The key to motivation?

What is the secret to self-motivation? As a teacher who specialised for 21 years in secondary education, it would be very easy for me to point at today’s teenagers and remark upon their lack of personal motivation, but was I really any different? Am I really so different now? Many parents bemoan their child’s lack of self-motivation when it comes to study and I feel their pain, I really do. When what seems like a relatively small amount of extra effort on a child’s part would make such a difference to their outcomes, it can be really difficult to comprehend why they simply won’t do it.

Since hitting a rather alarming round number in years, I have found myself becoming more concerned with what longterm life-limiting problems I might be storing up for myself (assuming I am privileged enough to make it into later life, of course). Watching my parents age has been an education and in the last few months I have done what I always do when something is on my mind: I have done some reading about it. To date, I have always told myself that cardiovascular fitness is the only thing that really matters for longterm health and that so long as I’m walking briskly on a regular basis then all will be well; since looking at the facts, I have had to admit to myself that my beliefs on this are simply wrong. All the information we have shows an undeniable correlation between muscle strength and the ability to maintain independent living, so my hitherto scathing attitude towards anything even remotely gym-related requires some serious review. I have read about the importance of building muscle strength in relation to one’s ability to move freely and independently as one ages, as well as how it intertwines with building up one’s balance to prevent the risk of falls.

Right, I thought. Resistance training, here I come. But the gym is way too scary, so I watched a few YouTube videos from the comfort of my chair and tried a few exercises … and it’s just so hard! You’re using muscles you never knew you had, you’ve no idea whether you’re doing it right or not, your thighs start to tremble and you end up retreating to the sofa, while the cat looks at you as if you’ve just humiliated yourself in the worst way possible. As one friend put it, “the trouble with exercise is, you might feel great once it’s over, but I also feel pretty great on the sofa watching Netflix, so feeling great isn’t quite the pull-factor that everyone says it is.” This is perhaps the downside of currently feeling in relatively good health. Believe me, in theory, I’m motivated: I am worried about my longterm health and I want to fix that by taking action. But how does one take that desire and channel it into real action, when those actions are so alien, so difficult and so uncomfortable, and the theoretical longterm benefits feel such a long distance away? For perhaps the first time in years, I’m gaining an insight into how my students may feel about their learning.

Fortunately, I have another friend on hand, who is going to help. This friend is properly into fitness in a way that none of my other friends have ever been. She has hired a personal trainer to guide her through strength training in recent months and (even more scarily) she’s got all the kit – her house is full of alarming equipment. On Monday, I went round to her house wearing some secondhand pumps and my Primark leggings and was introduced to squats, lunges, push-ups and weight training. Suffice to say, while my friend sauntered about, demonstrating seemingly impossible moves without so much as breaking a sweat, I was a quivering wreck within minutes. When attempting the final push-up I collapsed onto the mat, unable to perform the downward pass. “Good,” she said, laughing. “That’s when you know you’ve done about the right number.”

All of this has reminded me just how impossibly hard it is to motivate yourself to do something that you find really difficult. You can give yourself as many pep talks as you like, it’s never likely to be enough. I need my friend to teach me how to do the moves correctly in an environment in which I’m comfortable (she understands that I’m somewhat dubious about a trip to the gym). I need her to tell me whether I’m getting it right, both to prevent injury and to ensure that the exercise is working as it’s meant to. I also need her to push me into doing it another few times when previously I had given up because it was getting so difficult – while we’re not quite talking “no pain, no gain”, it is true that when it comes to strength training, you should be pushing yourself to the point when it feels like you can’t do it any more. All of this is simply too difficult and too frightening to do on your own, when you have no experience with such things.

All of this started on Monday and the state I was in afterwards illustrates just how much work I have yet to do on myself. On Tuesday I was in agony with what I am reliably informed is called “DOMS” – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness; on Wednesday I was basically crippled and had to take the stairs while using the bannisters like a pair crutches. Today is slightly better – I can do the stairs, although not without yelping with every single step. In terms of motivational pep talks I have mentally pointed out to myself that this is in fact a little bit of a taster as to what life will be like in 30 years’ time if I don’t keep this up.

As I embark on my quest to gain muscle strength this has been a sobering reminder that motivating oneself is not at all easy. It has illustrated to me how near impossible it is without the training, guidance and support of somebody else, which forms a significant part of what I do as a tutor. I have always believed that motivation comes from success, not the other way around – motivation is simply too hard without some kind of inkling and insight into what gains it might bring you. In order to motivate someone to do something difficult or painful, whether they’re 15 or 50, it’s simply not enough to tell them that they can do it; we need to show them that they can, and cheer from the sidelines as they do so.

Photo by Graham Holtshausen on Unsplash

Poking and fussing

Do you ever wonder whether we’ve somewhat lost our way when it comes to the purpose of education?

