Oxford, the Great and Terrible

19 Jul

It is 30°C which is much too hot to spend any extended period of time curled into the foetal position so I have decided to update my blog instead.

When I wrote my last blog post I was in the middle of a breakdown called “my twenties”, but since then I’ve spent eight months working and studying and looking after myself and things are looking a lot brighter now because I’m more like three fifths of the way through it.

I’m still not back at university. I decided to take my tutor’s advice and start my third year from the beginning in October, so hopefully I’m still on track to graduate before my youngest grandchild’s 18th birthday.

I’ve been working part-time. I temped at a football stadium for a bit, through a catering and hospitality agency. Sometimes I was a kitchen assistant, sometimes I was waiting tables or private boxes and sometimes I was having an anxiety attack. I was actually very good at that job because quite often when someone has paid for a private box to watch a match with their pals the first thing they say when they arrive is “please can you allocate us your most socially and physically uncertain member of staff? We are looking to enhance our experience with frightened responses to banter and at least two fluid ounces missing from our beer pitchers every time they arrive.”

In April I got an admin job at my university’s Faculty of Theology and Religion because after spending four years ruining atheism, bringing my good works to theism seemed like the next logical step. It was only a short contract, so this Friday is my last day. I really like my job there. Everyone is dead nice. At the end of my first week I asked the General Administrator, who outranks everyone except the Field Marshal Administrator, to check over something I’d done in case I’d done it wrong, and she told me that if I’d done it wrong then it would be because she hadn’t explained it to me properly. It was a very nice and supportive thing to say to a new member of staff so I decided against telling her that they’d accidentally hired the World’s Most Incompetent Human. Show, don’t tell.

I went to some lectures this term. Third year lectures for my course start at the end of second year because biology is a soft science that struggles with numbers, so my tutor gave me permission to attend and my boss let me split my shifts so I could work around them. The set of lectures I took was called Ecology of Terrestrial Ecosystems: Past, Present and Future, and in one of them the lecturer was talking about species distribution and climate change and couldn’t remember what grape vines were called so said “wine trees”. I am learning a lot from the best and the brightest.

I’ve also been making myself go to the library after work most days. I never studied in the libraries when I was here before because I was worried that I’d wander into a room I wasn’t allowed in or sit in the wrong place or turn a page in a way that was flagrantly working class. I’ve made a conscious effort over the past few months to do things that make me uncomfortable but that will be necessary when I come back in October, like taking advantage of university facilities or asking for help when I need it or waking before noon. It’s going okay. I think getting a job at the university has helped. I’ve written before about being very intimidated by Oxford, and I still feel that way. But having worked here for three months a lot of it seems to just be a load of stressed and overworked administrators crouching over their desks and drowning in paperwork, like the man behind the curtain pretending to be a great and terrible wizard.


Not sure whether my mistake was putting all my eggs in one basket or choosing a basket called “The Egg Destroyer”

29 Nov

I got my first ever negative review for my last blog post:

“Not interesting. Doesn’t make your employer look funny enough” – my former employer.

I don’t work for a comedian anymore. It ended really badly. Hard to work out why spending my early twenties working for a man in his late fifties in exchange for a place to stay ended really badly. But life is about learning from our mistakes so that we might grow into better, stronger people and, as Obi-Wan Kenobi famously said in Star Wars Episode IV, “If you strike me down, I shall lie face-down on my mum’s sofa for 3 months lamenting my existence and then get a job in a warehouse because this alcohol habit won’t fund itself!!!!!!!!”


I’m not going to write about what happened to me 2012-14 right now because I haven’t worked out how to make it funny yet. I judge how traumatic something is by how long it takes me to write about it. It took me 6 days to write about the death of my brothers’ dad in 2010; this one’s been over a year so far, so fingers crossed the zingers are coming soon lol!!!!!

I moved back to my mum’s house last year. Then I did seasonal work at Boots warehouse over the festive period because nothing says “Christmas” like leaping out of your childhood bed and running downstairs in your pyjamas at 5AM so you can stuff Lynx gift sets into cardboard boxes for £7/hour.

