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A golden glow greeted me as I stepped out of the Percy Building in the quadrangle at Newcastle University last Wednesday afternoon. The setting sun in the west had a clear corridor past the Hadrian Building and The Boiler House and struck the willow tree (I stand corrected if it isn’t a willow) outside the Hatton Building in front of the iconic arches on campus and lit up its branches like a flaming torch.

I was feeling proud of myself. Usually full of self-doubt and self-deprecation, I allowed myself a moment of congratulation as I stood on the steps watching my fellow students scuttle home from lectures.

I’d done it. I’d handed in my first submissions: a short story and two reflective essays. The last pieces of academic work I’d written were done on a typewriter with carbon paper. I had fond memories of staying up all night with my flatmate Jane, who was on the same course as me, with a packet of Bensons, a bottle of gin and cherry brandy to make Singapore Slings and the toaster and a packet of Mother’s Pride on the table spring to mind; but that was back in 1984.

Who knew that there was a tab on my laptop for adding footnotes when referencing? It had taken me three days of cursing and searching for tiny symbols before I realised this. (I am now a dab hand at adding footnotes if anyone else is stuck!) I was pleased with what I had written, and how I had got to grips with formatting and word processing.

I wrote an email to my Prose tutor, Lars Iyer, at the beginning of term after fudging an answer like a politician in class. Not understanding the question, let alone being able to come up with an answer, I had felt inadequate and had waffled something in reply. I’d beaten myself up on the train on the way home that night as I mulled over the question and in hindsight came up with an understanding of what I was being asked and what I should have said. I felt so stupid, blamed my age and doubted my academic ability. I explained that I felt like I’d arrived in Switzerland and was at the foot of a mountain. In one set of lectures, ‘Process’ we are wandering the green lower pastures and are gently learning about the process of becoming a writer. It is fairly light touch as we learn about keeping a notebook, developing the habit of daily writing, reading like a writer and learning to listen; all very important skills, and all well within my grasp. However, in the ‘Prose’ workshops I felt like I had arrived at the rock face. I had no idea where to put my hands or feet, and the other students, some of the fresh from undergraduate studies, were scaling up the mountain, way ahead of me. I felt stuck, unsure if I had the skills to climb. I was no academic, I was a mature student, a grandmother, having last written an essay over thirty years ago. (Mind you, I was very good at writing essays back then, and used to help other students write theirs.)

A gentle and kind email came back from my tutor, thanking me for my honesty in what he said was a ‘moving’ email. He said to relax, academic thinking would come, and besides, creative writing was not all about academia. They took mature students such as me on to the course for a reason. We had much to offer in terms of life experience and the stories that came with that. (I certainly have a few stories to tell!)

Last week I had a tutorial with Lars, following the submission of the first thousand words of my short story. After correcting some syntax and formatting errors, he suggested I cut the preamble of my story at the beginning as he wanted to get straight to the character’s monologue, which he had enjoyed. He said I had a wonderful narrative voice and had skills as a writer that couldn’t be taught. You could have knocked me down with a feather!

I’d come a long way from the therapy session when it was suggested I do an MA in Creative Writing to satisfy the urge in me to be radgy, but also to give me a conduit to get my story told. Little did I know that that conversation would lead me to be on the steps of the Percy Building having handed in a piece of memoir writing about a very painful time in my life that I had not dared visit for an awful long time. Not being good enough has been a recurring theme throughout my life, but here I was, standing on the steps of the English Department, having handed in my first pieces of work.

Looking at the golden glow in the branches of that tree, I felt a golden glow inside of me too.
Enough of this self-doubt and self-deprecation. That’s the last you’ll hear of it. I am good enough.

Handing on my first submissions. An essay on self-doubt and self-deprecation
A Golden Glow. An Essay on Self-Doubt and Self- Deprecation.

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Student Granny arrives on Campus
Student Granny arrives on Campus

The nickname, Student Granny was suggested by my friend Foz, who currently lives in New Zealand. Student Granny for me conjures up a character from that north-east publication Viz Comic. Anyone remember the ‘Fat Slags’? At the ripe old age of 57, I am returning to University and have got a place at Newcastle to study for my MA in Creative Writing. I want to write books!

My pencils sharpened and new bag packed, and the day I had been waiting for had finally arrived. Despite feeling rough following a terrible night’s sleep, I eagerly boarded the train at Bardon Mill. Menopausal insomnia wouldn’t be one of the reasons for bleary eyes amongst the younger students during Fresher’s Week, I guessed. I wondered if I would be the oldest, and worried about things like forgetting names, not being about to cope with the technology, needing the loo in the middle of lectures, and above all, being fat.

Stupid really, how being fat should be a worry. How on earth does size make you a better or worse writer? I am of the generation that was brought up with fat shaming, and I guess it runs deep.

