I used to think essays were really only something that Sheena Percival could ever master. And possibly Jackie Dandridge. Normally, Sheena and Jackie never spoke to each other. Their lips curled when they passed in the school corridors. They would not even play on the same netball team. Sheena wanted to go to Oxford to study English and Jackie wanted to go to Russia to live an honest life. At least, that’s what she said. Sheena always sat at the front, and Jackie lounged at the back, occasionally, if really roused, bringing her chair back to earth with a bang and standing to defend the working man. I can see them now, bandying arguments about the politics of literature with our teacher Miss Roberts, as the rest of us wondered what they were talking about, or passed notes about who was going to cop off with who at that night’s party in the working men’s club.
Sheena had read more than one book by Jane Austen and Jackie had a copy of the Communist manifesto in her desk. Really, they were very alike. They both handed in essays peppered with the most extraordinary words. I know this because Jackie wrote such a zinger once that she was asked to read it out. When she came to the word ‘hegemony’ I thought Sheena was going to snap her pencil.
The following week Sheena was asked to read her essay out. Her crowning moment was the word ‘anagnorisis’. I suppose I ought to tell you that it was after this that the pair of them signed a peace pact, struck up a really close friendship, and when they left school it was Sheena who went to Moscow and married a penniless piano tuner and Jackie who went to Oxford and became a merchant banker.
More importantly, to me, at the time, was the idea that if I used impressive sounding words I too might get the approval of Miss Roberts, and more importantly still, eight quid from my mother to buy a new maxidress from Dorothy Perkins. Hence, dear reader, I opened the dictionary at random and chose ‘homiletic’, ‘peduncle’ and ‘smorgasbord’. I remember, a week later, Miss Roberts congratulating me, with a thin smile, about my interesting choice of language, but also that it was mere speculation on my part that Elizabeth Bennet had a neck like a peduncle and that open sandwiches were unknown in Regency England. I got a B. It seemed that, even armed with amazing words, I could never ascend to the giddy heights of a B+ or, whisper it soft, an ‘A’. I was like Gandalf knocking at the gates of Moria, or possibly my mate Lou trying to prove to the landlord of The Gun that she was old enough to buy a vodka and tonic on the strength of her sister’s driving licence.
Then, after years working on tabloid newspapers, I started a university course and the old problem came back. What did you put in an essay? How did you beguile a tutor into giving you a good mark? But hey, I thought, I’m older, I’m wiser, I can write snappy paragraphs about axe murders. Surely I can just do the same about the romantic poets. My tutor was going to lap my stuff up. What she was lacking was some entertainment. After all, essays can be so dull, can’t they? It was with a light heart that I knocked off my essay on the romantic poets (‘Discuss the impact on Augustan poetry of Wordsworth’s preface to Lyrical Ballads’). I began:
1802 was set to be just another boring old year dominated by those fuddy duddy Augustans, but a young and dashing William Wordsworth had other ideas.
And you know what? My tutor didn’t like it. At all.
It wasn’t until I got taken in hand by another tutor, a doctor of philosophy, that lightning struck my pen and the scales fell from my eyes. I was shown firmly and clearly how to write an essay. The point about my tutor being a philosophy dude, is that they are masters of logic, and logic requires you to be clear about what you are asked to do, and then to answer by making your points, backing them up with evidence and then drawing a conclusion.
It is as simple as that, but I’m going to spell out the details, and you don’t even need to use the word ‘hence’ if you don’t want to.