I’d been looking for jobs for a while because there’s only so long that someone can derive sustenance from Netflix and self-loathing, and after being rejected from every minimum wage cleaning job in my town and running out of Buzzfeed listicles to re-read I decided to sign on. And then I went for a quick interview at a warehouse so that the people at the Jobcentre who arranged it would like me and was still there 10 hours later wearing hi viz and steel-capped boots. The Jobcentre people had said that I had to “dress smartly, because it is an interview”, so I dressed smartly, because it was an interview, and when I arrived one of the other 100 people there for our induction and immediate start said “haha! You look like you’re going for an interview!” and yet again I felt like the only child in school who didn’t get the letter about non-uniform day.

I worked there from the end of November until the beginning of January. Boots do not think very highly of their staff. They outsource their Christmas hiring and firing to two agencies that do not think very highly of anyone at all. Less than 24 hours before Christmas Eve, everyone got a text saying “just a reminder that all days off on Christmas Eve and Boxing Day are cancelled and your bonus will be affected if you do not attend” and I was immediately impressed by their clever trick of introducing brand new information with the phrase “just a reminder”, and latterly impressed by their clever trick of threatening to reduce or revoke a bonus that nobody ended up getting anyway.

If you write “Boots” backwards it spells “GLaDOS”

I quit that job at the beginning of January because we were all about to get laid off anyway, and took another one at a food testing laboratory in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. It paid less than the warehouse, but the people were great and I got to wear a lab coat like all of my friends that actually graduated. My job was to put things in a blender and then take things out of the blender and then clean the blender so that I could put more things in the blender. The lab was near the site of the since-demolished biscuit factory that my mum worked at before my birth similarly demolished her job prospects and sense of self, and I was glad that two years at the University of Oxford had made me so socially mobile that I’d ended up at least 100 yards from where I’d existed as an ovum.

I was only there for six months, but I got super attached to the people I was working with. It was a small group, and everyone was extraordinarily generous and funny and likeable. I left at the beginning of July so that I could focus on studying again, and I don’t think I’ve felt so moved leaving a job since my old boss told me I was the worst thing to happen to him since his ex-wife stole his children.

In August I went to Edinburgh for the Fringe. I spent the month working for and sharing a flat with the Freestival team, who were an absolute joy and upon whom I was an unmitigated curse, and performing my increasingly successful solo show “Heather Has A Panic Attack” on various walls and benches around the city. Then in September I moved back to Oxford, and since then my time has been divided pretty evenly between studying so that I can finish my degree and staring at my ceiling wondering how much longer I’ll be able to maintain the idea that I can finish my degree.

This is the closest that I’ve come to returning to university. Literally the closest; this is the first time that I’ve moved back to Oxford. More than that, though: it’s much harder to hide from academia when you’re living in an affluent city that’s suffocated by it, than it is when you’re in a former mining town whose economy predominantly relies on card shops and William Hill. Also, it’s easier for me to get in the right frame of mind to study in Oxford because it has a strong association with the time I spent here doing just that, whereas my hometown has a strong association with the time I spent there drinking unbranded whisky and watching back-to-back episodes of Bojack Horseman. But saying that this is the closest that I’ve come to returning to university is like saying that this is the closest that I’ve come to writing a good analogy. It’s technically true but ultimately meaningless; I’m still prohibitively far. Nobody really believes that I’m going to graduate. I sure don’t. I’m coming to the end of my fourth year out now. That’s more than a degree’s worth of years out from my degree. I have to keep a journal so that I know what I did yesterday, and now I’m trying to remember esoteric details of biological processes that I learnt about when I was 20.

