At various stages in the essays I would drop a point and move on to the next one, leaving the previous one dangling as if I were going to pick it up later on in the paper and never quite doing so. Why had Hannah never commented on this aspect of my work - why hadn't I myself even noticed it? Or for that matter my editors.
But then I quickly looked at a couple of other articles in the journals and observed they did much the same. I found myself wondering whether as academics we're a little like drivers who've passed our test and who then criticise learners for all the mistakes that we have ourselves been making. Then another nagging thought occurred to me; what if Hannah did know that the student had plagiarised my work and, knowing that I was the second marker, knew I would of course immediately notice the plagiarism and that this was her way of being critical? Though as I've suggested she never really criticised my work, and usually praised it, I also recalled on one or two occasions she believed that I wasn't someone who could take criticism - that when other academics had questioned my papers at conferences, I would respond quite truculently. Was this her way of finally criticising me? And yet around this time these thoughts were put to one side by a problem arising elsewhere that was not unconnected to the whole article issue, but at that moment made it less relevant, or perhaps just contextualized that relevance.
At the university students would usually spend the first year and a half doing photography, and then would choose whether to continue with photography or to move into film. That term a number of students had chosen to focus on film, with photography as a subsidiary. One such student was Mark McNamee, a mature student in his early thirties who, he announced as the class introduced themselves, did an undergraduate literature degree through in Glasgow, and had over the last ten years done odd jobs, written bits and pieces and taken lots of photographs. The comments he offered in class were generally intelligent and incisive, but no more so than many of the comments of the other students. But it was Mark's written work that was the revelation. For his first assignment he wrote on practicality and impracticality in theory, discussing which theorists he thought had something useful to offer practitioners, and those he thought didn't. This wasn't a blanket dismissal of those theorists that had nothing to say and praise for those that did; he simply explained in quite straightforward yet detailed terms what thinkers he found useful to his own work; how they proved relevant. What was especially impressive was the way he moved from thinker to thinker, point to point, before arriving at a conclusion that seemed not just to stem from a summation of the points made, which would be impressive enough, but from an underpinning sense that all the thinkers he had utilised positively were supporting an argument that he really believed in. I had a strong sense that he'd made these thinkers into friends, friends the way Kafka described Sentimental Education, reckoning only two or three people had been as dear to him as Flaubert's book. In my articles I never felt I'd ever managed to make any of the writers I'd quoted more than acquaintances. Was this really the problem with the work, or just another problem to add to the one that Hannah had apparently inadvertently pointed out?
I never did raise the issue with Hannah over the second marking, and when I might have been tempted to have talked to her the day I received Mark's essay, it was the very day Hannah went away for the weekend: she was off to a conference. So, rather last minute, I got in the car and travelled up north to go hill-walking on my own. This wasn't uncommon. Usually if Hannah and I would go up to the Highlands together, she would spend some of the time walking with me, the rest of the time, if we were walking in the same area in which her parents lived, visiting them, who stayed a few miles outside of Aviemore. And it was to Aviemore I decided to go, arriving quite late in the evening, then booking into the bunk house just behind the high street, before sleeping soundly despite the preoccupations of that day, and perhaps also of the last few weeks. Mark's essay might have thrown me, but hadn't I felt just a bit tossed around emotionally by the plagiarism issue a couple of weeks before? Yet sleep came surprisingly easy. The next morning I woke early and reached my first peak by nine thirty. As I looked around the Cairngorms, one of which I'd just climbed, I didn't so much look at the landscape as saw the landscape looking at me. Maybe nature does this to everybody, but one of the things I've always found fascinating about it is the way it shows up one's mediocrity without creating unease in the body as it does so. Looking out at the hills it didn't really seem to matter at all whether I could turn other writers into any more than acquaintances. I also thought at that moment if I ever managed to do so, it wouldn't be for professional gain but for personal affirmation. It would be an achievement indeed if I could turn even one writer whom I greatly admired into somebody that could give me the well-being of the mountain peaks I looked across at, and the one I'd just climbed.
I returned back to the Aviemore town centre in the mid-to-late afternoon, laid down my back pack on a chair in The Highland hotel and ordered myself a hot chocolate and a single malt whisky. This would be the ritual if I could find anywhere that would serve chocolate made with hot milk, and that also had a decent selection of Malts. As usual when I was in Aviemore I chose a relatively local whisky - the Dalwhinnie - and sipped it slowly and interchangeably with the hot chocolate. As I did so I picked up the book I had taken with me out of the bag and started reading. I must have been engaged in the book for about forty minutes when I looked up and saw sitting at the bar a couple of Hannah's parents' friends, who lived just on the outskirts of the town, in a lovely cottage at Coylumbridge that Hannah and I had visited once when we were strolling around the area. Should I go up and say hello, I wondered? Would they recognize me - I had met them no more than a couple of times - and if they did what was I going to say to them? While I sat there thinking about what I would do, the husband got off his bar stool and moved in the direction of the door as if to go and get something from his car, and as he was passing glanced down in my direction, looked back up and then glanced down again. He stood there a moment, I smiled, and he shook his head and asked me if I was who he thought I was, and I said yes I was and that I was just up for the weekend hill-walking. We shook hands and he asked how long I'd been sitting there - I said for about half an hour or more, reading my book. He said he and Mary had been there for about forty minutes and hadn't noticed me at all. But heck it isn't very often he said that somebody sits in the Highland hotel reading a book. He should have noticed that.