When I decided to become a teacher, it was made clear to me back in 1999 that my role would be complex. Given the trend back then for group work and making lessons fun, the role of the teacher had become somewhat synonymous with the purported aims of the BBC: to educate, inform and entertain, not necessarily in that order. Beyond that, it was also made clear to me in 1999 that I would have numerous responsibilities that blurred the line between education and social work, and none of them were unreasonable. Teachers – particularly primary school teachers – spend a huge amount of time with a large number of individual children every day; as a result, teachers are without question some of the best-placed adults to notice when there are concerns to be had, when a child’s demeanour changes or their health declines. I took my duty of care very seriously and regularly reported safeguarding concerns; the ability to raise such concerns anonymously, with more experienced experts who took me seriously and followed up on them, is something I miss greatly about being in a school.

The overwhelming majority of teachers take their safeguarding responsibilities extremely seriously. Nobody goes into teaching with the belief that they will be nothing but an academe, pouring knowledge into the minds of the young with no thought given to their health, their personality, their family situation or what might be going on inside their head. Teaching is a constant dialogue between adults and the young, and our empathy with and understanding of a wide variety of issues that may be holding a child back in their learning is crucial. But let us remind ourselves that what we are there to do is to impart learning. We are not there to solve all of society’s problems, from knife crime to nutrition.

In the last decade or so, and most particularly during and after the pandemic, schools have been expected to take up the slack for every single failing in society: for the failings of government, for the failings of under-funded health services, for the failings of over-stretched social services and sometimes – let’s not be afraid to say it – for the failings of parents. Parenthood is hard – incredibly hard – and not everybody is acing it; but teachers are not parents to the children in their care and they cannot – nor should they be asked to – replace that role.

I hesitate to make political predictions as I am notoriously bad at it and if the last few years have taught us anything it should be to prepare for surprise. That said, it seems likely that we will have a change of government at the next General Election, and it seems likely that the new ruling party will be Labour. This means that what the Labour party said about education at its recent conference becomes potentially more important and relevant than the Conversatives’ blustering about mobile phones (already banned in most decent schools) and maths up to the age of 18 (where they will find the teachers yet to be confirmed). But the Labour party’s pledge to bring in “supervised tooth brushing” for primary school children aged 3 to 5 caught my attention and got me wondering about what they think teachers are for. It also got me wondering whether any of them have ever set foot in a primary school, never mind stayed there for any length of time.

As one primary school teacher on the platform formerly known as Twitter pointed out, teachers have already experienced what it is like when they are asked to supervise hand-washing on a massive scale, when there was a big focus on this during the pandemic. “I remember getting the children to wash their hands at the sink during covid. It took an hour and they missed learning … My TA had to supervise them instead of support children. And that was a class of Y6 children. I can’t imagine how long it would take to shepherd 4 & 5 year olds through the process. This policy has not been suggested by anyone with experience of primary.” Her comments were in answer to someone who claimed that supervised tooth-brushing “would only take a few minutes”. Several primary school teachers responded, with comments like “30 very young children. Probably only one sink. Cleaning the cup after each child. Making sure each child has their toothbrush. At least 50% won’t like the toothpaste … I could go on and on.” My personal favourite was the one who pointed out the problems that would arise from all the spitting. Covid hygiene? Whatever. All in all, the discussion was (or should have been) an eye-opener for anyone who does not work with large groups of children on a daily basis, especially the little ones. You may (I hope) have supervised your own child’s toothbrushing at home. This is not the same as trying to do it with a class of 30.

The British Dental Association has stated that it is “encouraged” by Labour’s proposal, but I feel more than a little despair. As one teacher put it “it’s a sticking plaster for a gaping wound. Babies have teeth. We need NHS dentists, breastfeeding support groups at doctors surgeries, 0-4 family centres. Teachers have an educational role but they’re outsourcing it to us because they don’t want to fund the real support needed.” Absolutely. And it has to stop. Given the amount of time that every primary school teacher knows realistically that this tooth-brushing regime will take, what would people like those teachers to do less of to make it happen? Less supervised play? Fewer handwriting skills? Ditch basic numeracy? You choose.

For me, the suggestion sums up the tangible lack of respect that politicians have for the teaching profession. Teachers are treated as punching bags by all the major parties, belittled and taken for granted across the board. The profession is haemorraghing staff at an alarming rate and to this date not one single political party has taken any kind of frank look at this. Any pledge to “recruit more teachers” falls far short of what’s required, when we know that currently one third of teachers are quitting the profession within five years. It costs a lot of money to train a teacher, so a proper focus on how we retain them – not recruit them – would save the country a fortune.

Readers around my age may recognise the title of this post as a quotation from Pam Ayres’ I Wish I’d Looked After Me Teeth, a poem which pretty much every child my age was told to learn off by heart at some point during their time in primary school. “Poking and fussing” (or – more accurately – “pokin’ and fussin'”) is how tooth-brushing seemed to Ayres as a young child. For me, it’s a rather good description of the approach taken by politicians towards education.