"esoteric details"

“esoteric details”

My tutor thinks that I should take another year out. Her reasoning is good: before I took a break at the end of 2011 I’d already done the first term of my final year, so I’m due to formally resume my studies in January. However, I’ve been away for so long that the course has changed significantly, so she thinks that the university should grant me permission to start my final year over and come back in October rather than January 2016. My ideas for funding it are less good: I do not have any ideas for funding it. Sitting an extra term means paying an extra term’s tuition – and there’s a year and a half between now and when I’d finish where I’d need to be concentrating on getting back on track with my course rather than working full-time, but where I’d also need to pay rent and eat something other than dust and wishes.

I’m not sure what’s going to happen. I think my chances of graduating are vanishingly small, but that things will probably work out okay in the grand scheme of things. For now, I think I like being back. I never really settled in the first time round. I became fixated on the fact that I didn’t really meet any people like me here – kids from poor families – and spent so much of my time feeling inadequate and telling myself that I only got offered a place because Oxford had to meet some kind of Poor Person Quota that I never allowed myself to feel comfortable or really engage. But now I’m older, it seems a little less intimidating. I still feel intellectually and academically inadequate, and I still find the university itself tremendously intimidating, but the students that I was intimidated by are now between four and seven years younger than me. I was a kid last time. And I’m not sure I qualify as an adult this time, but it’s harder to feel quite so intimidated by 18 to 21-year-olds when you are not 18 to 21 – even if they talk fancy, went to the kind of schools that fostered a profound self-assurance within them that you rarely find elsewhere, and are managing to complete their degrees without taking four years out to curl into the foetal position and stare at walls.

Another day at the comedy coalface

23 Jul

It’s been almost 250 years since William Blake saw “a tree filled with angels, bright angelic wings bespangling every bough like stars” on Peckham Rye, and almost 18 hours since Heather Stevens accidentally interrupted some doggers.

Hey you guys long time no rehash things that I’ve already posted on twitter and facebook!  It’s been 6 months since my last blog post! I have achieved nothing! I work in comedy! I am broke and broken!

I’ve worked in comedy for over a year and a half now and I can’t decide whether my favourite part is writing jokes, rewriting jokes or crying myself to sleep cradling a whisky bottle. Going into the comedy industry and expecting to stay of sound mind is like aggressively jumping on a landmine and expecting to stay of sound leg.

I don’t really know how this happened, much like everything else that has ever happened. When I was at school, my friend Tom used to tell me that he could see me ending up as a comedian, but I think he probably said it in the same way that you might shout to your friend that you think they should become a professional chef over the noise of all of their dinner guests vomiting and suffering from sudden and explosive diarrhoea. Tom also said to me, in biology class one time: “Heather is the perfect name for you, because heather is a rough and abrasive shrub and you have a rough and abrasive personality,” which is where my “AbrasiveShrub” moniker is stolen from. I have never had an original thought.

I am not a comedian. I work for a comedian. I work for Lewis Schaffer. I don’t really have a job title. Lewis tends to refer to me as “assistant”, “writer” or “atrocious example of a human being” depending on how terrible I’m being at my job, and most of the time I’m pretty terrible.

In December I ran into my friend Alom at another friend’s birthday party and told him that I worked for a comedian. A few months later, Lewis’s twice-weekly Free until Famous show that he’d been doing at the same place for several years moved to a new venue, and since I was going to be at the show to record it anyway I offered to stand outside the old venue beforehand to catch anyone that went there by mistake. It started raining, so I was standing outside this dubious-looking karaoke bar wearing a massively oversized green t-shirt with the words “FREE COMEDY” emblazoned on the front, holding some soggy flyers and looking very damp and vaguely homeless when Alom walked past and awkwardly said hello and now he thinks I said “I work for a comedian” in the same way that someone that cleans the offices might say “I work for Google”.

Some of the things I have to do are so straightforward that I will say, with uncharacteristic confidence and hubris, that I’m moderately okay at them: making sure emails are replied to, submitting dates to press and listings sites, recording and transcribing parts of the live shows, editing material, booking transport to and from gigs, avoiding diary clashes, registering for Edinburgh Fringe, helping put together material for this year’s show at Edinburgh Fringe, telling people reading my blog that they should buy tickets for this year’s show at Edinburgh Fringe, making sure posters and flyers are designed, doing a frickin’ parade, helping write press releases. A press release we wrote a couple of weeks ago was described as “nothing short of genius” in this week’s Independent on Sunday, which will go on my Edinburgh Fringe poster when I do my one-woman show about spending my twenties doing menial tasks for the most successful failed comedian in London in exchange for room and board, next to Charmian Hughes‘s description of me as “au pair for Lewis Schaffer’s career”.

