Richard Hoyes joins the UCAS circus

21st April 2000 at 01:00
Come October and supposing she gets the grades required at A-level, what am I going to do with this, my daughter's extra-tall unicycle, or giraffe as they call it in the circus trade? (Please reader, no coarse e-mail.) She says it will be too big to pack when she goes off to the distant university of her choice. And it will be distant. She wrote in her UCAS personal statement: "I look forward to living somewhere that isn't in commuter-belt Surrey." I think I put something similar on mine about getting away from Scunthorpe and Lincolnshire, all iron, steel and sugar beet.

I am at King's Cross, St Pancras or Euston waiting for my daughter to come back from an interview or an open day. This year has been a year of travel. It was never like this in my day. As well as going on higher education visits, she's been to Wales and Morocco on geography field trips, Barcelona and Zaragoza to support her Spanish, and Farnham public library on an English adventure.

I teach her English and the library was my idea; more time travel than real travel. We went to a room haunted by Charles I's ghost for a creative writing experience with writer Anthony Masters. According to local legend, the king left a still discernible smell behind in Farnham where he stayed overnight before going to London to have his head chopped off. And you can still hear the eerie creak of an undisturbed floorboard. The smell by the way is a delicate hint of violets from his nosegay.

Come to think of it, I did have two days out in the sixth-form. I went for an interview at a London university. "I won't be back while Friday," I told the headmaster on Wednesday. "They'll laugh at you down south if you talk like that," he said. I should have said "until". So under the smoke and steam-filled vault of King's Cross station, full of southerners laughing at northerners, I practised my accent. While Friday. Wrong. Until Friday. Right.

So now I'm at King's Cross again 30 years later. In the half-hour wait "while" or "until" her train comes in, I'm between two worlds. North and south. Parenthood and sudenthood. I remember my former self. I have discovered platform nine and three-quarters at King's Cross station where, as Harry Potter readers know, fantasy and reality collide. I am on both sides of the platform at once. I am a teacher who teaches his own kid, puts her through a system he's always taken for granted, who now sees it from her point of view.

In April last year, after two terms of A-level study, my daughter was trying to decide between English and geography. By May she was writing the first draft of her personal statement. "On a February day in Abergavenny I decided I wanted to be a geographer." Two months later it read: "Looking into an extinct volcano in Morocco I knew for certain I wanted to read geography." The effect of a field trip! King Charles's violets and a ghostly floorboard just couldn't compete.

But why do we have to go through the UCAS process so early? And isn't this a horrible, pressurised time of a student's life with open days, interviews, trial exams and, this year, a very late Easter? Why can't it all be sorted out when the results are known?

My daughter comes back with an offer of a university place, conditional on getting an A, B and a C. "That's a long shot," I say. She smiles. "Yes, about 300 miles."

In fact, her interviewers had all her other university offers on a computer screen and sat in front of them like futures dealers at the Stock Exchange. "Not only that," says my daughter, "but one had 'K' beside it. What does that mean? Potassium? Or is it the first letter of something?" I look in a dictionary of foreign phrases and find: "Kein Talent, doch ein Charakter" (no talent, but still a character). Mmmm...

"How did you think you came across in the interview?" "They were interested to hear about the unicycle."

Then I remember the Latin for circus. It's spelt the same as in English but pronounced kirkus.

Maybe "K" is an encryption for "has circus skills". Maybe they'll take the giraffe.

Richard Hoyes teaches at Farnham college, Surrey. e-mail:

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