He asked where Hannah was; at a conference, I replied. He wondered what I was doing that evening, and I couldn't find a quick enough excuse, or didn't care to, and said that I was free. He said Hannah's parents were coming over for dinner and I really ought to join them. They'd love to see me. I knew this was probably true - though my relationship with Hannah was hardly conventional, it maybe looked like that from more than a hundred miles away, and whenever they visited, Hannah and I would often do things with them together. Maybe because they also already had three grandchildren from their son and his Australian wife, they hadn't put any pressure on Hannah to get married or have kids. Or that was presumably what I was semi-consciously thinking when I accepted the dinner invite: surely it was to be an innocuous event? As I've said, I really liked Bill and Mary's cottage the first time I saw it, and I liked it even more when I pulled into their drive-way later that evening, and was invited in. The last time I was there was the previous summer, in the mid-afternoon and with modest sunlight illuminating the interiors. Now, on a mid- March evening, the sitting room fire, with teeming book cases on either side, had been lit and several lamps distributed the light nicely and comfortingly around the sitting room that you could see, to your left, as soon as you walked in the front door. On the other side was the kitchen and dining area, which was again semi-open plan, and where I noticed the places were set and where a bottle of wine sat open on the table. Hannah's parents were fussing around the kitchen.
As Bill closed the front door behind me, he offered me a glass of wine and I said that would be lovely. While Mary prepared the dinner the rest of us went through to the sitting room where we all sat and talked about my work, Bill and Mary's recent holiday to Barcelona, and Hannah's parents' indecision over whether to stay in the Highlands or to move further south. It was on this latter point that the situation became slightly awkward. Though I'm sure it wasn't their original intention, they found themselves asking me whether they thought Hannah and I might at some stage have kids. She was their only daughter, she was in her early thirties, and they of course would love to have more grandchildren. Their son, they said, was thinking of moving to Australia with his family: he'd been offered work there and of course it was where his wife was from. Hannah's father apologised for seeming presumptuous or rude, but he said that if we were to have children, then that would make them more inclined to move back to Edinburgh where they were both born and where they'd been brought up as kids. How could I tell them I thought I had no interest in marrying Hannah and certainly never wanted children?
I tentatively asked if Hannah had talked about having kids, and her mother replied that she had done so only really in passing. Her father said they knew Hannah had always been very independent-minded, that maybe her almost only-child status made her self-sufficient: her brother was ten years older. But her work wouldn't be motivation enough in life, he supposed. It was that key comment about working not being enough that seemed to preoccupy me that evening, no matter if when we went through and ate in the kitchen other topics were discussed. I wanted to know, though didn't feel I quite had the right to ask, why Bill and Mary never had children. Had their work always been enough? Bill wrote novels, short stories and articles; Mary, children's books and community plays, and led many workshops. Had their work always been enough, I wondered? As I spent the next morning bagging a couple of Munros, and then had a light lunch before driving back down to Edinburgh, I wondered whether work was really enough for me. I thought again of Hannah's comments on the essay that was essentially mine. I also thought about the other essay by Mark, an essay that seemed so effortlessly to make friends out of the writers he respected and admired. Maybe Mark would never need children, I mused, because he saw the writers he had read as the emotional sustenance he needed from life. I don't think I could ever make such a claim, and that was perhaps because, if you like, I had met these writers and thinkers chiefly in a competitive environment. I wouldn't say that they intimidated me, especially, but my relationship with them was certainly formal; Mark's seemed decidedly informal and I couldn't help but look forward to his second essay to see if he would introduce a few new friends to me through his work, or at least allow me to meet once again the people with whom he was already very well acquainted.
It was with this thought in mind that, returning to Edinburgh, as I opened the door of my flat and walked into the sitting room with its modest selection of books, I felt for the first time that I really didn't believe I possessed a friend in the world in any of those pages. Is this partly what makes someone a writer, I wondered: the degree to which he's not just following literary tradition, but that he's actually partaking in it; that a book isn't some dead text but a living reality, a friend from another time and another place? At that moment I thought the only friend I really had was Hannah. But I also possessed just enough decency to wait to find out whether this was really only a passing feeling, or whether it was here to stay, and if it was here to stay whether my request to marry Hannah would merely be coming from my own intimations of mediocrity, or realising, at least for me, the importance of someone with whom I could be with in this time and in this place. I stood there trying to make sense of this feeling, wondering whether it was closer to the mood I felt looking out at the Cairngorms, or to the nagging sense of insecurity thinking of my own half-baked articles.
© Tony McKibbin