Then there’s writing jokes for Lewis’s weekly live radio show on Resonance FM, which I am unfailingly awful at.  Most of this blog post has sat in my drafts folder since March. I am really bad at submitting things that I know aren’t good enough, which is the vast majority of what I produce. That is not compatible with live radio, because there’s a very clear and immovable deadline every week. At that point, everything has to be handed in regardless of whether I think it’s good enough or not, which makes every show an absolute ordeal for me. But it’s probably helped me, because if I hadn’t learnt to accept that if all I have is absolute dross then I’m going to have to submit absolute dross, this blog post would have stayed in my drafts folder for another four months.

If I were better at it, and if it were more lucrative, this would basically be my dream job. I get to do some amazing things and find myself in preposterous situations. In January Lewis did a show with Jerry Sadowitz, George Galloway and Richard Dawkins and I ended up getting a free lunch with them. Conversation highlight:

Me: What’s that stuff in the crab shell?

Richard Dawkins: It is crab.

Afterwards I was standing downstairs and a stranger handed me his cloakroom ticket and told me to fetch his hat.

And last month Zach Galifianakis came to see Lewis’s show at the Leicester Square Theatre, and it was amazing to see a global comedy megastar still find time to support live stand-up by performing for Zach Galifianakis.

Because I work for a comedian, a lot of people ask me whether I want to end up on the stage too. The answer is always no, because I am incapable of making eye contact and adequate conversation with one person, let alone plural person. I have been running Oxford Skeptics in the Pub for over two years now, and have still failed to introduce any of the speakers because I am debilitatingly shy. Which is why when I was asked if I would co-host Winchester Science Festival on Saturday 26th and Sunday 27th July with Neil Denny of Little Atoms fame, I said yes.

I’m not sure what I was thinking. I initially said no but was berated by my friends. Also, as soon as I’d turned it down I felt like I’d done something stupid, because it was such a ludicrous thing for someone like me to be invited to do that it seemed unlikely I’d have a similar opportunity again. I don’t understand why I’ve been asked to do it. I’ve been to Winchester Science Festival every year, and every year it is absolutely wonderful, and every year the line-ups are consistently brilliant, and every year there is literally no point where a 23-year-old has a nervous breakdown on stage, which might be what the organisers felt like they’d been missing.

When I did eventually say yes, my intention was to introduce every speaker at Oxford Skeptics in the Pub between then and now so that I’d at least have some limited experience of doing words at people by the time the festival came around. But every month I’d get to the pub and every month I’d lose my nerve. It’s hard to explain the level of fear that the prospect of talking to a crowd draws from me, because I even get anxious every time I go out and see people that I know. There aren’t even three days left between now and the festival and I don’t know what to do because I genuinely can’t see any way that I’m going to pull it off and even if I make it to the stage I’m probably just going to go on fire.

Luckily for you guys, Neil Denny is brilliant and an actual proper professional doer of things, and so is Simon Watt, who is hosting the talks on Friday 25th, so the festival is still going to be amazing. Friday’s day tickets are sold out, but there’s a bunch of free stuff going on, and there are some day tickets left for Saturday and Sunday, and you should buy them because the line-up is fantastic – speakers like Jocelyn Bell Burnell, Helen Czerski and Lucy Rogers – and there’s a chance that you will also get to see me go on fire.

I have to go and prepare now by spending the next three days curling into a ball and crying.

New year, new me!

1 Jan

HAHA ONLY JOKING looking forward to making exactly the same mistakes I’ve made every other year.