Photo by Henrik Lagercrantz on Unsplash

Poplars tremble gradually to gold

There is an apocryphal saying that has been shared thousands of times on the internet. It is usually labelled “a Greek proverb” but sadly I cannot find any reliable reference to it that predates the 20th century. Nevertheless, it is a favourite saying of mine and whoever first expressed the sentiment was certainly insightful, even if he didn’t share his thoughts in the agora of 4th century Athens.

The saying is as follows:

“A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they will never sit.”

Source unknown

There is so much to like about this statement. First of all, I like the fact that it talks about the responsibilities of the oldest in society. It seems to me that we all spend quite a lot of time wagging fingers at the young, telling them that it’s their responsibility to sort out the problems of the future – we may have caused all the problems, mind you, but we won’t be around to face the consequences and they will. The quoted statement calls this attitude into question and suggests that we all bear a responsibility towards the future that will exist after we are gone. I’m not surprised that people assumed such sentiments came from ancient Athens, which was a patriarchal society in which aristocratic men enjoyed the benefits and bore the responsibilities of government; elderly men were afforded power and respect, and in return they were expected to leave behind a legacy for the good of the generations to come.

In many ways, however, this statement is about the importance of trees. While it is using the tree as a metaphor for the future, to express the importance of the longterm legacy that every human is capable of leaving behind when they’re gone, it speaks to the visceral understanding that planting a tree is one of the best things that anybody can do in this world. Our love for trees and our trust in their enduring importance has recently been brought into sharp relief with the heinous felling of the beautiful tree at Sycamore Gap, a famous landmark so named after the tree that by chance grew in a sharp dip in the hillside next to Hadrian’s Wall in Northumberland. The real horror of this inexplicable act of nihilism has left me and countless others quite bereft; even those of us down in the south know the sense of history and local pride that this awe-inspiring natural feature commanded. I simply cannot believe that somebody could bring themselves to do such a thing.

The Romans valued their trees, not just for ornamentation but also for their practical uses. Trees were planted along roads, around public buildings, and inside the garden rooms of the villas of the wealthy, creating an outside-in effect that still inspires architecture and city planning to this day. Preserved cities like Pompeii and Herculaneum evidence how the Romans made trees a part of their urban landscape; excavations reveal that these ancient cities were home to a wide variety of trees, strategically planted for shade and selected for both their aesthetics and their utility. The Romans clearly had an understanding of how they could use trees to improve urban environments, a concept that we are now returning to, with more and more research suggesting that trees can improve the air quality as well as reduce temperatures in modern cities.

I am privileged to live in “leafy Surrey” and it is perhaps poignant that I become most aware of the trees around me in autumn, as we watch the leaves die and start to fall. During October and November, walking along a pavement where I live becomes a joyous experience of swishing through the fallen leaves and crunching upon acorns and horse chestnuts. The title of this blog post is taken from a poem by Gillian Clarke entitled simply October. It explores imagery of death and dying, but highlights the beauty of the colours as leaves start to die and decay in autumn. There simply is not a more beautiful and poignant time of year and while it is always tinged with sadness as it foreshadows the depths of winter to come, I value the glory and the beauty of this time of year immensely.

Photo of the now-felled sycamore tree at Sycamore Gap
by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash

Ever-present history

Adrian Chiles had a bit of a rant in his column in the Guardian this month. Now, I should say from the outset that I sympathise with his obvious desperation; as someone who has to write a blog post every week, I have a small shred of insight into the pressure that paid columnists must be under to come up with something – anything – to write about every week in their column. I find it hard enough, and I don’t have to write to the standard that’s expected for the Guardian (no jokes, please). Years ago I had a paid gig writing for an online magazine once a fortnight, for which the standard of writing was pretty high: I couldn’t keep it up.

Poor Adrian was obviously having a particularly tough week when he decided to write a piece about television documentaries which use the present tense to describe historical events. Apparently, it “makes his blood boil.”

“If something happened centuries ago,” he says (said?), “let’s talk about it as if it happened centuries ago – not as if it was going on right now.” Chiles even quotes (quoted?) Dan Snow as someone who is (was?) apparently “miserable” as a result of the process, forced by his producers to speak in the present tense about historical events. I cannot begin to imagine their pain.

Sarcasm aside, it is interesting to me that Chiles – and, based on the comments I read online, perhaps others – claims to find the process of talking about past events using the present tense patronising; he seems to have decided that producers have come up with this device as a cynical or simplistic tool to bring events to life for a modern audience with a short attention span. Chiles not only believes that this unnecessary, but cites it as something which is likely to tip him over the edge.

Personally, I had not noticed that the use of the historic present in historical documentaries was on the increase, but if this is the case is then it is certainly not a modern phenomenon. It has always amused me how incensed English teachers become when a student’s work slides between the tenses. In English classes, students are trained that switching tense is an absolute no-no and will mean that their writing makes no sense. In the ancient world, by contrast, switching between tenses for effect was considered the height of excellent writing: Virgil was a genius at it.