Newcastle was busy and as I walked up the hill from Central Station, and I spotted groups of Fresher’s being shown around the town. They all looked so young! Flyers were being handed out for night-time events; banging techno nights, karaoke events, foam parties and the such, but despite the fact I am officially a ‘Fresher’ no one handed me one. Maybe it was the grey hair that did it?

 Walking past Eldon Square, I ducked into ’Hotter’ to get a couple of pairs of wide fit, comfortable shoes that would help with the walk both to the station at Bardon Mill, and from Newcastle station up to Uni, looking forward to the benefits that this will bring, in getting ‘fit for purpose’. I asked the assistant in Hotter to put my shoes in a tote bag I’d brought with me. Far better to arrive on campus with a canvas bag sporting the cover of Virginia Woolf’s ‘A Room of One’s Own’, than a carrier bag advertising the fact I needed to buy shoes from the fat feet shop.

Still, I was here, and all worries left me as I walked up the steps into the University compound. Toploader’s ‘Dancing in the Moonlight’ was being played from a stretch tent, and I grinned.  I was going to university to learn how to become a writer. This has been on my bucket list for most of my life. Stopping a couple of young guys who were passing a rugby ball between them, I asked them to take my photo. Student Granny had arrived on campus!

Over the next couple of days, induction talks and activities were planned, and it was great to get to know some of my fellow students. I was relieved to find that I wasn’t the oldest (or the fattest) Everyone was so friendly, and our minds were put at rest by a panel of PhD researchers who were MA ‘buddies’, answering any questions we might have.  I stuck my hand up and explained that the last time I had written an essay was back in 1984, and had done it using a typewriter and Tippex. Was there any help in formatting, referencing and ‘how’ to write an essay in 2019? I was reassured that there would be tutorials on just this, plus the ‘Academic Skills Kit’ on the website, and a very useful department based in the library who would help with the nuts and bolts of written work.

At the meet and greet the wasabi peas and wine flowed, and despite initial nerves, I struck up several conversations. In this small world, I found the nephew of a very old friend, and a friend of a friend who had gone to school with another friend. I was interested to see a lot of international students and thought them very brave to be coming to a strange country all by themselves, starting life in a city that is totally new. I chatted to Maggy, who was here all the way from Florida, to do a PhD in Victorian female travel writers. How interesting! I hoped she’d brought some warm clothes.

I had been looking forward to discovering the library, and set off on the second day, in torrential rain to find it. Set behind The Hancock Museum, this four-storey building did not disappoint. The staff there were incredibly friendly, helpful and very patient with Student Granny who was struggling to log onto the system and navigate both around the technology and the geography of the building. It was like a city! We had a reading list for one of our modules, ‘Process’ and being a bit of a ‘girly swot’ (topical joke) I thought I’d get in there quick and bagsie some of the titles. Someone had obviously got thought the same and got in there first. I found a few and am happily reading them at home this week and making notes. It is the first time I have studied a text-book in over thirty years, and it feels great! I’m sure my note taking is far too diligent and I am reminded of the mature students that were on my teacher training course back in 1981, who seemed to take the course far more seriously than us youngsters who were far more committed to propping up the college bar.

Next week teaching starts in earnest. We’ve chosen out modules, and being a part time MA student, I am doing a compulsory module on the ‘Process of Writing’, taught by the fantastic poet, Jacob Polley, and the Craft of Prose, taught by Dr Lars Iyer in the first semester. After Christmas I have signed up for a Masterclass in ‘Writing for Children and Young Adults’ which will be taught by Ann Coburn. I met Ann when I did a Saturday workshop run by the Newcastle Centre for Literary Arts, called ‘Write like David Almond’ – anyone read Skellig? I loved Ann’s teaching style and found her enthusiastic and approachable. It was Ann who suggested I apply to Newcastle. I am very much looking forward to this module, as I’ve always fancied having a go at children’s literature.

My whistle was well and truly whetted by Jacob Polley at the introductory talk. I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to study at the ripe old age of 57, and to be attending such a prestigious university. Not only is the teaching and support of a high standard; Newcastle English Department is ranked number ten in the Times Good University Guide for English, Creative Writing and Linguistics. The buildings are simply wonderful, steeped in history with wonderful architectural design. I wonder in whose footsteps I walk as I tread the corridors.  Although I’m yet to find a painting of a woman amongst the many academics, dignitaries and benefactors portrayed in oils on canvas in gilt frames.  

I’ve walked through the quad many a time over the last decades using it as a thoroughfare from the car park to the shops, but now I am a student here. I keep having to pinch myself, and maybe I’ll stop making silly noises as I walk along the corridors of the Armstrong and Percy buildings once term starts and the initial euphoria dies down. I’ll write more later in the semester and let you all know how Student Granny is getting on.

Newcastle University
Newcastle University

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