Hey happy new year everyone can’t believe it’s 2013 already! Can’t wait to tell everyone I haven’t seen them since last year so they’ll think I’m really funny and want to be my friend.

I was watching the Christmas episode of Would I Lie to You about 12 hours after I’d written my previous post and Barry Cryer was talking about how he had been in hospital over Christmas because of his eczema and he said “happy eczemas” so I text my friend Alex complaining that now it looked like I’d stolen my terrible pun from a really popular TV show and he told me not to worry because it’s been done loads of times before so PHEW YOU GUYS glad I’m just super unoriginal rather than a thief!

What’s the most appalling gift you gave this year? I bought Cards Against Humanity (UK Edition) for one of my brothers. It’s a party game where one player draws a black card – a statement with a missing word, or a question – and reads it out. Every other player then chooses one of their white cards to fill in the blank, and the person with the funniest answer wins. Here’s an example:

Cards Against Humanity

Actually grandma let’s play charades.

My little sister came home at 1.30AM today after a New Year’s Eve party at her friend’s house and she was drunk. I could tell that she was drunk because of the way she said “I am drunk.” I’d never seen her drunk before so it was really weird. She’s 21 now but because she’s my little sister I still think of her as like 12 which is why I forgot to share the eggnog on Christmas Day.



I haven’t made any resolutions this year. Mostly because I just forgot. My friend Martin says that I need to do some gigs or some writing before the end of 2014 or he will set fire to me and that is the kind of resolution that I’d like to make – avoiding going on fire, and also writing or saying some words or something – but realistically I think that it won’t happen and I’ll end up going on fire yet again.

I give the friends I mention in my blog posts names so it’s harder for you to figure out that I’ve made them up.

It’s beginning to look a lot like eczemas.

25 Dec

Someone found my blog on Sunday by searching “i need help i have no clue what i’m doing and no dogs”.

At least I have a dog.

Hey you guys it’s 4.30am on Christmas Day! Merry Christmas you guys!

I am writing a blog post at 4.30am on Christmas Day because I was awake until 7am yesterday and then slept until early afternoon and now my body clock is messed up. I was awake until 7am yesterday because I was at a party all night having sex with a succession of attractive and charming young men. Also by at a party all night having sex with a succession of attractive and charming young men I mean in bed at my mum’s house trying to claw my skin off because I have a deeply uncomfortable and unsightly skin condition that flared up within hours of me arriving home for Christmas LOL I will die alone.

I want to go to sleep because my brother will get up super early and wake everyone up so that he can open his presents and play with his new toys.

My brother is 36 years old.

He doesn't even live here. Last Christmas he commuted dressed like this.

He doesn’t even live here. Last Christmas he commuted dressed like this.

I finished all of my Christmas wrapping a few hours ago. Also by “I” I mean “my mum”. Except for her presents. I wrapped those.

And did a really professional job.

Instead of getting a job I am thinking of starting an online business that will provide services in gift-wrapping and professional, bespoke, artistic greeting card design. Here is the professional, bespoke, artistic greeting card that I designed for my sister’s 21st birthday. As you can see, it includes both her single interest – giraffes – and the number 21.

In your eye, Hallmark.

Now it’s 6am because I paused mid-post to have a discussion with my friend Rob over facebook chat about whether he’d had a dream about going downstairs and drinking some orange juice or had actually gone downstairs and drank some orange juice.

Might add a tagline to my blog:

“Every post more disappointing than the last.”

Attack of the Can’ts.

30 Nov

“A condition of the College’s permission [to return to study at Oxford] is that you seek out counselling or a similar strategy to address your confidence difficulties.”

Sounds like something I’ll be really bad at.

HAHA IT IS A JOKE but also a real thing that my tutor has said in a letter to me hey everyone this is my first post of 2013 happy 2013 everyone!

I was due to be back in Oxford way back in January but I am still not back in Oxford so then it was supposed to be next January but it’s looking like it won’t be next January either because I am incapable of success. At first I thought that meant that I couldn’t go back ever, but my tutor sent me a letter saying that I can go back later as long as I stop whining about how terrible I am at everything or something I might be paraphrasing it’s hard to remember there were so many words.

