Wednesday, September 19, 2007

I blame it all on Anne Robinson

This week marks the start of a new way of working for me. More than 22 years after graduating, I'm starting on an MA in International Relations at Brunel University.

On Monday, I spent several hours with my tutor and some of my new colleagues. Those I've met so far are from China, the US, Iraq and the Caribbean - a suitably international mix in a very ethnically diverse university. Yesterday, the pro vice chancellor informed us that the university's 15,000-strong student body encompassed 112 nationalities.

As I worked my way through a seemingly endless round of queues to enrol as a student and get all my necessary permissions and paraphernalia yesterday, I talked to students from Iran, Turkey, China, Nigeria, Ghana, the US and Finland. Barring about three others spotted on the horizon, all had something in common - they're so young.

The majority of people enrolling yesterday were post-grads, but most had come straight from completing their undergraduate studies - so were mid-20s at the oldest. And there was a fair sprinkling of fresh-faced late teens embarking on their undergraduate careers - something I did a generation ago back in's simply so last century.

So there's me: 43 years old and 22 years out of academic rigour. It's going to be a tough transition from my normal world of corporate comms and journalism to the gilded plateau where theory outweighs application.

So why am I doing it? Blame Anne Robinson, blame the BBC - I might even blame my kids.

I've always thought I was reasonably bright, but a woolly thinker. However, I've always had a head for facts and a pragmatic means of linking information. This led to me shouting a lot at TV quiz shows and ultimately to appearing on and indeed winning Anne Robinson's BBC quiz - the Weakest Link.

And that's where I peaked...and that's probably where I should have left things. But I didn't. Three drivers marked my next moves: first, to write seriously about stuff I enjoy; second, to indulge my TV-wannabeness and third, to find an outlet for my schoolboyesque fascination with the Space Race.

One and three started to come together - but it took two to provide a temporary purpose. I decided to start researching historical narrative pieces on some of the key anniversaries of the space programme, with the view of getting some pieces published and earning a little bit of money. I've had some small successes but not enough to put all the corporate comms stuff on hold. But this time last year, driver number two took over.

I applied for Mastermind and was selected as a contender for the 2007 series. That meant structuring my research on a particular topic - SP Koralev in my case, for two minutes in the famous black leather chair. The result of my labours will be on TV next week and, I'm sure, mark the end of my life on TV.

The show was recorded in March and its conclusion meant I no longer had compelling reason to read and study the history and politics of the cold war that had so absorbed me for the previous few months.

But it got me thinking that maybe I could expand my very narrow focus and put what little knowledge I have and the lot of interest behind it to good use. So, I came along to a Brunel open day, spent three hours chatting to tutors about everything from Khruschev's drinking habits to the Baltimore Orioles. That led to submitting an application form which, to my surprise, led to an offer.

Now, that offer is real, and I spent the early part of this morning reading an introduction to the competing theories of International Relations. It's a long time since I've dealt in theories, and it's really going to be a stretch this term to absorb what's a new field for me and to structure my own thoughts coherently around it. And, unlike most of my colleagues on the course, I'm doing it part time, while still attempting to work for up to 30 hours a week.

The new way of working - at least 'til Christmas - sees me in college on a Monday and Friday with most work squeezed into Tues-Thurs. It also sees a reading hour in the morning and evening every day - discipline that doesn't come naturally.

I have to say I'm daunted but excited too. Where it will lead to...well, I'm leaving that open. But I still reckon Anne Robinson has a lot to answer for.

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