Diary - Maureen Freely

Terrible gothic things have been happening in and around Leamington Spa, which is seething with lapt

Why is it that I can never remember statistics when I need them? Maybe I should start jotting these things down. But I was driving when I heard this item and, as we've all been told about a thousand times in the past week, a steering wheel is a dangerous thing unless governed at all times by two firm hands.

But anyway, it seems I'm not the only one to lie about my holidays. Between 60 and 80 per cent of British travellers commit the same sin. Most do it to impress their friends. I do it to spare them the details I now know they don't want to hear. When I first came to this country, and people flashed me a smile on the way to the coffee machine and asked: "How was your trip?", I generally answered the question in full. It had rained five days out of seven. The love of my life had left me stranded and penniless in a red-light district, and then the taxi driver turned out to be a pimp. My betrayer and I were now thinking of living separately for a while. Did anyone in the coffee queue have an idea where I might go?

Now I've learnt to say as little as possible, with a very large smile. But this, too, can backfire, as I discovered the other day when I was cancelling my university appointments so I could fly home to Istanbul. "A weekend in Istanbul!" one student exclaimed. "How fab can you get?" Hard to think of anything fabber, I said, except for those pesky little bombs. "Oh, who cares about them!" she said, breezily. Then she asked me if I wouldn't mind writing her a reference to support her application for a travel scholarship.

That's how I'll be spending my Christmas holidays: writing references. And really, I don't mind. It's the least I can do for my students, who are so very gifted and who work so hard. But goodness, the things these prospective employers want to know. Is the applicant good at filing? Is she punctual and how many absences due to sickness has she had in the past two years? How are her spreadsheets and how good is she at statistical analysis? For goodness sake, this is an English department. But then, the worst offenders when it comes to reference requirements are other English departments. Each has its own form and its own finicky requirements, and never do they acknowledge that most lecturers become lecturers because they know they'd never last more than a day in a job that involved licking envelopes and collating photocopies for longer than ten minutes without breaking the machine.

What a wheeze they have going at Cambridge. They send out one form and make us send it back in triplicate, so we do their photocopying for them. They also refuse to believe I am who I say I am unless I provide a signature on university stationery with a university stamp.

I spent most of yesterday afternoon working my way through ten application forms for one student. Four commanded me to send my reference directly to their graduate admissions offices, while six ordered me to seal the envelope, sign over the flap, cover it with Sellotape and hand it back to the student. It was only after I had signed, sealed and stamped nine of them that I realised I had mistyped this student's expected graduation date in every letter. By the time I got to the little piece of paper from Cambridge demanding everything in triplicate, I was so beside myself that I almost ate it.

Typical end-of-termitis, I suppose. But things are looking up. I had planned to spend most of my holiday reading mountains of student work. Now it looks as if I'll be going home with the smallest mountain ever. Terrible gothic things have been happening in and around Leamington Spa, which is seething with laptop thieves and homework-eating dogs. The best excuse I've had so far is from the student who could not do his report on A Clockwork Orange because he had to go to hospital to have a bandage changed on the toe that got bitten by a seal when he was surfing in Cornwall. He did try to ring me on his mobile when he was waiting for the light to change on his way to A&E, but then he looked over his shoulder and saw a dark uniform moving in his direction, and you know what? The policeman didn't believe him, either.

Maureen Freely lectures at the University of Warwick

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2003 issue of the New Statesman, Way out