Someone I met at a comedy club who’s trying to help me get a proper job said that I should start updating my blog again because it’s “basically [my] CV” so I’ve decided to start my first post of the year by signposting my fragile mind and also this post about why I’m unemployable.

Speaking of reasons you should never give me a job, on Tuesday my friend said I was a sociopath (can’t really empathise with that perspective AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA LAUGH THROUGH THE TEARS) and it reminded me of this conversation with a stranger on a bus:

Them: “Have you seen the film Seven Psychopaths?”
Me: “No. What’s that?”
Them: “One of the characters has a hat like yours.”
Me: “What character?”
Them: “The psychopath.”


Speaking of reasons you should never travel with me on a bus, a few hours ago I was on a bus and stuff started falling out of a sleeping man’s bag onto the floor and I was worried he’d not realise and leave without it so I got up and put it back in and stood his bag up so nothing else would fall out and he woke up and saw me with my hands on his bag and was really angry and I apologised so profusely even I’m convinced I was trying to mug him why am I like this?

Speaking of shoehorning totally incongruous things I’ve already posted on facebook and twitter into my blog because I’ve forgotten how to write, my sister took me to West Midlands Safari Park for my birthday two months ago here are some things what I saw!

A flamboyant donkey

A flamboyant donkey

An angry flamingo.

An angry flamingo.

Aslan's mum.

Aslan’s mum.

A woolly mammoth.

A woolly mammoth.

Some naughty ducks in their prison uniforms.

Some naughty ducks in their prison uniforms.

A market.

A market.

A unicorn.

A unicorn.

A narwhal.

A narwhal.

Bye I have to go now and attempt to stem this inexhaustible tide of job offers that’s just started rolling in.

The Ghost of Christmas Disappointment.

30 Dec

Carphone Warehouse? More like Carphone Shithouse!


Way back in June I bought a phone from Carphone Warehouse and it was faulty and a few weeks ago I decided that I should probably do something about the fact that I’d been sold a broken mobile phone like half a year ago, so I took it in to one of their repair centres. And they looked at it for 2 minutes, formatted it and gave it back to me saying it was fixed and then I took it back the next day being all like “hey this is still broken” and they were like “oh yeah haha actually it is broken here is a steam-powered contraption from the 19th century that’s never heard of the internet for you to use while we take 17 years to fix the broken phone that we sold you you’re welcome.”

And then some other stuff. I was going to write a whole post about my broken phone and how much I struggled to cope with its basic replacement because of how spoilt I’ve clearly become and how surprised I was by my dependence on my smartphone, but I got bored halfway through. Imagine if proper writers did that:
“‘Harry – yer a wizard.’
There was a silence inside the hut. Only the sea and the whistling wind could be heard.
‘I’m a what?’ gasped Harry and then some other stuff happened and Harry beat a bunch of baddies and everything was fine come on guys there’s a cupboard full of alcohol here it’s Christmas jeez.”

Christmas! It’s too late for a Christmas post now. Here are the ones from the past two years: last year and the year before that.

I’m not sure it’s really too late to write a Christmas post, I just don’t have anything interesting to say. I don’t have anything interesting to say because I haven’t really been outdoors for a while. I’ve been spending most of my time reading about dead fish and looking at pictures of dead fish in an effort to salvage my degree. There’s a type of fish called the remora that has a dorsal fin modified into a sucker so that it can hitch rides on other fish and also do awesome Klingon impressions at parties:

It’s not going very well. The degree-salvaging. I’m not sure I’m going back to Oxford next month. I’m probably not. Not in the capacity that I was supposed to be, at least. But that’s another thing I need to figure out how to write about. I’ll probably move back there in the new year with the aim of resuming my degree at a later date but it’s all a bit of a mess really.

I am a disappointment to everyone apart from myself. But the good news is that I’m hopefully on track to graduate before my 40th birthday. HAPPY NEW YEAR EVERYBODY!

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