A poet such as Virgil sometimes wrote whole passages in the present tense for effect; he would also write in the past tense and then jump into the present for a particularly striking moment, capitalising on the jarring effect to make a moment vivid. So a technique practised by men that were and are (past and present) considered to be some of the greatest literary artists that have ever lived now gets you marked down in GCSE creative writing and certainly gets you up the nose of Adrian Chiles.

In truth, I would not advise students to switch constantly betweeen tenses in the way that Virgil does; it is a not a technique commonly used in modern writing and can indeed lead to potential confusion unless used with caution. Apart from anything, just because a technique is used by a genius doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily a great idea for us lesser mortals. But the use of the present tense to describe historical events is surely an effective way to bring them to life and I’m a little puzzled as to why anyone would find it so irritating. I guess it’s one of those things, like a dripping tap, that starts to wind a person up inexorably once they have noticed it. My advice for Chiles would be to try some deep-breathing exercises next time he watches anything on BBC Four.

Photo by Hadija on Unsplash


Some things have happened to me this week that have made me reflect about how we talk to each other online. I mentioned in my last post that I had (accidentally) smashed my iPhone. This is now fixed, although not before I had been through quite the self-reflection on whether it might actually be rather good for me to own a smart phone that was less pleasant to use. In the end, however, I concluded that a broken phone was at risk of malfunctioning and that this was perhaps not the smartest move for someone who is self-employed and relies on business coming in; yesterday, I forked out for a replacement screen.

The smashed phone coincided with some broader reflections that I also mentioned in my last blog post and which have continued to ferment in my mind. Two television programmes have influenced me over the last fortnight, one a drama and one a documentary. A couple of weeks ago I got around to watching the most recent season of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and was moved and disturbed as always. The final episode – without giving too much away – deals with smart phone addiction; it is a thought experiment about where such an addiction might lead in a worst-case scenario, and takes a wry look at how even the creators of the big social media platforms seem to rue their own creation.

This episode of Black Mirror really stuck in my mind and at first I struggled to think why. It wasn’t one of Brooker’s best and it certainly wasn’t one of his most disturbing. (There are other episodes of Black Mirror that I frankly regret watching). Yet this one needled me, I suspect because I recognised the compulsion and the attachment it explored. I knew that I found my smart phone addictive. So I resolved to do better, and as a part of my quest I decided to watch something else that had been on my list for a while, a Netflix documentary called The Social Dilemma. This production, made only a couple of years ago, interviews a range of ex-techies from Silicon Valley, all of whom have left the companies for which they previously worked: there was the guy who created the “Like” button on Facebook, there were techies from the platform formerly known as Twitter, from Instagram and even from Google. All of them had three things in common. Firstly, they had all struggled personally with addiction to the products that they themselves had helped to create: they were suppliers addicted to their own drug. Secondly, they were now united in opposition to the way that these platforms were built and designed in order to be addictive; many of them were actively campaigning against the platforms that they used to work for, appalled by what they themselves had created. Thirdly, not one of them let any of their kids near a smart phone. Not at all. These were wealthy tech whizzes from Silicon Valley and their own kids do not have smart phones. If that doesn’t make the rest of the world reflect on why they let their kids have access to these devices from such a young age, I don’t know what will.

There is so much to love about the internet. I find it empowering and useful and it enables me to do the work that I do. On the other hand, there is much to be afraid of, most of all the addictive nature of the ever-accessible device in your pocket. Listening to the men and women who created these platforms that we all use and hearing them explain how they are built, designed and programmed to be addictive was a sobering experience. I have found myself looking at those around me – both the people I am close to and people who are strangers to me – and I see the signs of compulsive usage everywhere. I see it in myself. To my regret, I have found myself scrolling through and staring at platforms I actively dislike, somehow unable not to look at them, even in the sure and present knowledge that they bring me no joy. Why do these things have such power over us? The answer is that they were built that way; clever people are paid a lot of money to find ever-improving ways to keep us glued to every platform we sign up to.

In response, and taking the direct advice of the self-confessed ex-drug-pushers from Silicon Valley, I have removed all social media apps from my phone. There are several platforms I viscerally dislike and would happily never use again, but they are undeniably useful for business: Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn; these from now on I will manage solely through scheduling on my laptop, and I will log in to do that kind of work once or twice a week. The messaging services on Facebook and Instagram I have set up to deliver an automated message to anyone enquiring after my services, saying hello, explaining that I do not spend time on those platforms and giving other ways to get in touch with me. The responses to this, I can tell you, have been interesting. A couple of very genuine prospective clients have reached out to me, one even thanking me for enabling them to get off the platform, which she also disliked. Another said “good for you”. But two other people – neither of whom were prospective clients, nor were they known to me personally – have already expressed their disapproval.

