There are a few moments in every life where an unexpected fork opens up in the road. Whether these new roads are truly new directions or whether you would have arrived at the same destination anyway is a matter for debate.
In any case, here is one. Once I had dropped out of school I spent several years working in factories, fast-food restaurants and cafeterias. A few years into this life one of my roommates (an aspiring eye doctor) mentioned that I should consider going to university. I had then no idea how one would go about doing such a thing, given that I was still years short of graduating high school. But it sounded interesting; by then I had realized that fame and fortune would not simply be heaped on me out of the blue.
So I went to the bookstore, to see if I could find a compact guide to help me figure out how to get to college. In the relevant section I came across a slim volume “How to get into Oxford and Cambridge”. Not “if” or “whether”, but “how”. Images of Oscar Wilde comedies, Brideshead Revisisted and Lytton Strachey came to my head. I think the book cost about 9 pounds, but I bought it anyway.
As soon as I read it I realized that getting into Oxford or Cambridge was harder than just following some “how to” instructions. However, the book did spell out in detail how the process worked, the requirements, the exams, the interviews.
I’ve always had the power of dreaming fierce dreams that I make come true through sheer willpower. This became one of them. I began taking evening classes to do my A-levels. I underwent the requisite interviews. I got conditional offers – perhaps because the admission officers were sure they’d never have to make good on them? In those days people who got their A-levels from adult education did not apply to Oxford or Cambridge; it was still a relatively closed club open only to the finer public schools and a few top-notch comprehensives.
In any case, I got the grades required by the conditional offer, and got into Oxford.
Well, I wasn’t very happy there. I was shy, intimidated and felt way out of my league. I was surrounded by confident, articulate, extremely bright young people. They seemed to live on another planet than me, a slightly older, poor ex-runaway, with a foreign accent.
I should have gone somewhere else and studied something else.
But I loved the countryside, the old buildings, the choir, the chapel, the music, apple orchards, the botanic garden, the darkrooms, punting. I cycled many miles every day. The smell of the Oxfordshire countryside in the late spring is still magical and transcendent to me.
It was the wrong decision, the right decision, the wrong decision and the right decision.
I gave me the confidence to believe that I can force visions into reality. It helped me get considered for what was a pretty great, very-hard-to-get first job. I wish I could say it fired my love of learning, but I have to admit that a lot of my studying was superficial, reproducing old knowledge rather than creating new. It took me a long time to learn how to do so later.
Anyway, just another chance encounter in a bookstore.