When I logged in to check my Instagram account recently, I found one message from someone purporting to be a business coach. I have no interest in using a coaching service, so I would have ignored this man’s approach anyway, wherever he had made it. He sent me a message stating that he “had a question about my business” and, because it was on Instagram, he received my automated response. His immediate reaction was anger. I blocked him, obviously, but I do find myself wondering about just how bad his own addiction is that the very implication that someone else was choosing not to hang out on his platform of choice made him furious.

Further to this, it appears that another person approached me initially on Instagram and then followed this up, as instructed, with an email. This, of course, I received. He too said that he had a question, and I asked him what it was. Fortunately, it was not a ruse to send me something inappropriate, but it was an inroad into asking me to translate something into Latin for him. Now, you probably don’t realise this, but I get literally dozens of these kinds of requests. I used to respond to all of them. I still do to some. A few months ago, someone got in touch and asked for my help with a favourite quotation for their mother’s funeral and of course I replied to them, indeed I corresponded with them at some length.

Much of the time, however, especially when I am busy, I don’t honestly consider it my honour-bound duty to provide a free translation service for anyone and everyone’s t-shirt, club logo, necklace or tattoo. I am a teacher and a tutor, I’m not a motto-creation service. If someone asks nicely, I may help them out. This man, however, before I had even decided whether and how I was going to respond to his request, followed up his initial email with a second one barely an hour or so later, wanting to know whether I had received the first email and intimating that he was waiting on my response. I didn’t like this, so I decided simply to delete both the emails. The consequence of this decision was that he sent me another, one-word message on Instagram. It said “fraud”.


I am sure that this person is a perfectly reasonable and functioning individual in real life. Were I to sit him down face-to-face and explain that this is a busy time of year for me, that I get dozens of these sorts of requests, that I might indeed have responded to him had he been a little more patient and not harrassed me for an answer, I am quite certain that he would have reacted in a rational manner. Yet online, without that human connection, not only did he decide that I am a “fraud”, he felt the need to tell me so. How did he feel after he sent that message, I wonder? Vindicated? Satisfied? Like he’d done a good thing? Somehow I doubt it. It is an empty feeling, shouting into the void and being left to wonder what the reaction at the other end might be.

The truth is that these platforms are not good for us. They make us less honest and they make us less kind. Most of all, it seems to me, they make us lonelier by dividing us further – the very opposite, those recovered tech junkies tell me, of the original Silicon Valley dream. So you will not find me hanging out on LinkedIn, Instagram or Facebook, none of which contain anything that interests me enough to outweigh the excessive demands that they have placed on my attention due to the addictive nature of their construction. I do gain something from the platform formerly known as Twitter, as so many teachers exchange ideas on there and it remains an outstanding medium for finding links to new ideas and research about good practice in education. If Threads takes over that mantle, so be it. Still, however, I have ruthlessly removed these platforms from my phone. I will keep things on my iPad, which I do use but nowhere near as much as I use my phone. So the phone will be solely for genuine messages from real people – family, friends and clients. At the moment, as I get used to the situation, I am finding myself picking the phone up and then wondering what on earth I have picked it up for. Numerous times a day. This only goes to prove that my decision was right – clearly, the number of times I have been habitually checking these platforms for no good reason is genuinely scary.

I think what I have decided is that, like all addictive substances, social media must either be avoided altogether or be very strictly managed. Its usage must be balanced against the risks and if it’s not bringing me joy or enriching my life, then I genuinely don’t see the point of it. For some people, I fear, social media really is the same as drugs and alcohol: highly addictive, with the potential to turn them into the very worst version of themselves.

Photo by camilo jimenez on Unsplash

Back to School

It’s been impossible to ignore the start of the school year this September, even for those people with no children and with no connection to the education system. With the scandal of RAAC concrete rocking the country and all of us reeling once again at what can only be described as years of incompetence and underinvestment by government, whatever your political stripe, the start of the new school term and the new school year has been on everyone’s mind.

This academic year feels like a milestone for me. This time last year felt truly surreal, as for the first time I did not return to school as I had done for the previous 21 years. The start of last September was very strange and somehow I didn’t quite believe it was happening; I still had the familiar anxiety dreams, so convinced was my subconscious I would be returning to the chalkface as usual. This year, with some distance in place between myself and the school grounds, I forgot altogether which day my old school was returning (although old colleagues did keep me posted on the usual hilarities of INSET day).

I have enjoyed the summer holiday immensely, working to a different schedule (I only saw clients in the morning) and doing significantly fewer hours compared to my usual schedule. But it also feels great now to be settling back into the routine again and I am loving seeing the return of regular clients as they come back for their old slots and restart the academic year. There is also the excitement of starting to work with new students, especially the ones that I really feel I can help make a difference to; nothing in life is as rewarding as helping a student to turn their performance around.

This year I decided to reflect on what happens in schools at the start of the new academic year and to apply the best and most important aspects of this to my tutoring business. I have refreshed my safeguarding training, a legal requirement for teachers in schools but not something which is (yet) regulated for tutors. I have looked at my results and done some reflection, although one of the joys of one-to-one work is you do not face the surprises and disappointments that inevitably occur across a year group in a school. I have reflected on my own practice, decided what worked best last year and resolved to apply the most effective techniques to all clients. Over the last couple of weeks I have reshaped my daily timetable and applied some lessons learnt from last year about when I work most effectively as well as where demand is highest. FInally, I have reflected on how I can reduce unncessary administration and time-wasting, most especially the time spent on social media, which I have reduced to an absolute minimum; I have put systems in place to mean that I don’t have to engage at all with the platforms which do not bring me joy, namely Facebook and Instagram. That final decision has been rather well-assisted by me smashing up my iPhone (not deliberately, but there is a psychological school of thought that there are no real accidents …); this sparked some further reflection on just how much screen time is truly necessary for running a business like mine and how much of it was mindless, fruitless scrolling in the name of “visibility”, which so many business coaches seem to preach is essential to the success of my business. With a website that performs as well as mine does, I do not find this to be so.

Thus, as I settle in to my second year as a full time, independent, one-to-one tutor, I could not be happier with my role and with the balance I have managed to strike between meaningful employment and a better quality of life. I cannot wait to get on with helping my clients, old and new, and to see what the new academic year will bring.

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

A study in cultish madness

Since my last post, so many people have sent me messages asking what my research was actually about that I have decided to write an explanation. You only have yourselves to blame.

One of the difficulties one faces when writing a proposal for a PhD is to find a niche in one’s subject where there is work left to be done. I have met academics in my time who have written PhDs on Virgil or Homer, but how they managed to come up with a new angle, never mind how they managed to get a handle on everything that had been written already, is completely beyond me. Personally, I decided that something a little more obscure was the way forward.

I had an interest in ancient philosophy and I was also lucky enough as a part of my degree to do an undergraduate course on the rise of Christianity in the ancient world. These two fields of study collided when I started to learn about Neoplatonism, a branch of thinking in late antiquity which is notoriously difficult to define. In origin and essence, Neoplatonism was everything that was said, thought and written about Plato, Aristotle and other key thinkers in the generations after they lived. Initially, this was the men studying in the schools in which Plato and Aristotle themselves taught (Aristotle was a pupil of Plato, so the process started with him), but as the centuries rolled by Neoplatonism became the wildly diverse writings that were produced generations and even centuries after Plato and Aristotle were writing and teaching. People also wrote intensively about Pythagoras and some ancient scholars became interested in finding what they believed to be religious and philosophical allegories in the writings of Homer. The study of what these men wrote at the time is thus an entire field in itself – if you like, it’s the study of Platonic, Aristotelian and Pythaorean reception in the ancient world. Its most famous and respected proponent was a man called Plotinus, who lived and wrote in the 3rd century AD and had a strong influence on Christian philosophy; I specialised in the men who came shortly after him.

Despite its noble origins as an intellectual field of study, Neoplatonism took on a life of its own and morphed into something really rather bizarre as the years rolled by. This was partly because it was influenced during this period by the growth of religions that focused on developing a personal relationship with one’s god, but there were other complicating factors too. Suffice to say, by the time you get to the period in which I specialised, Neoplatonism had become something pretty weird and wonderful: an intensely intellectual field of study on the one hand and a downright barking set of pseudo-philosophical cultish ravings on the other. I do not exaggerate – better scholars than I have said as much.

Most of the writings from the period we are talking about were so mystical and incomprehensible that modern scholars had no interest in bothering with them. As a result, many of the texts remained untranslated until a movement led by Richard Sorabji, who was a Professor at King’s College while I was studying and researching. Sorabji oversaw a series of texts and translations, making many of these works available for the first time to undergraduates and indeed to anyone else who was bonkers enough to be interested. He specialised in the commentators on Aristotle, the scores of ancient scholars who had spent their lives poring over Aristotelian texts and writing down their thoughts on them.

So I ended up wading around in this quagmire of growing information in this developing field and, prompted by my Supervisor, took a look at a text nicknamed the De Mysteriis by an author called Iamblichus, a Syrian thinker who was writing in Greek during the late 3rd and early 4th centuries AD. He was particularly keen on Pythagoras, and wrote masses of pseudo-mystical nonsense about him; we have one complete surviving work which has frankly undeniable parallels with the Gospels and presents Pythagoras as what can only be described as a Christ figure. He also wrote various other works including the De Mysteriis, on which I wrote my research and which is fundamentally about theurgy or divine magic. Yeah. I told you it was weird.

So. Theurgy. It is pretty difficult to define without presenting my entire thesis, but in essence it was a range of mystical rituals, all with the aim of connecting humans with the divine. You’d recognise some of them from your general knowledge of the ancient world: oracles, for example, through which the gods supposedly spoke to men. Iamblichus believed very firmly that there was a right way and a wrong way of doing these divine rituals, and the De Mysteriis is his authoritative account of what’s what when it comes to doing this stuff. As a result it is – inevitably – absolutely barking. This is not exactly what I said in my thesis, but it’s the honest truth in summary. Indeed, the De Mysteriis is so barking that previous scholars had largely consigned it to obscurity and it had not been translated into English since 1911. So, that’s where I came along. My PhD was a study of the work and through that research I hooked up with another couple of scholars – far older and more prestigious in the field than I was – and who had in the previous decade taken on the task of producing a modern edition and translation of this text. They were – to put it mildly – rather regretting doing so. One of them had already had a heart attack, although the jury was out as to whether the De Mysteriis was entirely to blame or only partially. Long story short, they drafted me in as Chief Editor and I finished it for them. My PhD was also published.

As I wrote last week, I did not enjoy the process of academic research and I regretted signing up for it. However, this does not mean that I was uninterested in much of what I was doing. What it did reveal is what I should have been studying, and it wasn’t Classics. During the process of my research I realised that what fascinated me more than anything else in the world was (a) what makes people do, think and believe what they do and (b) how it is possible to persuade even the most intelligent and educated person of something which is provably impossible. In simple terms, why do people believe in miracles? Why did Iamblichus believe that a truly inspired (for which read fully possessed) spokesperson for the gods could be struck on the back of the neck with an axe and not be injured? Did he really believe that the famous oracles of which he spoke were still functioning? (We know for a fact that most of them had been disbanded by his time – one that he writes about fulsomely had become a Christian campsite by the time he was writing). Following my interests, and whilst I was meant to be working exclusively on Neoplatonism, I ended up going down all sorts of rabbit holes. I read about early 20th century research into “shell shock” (now known as PTSD); I read purported accounts from the 19th century of children possessed by the devil; I read about mass conversion rallies such as those led by Billy Graham; I read about attacks of crowd hysteria, such as faining fits or hysterical laughing in nunneries and girls’ boarding schools; I read about witch trials; I read about Zaehner’s LSD-fuelled research into what would happen to his mind when, enhanced by hallucinogenic drugs, it was exposed to art or literature. (Not much as it turns out – he just couldn’t stop laughing). In short, I read a wildly diverse range of stuff about possession, altered states of the mind and all sorts of jolly interesting weirdness. Long story short, I should have switched to anthropology.

My interest in such things remains to this day and in other guises I have written articles about belief, conversion and religiosity. I even dipped my toe into novel-writing and wrote a dystopian Young Adult novel about a world in which beliefs are controlled and dictated. Much of my spare time these days is spent reading about a variety of cult-like beliefs which are developing rapidly and spreading online. I might even write about it one day.

Sliding Doors

As thousands of students receive their A level, BTEC and T level results this morning, I’ve been thinking about moments in life that I and no doubt many others from my era nickname “sliding doors”: moments that mark a turning point in the course of your life. The 1998 film Sliding Doors explores the idea that the course of one woman’s career as well as her love-life hung upon whether or not she managed to catch a particular tube-train; it follows both scenarios in parallel – one in which she catches the train, one in which she doesn’t.

In real life, of course, without the omnipotency of a film director, one cannot do this. We cannot see the different scenarios played out and choose which one we prefer. We can look back at pivotal moments in life and acknowledge that something shifted in our lives at that moment, but we cannot know what would have happened in an alternative universe. In the context of romantic relationships, this concept is expressed wonderfully in another 1990s classic, one of my favourite songs by Pulp, called Something’s Changed. In this song, Jarvis Cocker explores the chance nature of his meeting a partner and how it might never have happened; it also uses the conceit of imagining himself writing a particular song on a particular day, which then became about that person:

I wrote this song two hours before we met.
I didn’t know your name, or what you looked like yet.
I could have stayed at home and gone to bed.
I could have gone to see a film instead.
You might have changed your mind and seen your friends.
Life would have been very different then.

Later in the song he returns to the conceit and perhaps my favourite moment (probably upsettting to the more romantically inclined among you), is when he even ponders that without his partner, he might have met somebody different:

When we woke up that morning we had no way of knowing
That in a matter of hours we’d change the way we were going.
Where would I be now?
Where would I be now if we’d never met?
Would I be singing this song to someone else instead …?

The tone of the whole song is wistful but not melancholy, nor is it overtly gushing – those of you who know Jarvis Cocker will understand that he doesn’t really do gushing. The girlfriend is given a voice, but she uses it to tell Jarvis to “stop asking questions that don’t matter anyway”. The general conclusion is: ah, well.

I spoke to a friend this week – on Zoom because we live 300 miles apart – and she too is at a turning point in life. We spoke about sliding doors moments and I told her about how miserable I was doing my PhD and how eventually I decided not to pursue an academic career because I realised that the lifestyle was making me deeply unhappy. “I finished it,” I said. “But it nearly killed me.” This friend then asked me something that nobody has asked me before. She asked me whether I regretted finishing it.

Lots of people have asked me whether I am glad I finished my research. That tends to be the expected tone of the conversation. It is in my view a marker of how insightful this particular friend is that she worded it differently. Do I regret finishing it? Do I regret putting myself through that process? It got me thinking. Maybe I should.

Looking back, the reasons I finished it were all in relation to external pressures. I had received funding from the British Academy and that is very hard to come by – I would have felt guilty that I had taken somebody else’s place and squandered such a privilege. My parents would have been disappointed. My Supervisor would have been disappointed. Finally, and perhaps most foolishly of all, I didn’t like quitting and I still believed that the qualification was important. So, I soldiered on and I finished the thing. I cried multiple times a day. A low point was sitting in my college room and pondering how long it would take somebody to notice if I died in there.

Not only did I finish the PhD, my deep unhappiness and loathing for the life drove me to finish it in record time. Two and a half years. For the last 4 to 6 months when I was officially “writing up”, three copies of the completed thesis sat on my desk, all printed out and ready to be bound. I hid this even from my Supervisor. It was not the done thing to finish in less than the standard three years, plus I had nowhere else to go once my thesis was completed. I had a place to start teacher training in September, but until then I needed to hang on to my college room. So I waited. Eventually, the thesis was bound and sent to the examiners and ultimately my Viva went without a hitch. PhDs are not officially graded, but truthfully there is a hierarchy to what the examiners may say to you at the end of your Viva. Best case scenario is that they mark in pencil a few minor errors or typos and tell you that these do not require correction in order for the thesis to be accepted; worst case scenario, they tell you to tear the thing up and never darken their doors again. Most people fall somewhere in the middle, with corrections advised or sometimes a re-write of some sections recommended. Mine was waved through with the minor pencil errors. The examiners shook my hand at the end of the session and used my brand new title for the first time. Being me, I did correct the minor errors even though I didn’t have to, and submitted it to Senate House.

My PhD has brought me some benefits, not least an exposure to teaching which ultimately became my career choice and is not, I think, something I would have considered as a possibility had I not been thrust into it. It has been useful, as a woman, to sign off as “Dr. E Williams” when writing to certain types of people or institutions – until we bring down the partiarchy (work ongoing), it can be handy to let the recipient of your complaint assume that you are a man (which those certain sorts of people or institutions inevitably tend to do when you use an academic title). My PhD is also something I am proud of, solely because I know just what it took me to complete it. Many of my research peers fell by the wayside (ironically, all of them claiming to be loving the process of research, while I was always very vocal about how miserable I was finding it). A few years ago, I was invited back by my university as something of a voice of doom on a panel about postgraduate research: it’s tough, and most people don’t really enjoy it. So be careful what you wish for.

Back to my lovely friend’s question. Do I regret finishing my research? I have always told myself that I don’t, since I made it through and have something to show for it. My field is pretty niche (true of most PhDs) but my contribution was significant and is still cited in other people’s research in this field right across the world. Quitting would have meant that I had a bad experience and had nothing to show for it. Also, when it comes to sliding doors in life I think it’s best not to have regrets: you made the decisions you made or things happened and that’s how it is – there is little point in asking yourself what you could or should have done differently. But the way my friend worded that question really has made me think about that particular decision a little differently.

Sometimes in life, putting yourself through more pain truly isn’t worth it. The more I think about that awful time, the more my decision seems a little crazy. Much as I cannot see the alternatives played out with the clarity of a film, I can make sensible and reasonable predictions about what might have happened. My career would still have worked out: I had already been exposed to teaching (that happened in my very first year of research), so I probably would have chosen to switch to teacher training if I’d had the foresight and courage to jump ship when I could and should have done. I would have started work earlier, bought a house more cheaply than I did, paid into my pension for longer. If I’m honest, I’m not sure that my PhD has benefitted me in gaining work to the extent that I have told myself it has; my first class Honours degree and Masters at Distinction level was probably plenty and I’m not quite sure why I’ve never considered that before. So in truth, I cannot think of a negative outcome that would have happened due to quitting, other than the immense courage it would have taken to do so.

It is healthy in life to have no regrets, and I’m certainly not going to beat myself up about a decision I made in my mid-20s. I shall continue to make use of my title, and maintain pride in what turned out to be the toughest achievement I have ever faced in life. Go me. But if I could go back in time and tell myself what to do in 1997, I’d tell myself that the brave decision was not, in fact, to soldier on and do what was expected of me; the brave decision would have been to run for the hills. Sometimes, quitting is the bravest act of all.

Image from the British film Sliding Doors, starring Gwynneth Paltrow and John Hannah.