It’s a Smuggler’s Life For Me…

In an inevitable but utterly surreal series of events, I submitted my PhD thesis just over a month ago. In many ways – thanks largely to Mr Whale and the efforts of my absolutely fantastic friends – it was one of the most enjoyable days of my life. I swam in the sea, drank beer and whisky, smoked my first ever cigar, spent time in excellent company, and enjoyed an absolutely amazing cake, hand-made by a particularly splendid individual:


“Dr. Hollis is climbing a mountain”, with T-Rex Pusheen for scale.

On the other hand, delivering my thesis to the bureacuratic anonymity of University Registry also represented giving up something that had been the absolute centre of my working life for three years. I lived and breathed that bastard. At times, I cried over it. More often, I restrained squeals of excitement as I discovered yet another fantastic, fascinating, characterful source that just had to go in somewhere.

So, existentially speaking (ahem), the weeks after submitting a thesis are a pretty weird time. I don’t think it’s unfair to say that quite a few people end up doing a PhD because they aren’t really sure what they want to do after finishing school, after finishing a B.A., after finishing a Master’s, so they just extend the process a little longer. I am of the breed of people who absolutely loved school as a child, and so the decision to stay in formal education as long as possible was a relatively straightforward one (ironically, I was on the verge of starting to train as a school-teacher before I got the funding to do a PhD). But I have also definitely been grateful for the opportunity to put off the decision of What I Want to Be When I Grow Up for a little longer than most.

The obvious answer, at the end of a PhD in a distinctly impractical subject such as History, is to go in to academia, and this was certainly on the cards for me for a long time – may still be, in fact, for all that I know what the future holds. But as I got closer and closer to thesis submission this idea became less and less immediately attractive. I loved the research and indeed I loved all of the voluntary ‘extras’ I had taken on, such as contributing to university policy (anyone reading this should know already I am an odd narwhal), helping to run workshops, and generally being an organisational busybody wherever I could.

But. But. But. As I wrote my thesis I remembered a past self who had sat up late at night writing stories and sending speculative novel excerpts to publishers. At some point in my late teens I had rejected the career plan of ‘become a writer’ as too ambitious, too low-paid, too unstable. Then I immediately threw myself down the academic career path, which is of course highly ambitious, often lowpaid, and inherently unstable.

So coming out of the PhD I wanted to find some way to make space in my life again for giving that old dream a chance to breathe and – perhaps, with the wind in the right direction – flourish. My first thought had been to just try to get a part-time job of some sort, and to spend the rest of the time writing. But as I simultaneously recovered from the three-year marathon of the PhD, and a nasty bout of bronchitis, I began to wonder whether I couldn’t earn my keep in some way that utilised all of the skills of reading, writing, researching, and teaching that I had been developing for so long.

And so, since 15th October – as my self-employment registration with HMRC records – I have become a self-employed freelancer. I’ve never been one to only have one arrow to my bow, so I am currently a (deep breath) freelance writer, researcher, proofreader, editor, and postgraduate developer and workshop-deliverer. To my significant amazement, all of these balls have started gathering moss at an unexpected rate, and my diary is already looking pleasingly full with a delightfully interesting range of different tasks and pursuits, that quite closely resemble some of those ‘extras’ I so enjoyed over the past three years. And there is time, in the midst of all that, for my writing, for the stuff of my soul as well as for the stuff that buys food for my stomach.

It could well be that in a year or so I have found that this venture simply isn’t sustainable, or that perhaps I miss academia more than expected, or an opportunity comes up that I simply can’t pass up on. But for the time being, I am very happy to be using my ‘very particular set of skills’ both to make a living, and to make time and space for living.

The ‘theme tune’ for this post can be found in the discography of the fantastic McCalmans:

Moving House (Again)

Moving house feels as if it ought to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Unfortunately for house-dwellers and fortunately for the livelihoods of removal firms, this is not the case. Of course the experience can sometimes be sad and poignant and emotionally draining. It can also, sometimes, be pretty farcical.

For example, realising that the emotional currency of your marriage now largely consists in cheering one another on at the completion of yet another box. And that the ferocity usually reserved for severe breaches of trust can be inspired by the realisation that someone has moved the tape and scissors.

Or the moment when you dig into an old box of mementoes, packed the last time you move, and you scratch your head and wonder how mad you must once have been to treasure these things enough to keep them (why was the tiny notebook never written in? where did that bit of slate, one inch by half an inch, come from in the first place?). Then you realise that either you’re still mad or that when you packed last time you felt exactly like you do now, just wishing it was all over. And so you carefully pack the tiny notebook, the bit of slate, the unworn dolphin earrings, into a new box for a new house.

Then there is the ever-growing corner of tiny, fiddly things that don’t seem to fit in any box and that you know will end up stuffed in a carrier bag at the very end and hidden in a rucksack to be found, months later, when you go camping. Things like hairbands, stub ends of pencils, single pennies. You could throw them out and your life would  be none the poorer (well, excepting the pennies, I suppose), but by force of habit they come along, to gather in dusty corners in a different corner of the country.

And then there is the moment when this home you’ve poured all your memories and waking hours and sleeping nights into suddenly looks half-naked and unfamiliar, and that’s when you really want it to be over because it would be better to have left for good than be only half gone. But whilst you might take away every twig of furniture and throw every last hairband into that plastic bag, you know you’ll leave something behind: the shape of your life when it fitted into those rooms, that particular space.

I’m sorry, did I say it could be poignant?

Hector the Narwhal

As friends who have visited our home in the last two years will know, there is a “real-life” Hector the Narwhal behind the latest arrival to the Pink Narwhal webcomic. Ever since our slightly strange obsession with narwhals began, myself and my husband have made a game of trying to source narwhal-related gifts for one another at birthdays and Christmas. When I discovered the Squishable Narwhal (also now available from a UK store!), I began dropping hints about it so obvious that even the slightly myopic blue whale couldn’t fail to pick up on them. Still, as Christmas that year neared, I wasn’t sure that a large fluffy narwhal would find its way under the tree – surprise, of course, being part of the enjoyment.

And then, Mr Whale used my Paypal account to make a payment to “”, which promptly appeared on my bank statement late in November. Somehow, a joke arose between us that this was in fact from “Mr Squish Able” (pronounced “Squee-Shabluh”), a Mongolian bookseller – Mongolian to explain the fact that the ‘volume’ was being sent by airmail. Of course, it transpired on Christmas Day that the large, definitely-not-book-shaped box did not contain a novel, and so was born Mr Squish Able’s whale school, and thus the backstory of the newest character in the webcomic.

Moving House

Last time we moved house, we didn’t quite get to the point of wanting to burn all of our belongings, but it was pretty close. A couple of years ago I decided it would be an awesome idea to get the real-life blue narwhal a piano for his birthday. I think fifty or sixty years ago practically every household must have had a piano: surely the only explanation, anyway, for early- and mid-century pianos being so common that people (probably having inherited them from parents and grandparents) are desperate to get rid of them. So I pulled off a Secret Mission of which I am still extremely proud today: I tracked down a dirt-cheap piano in a nearby town, organised a delivery van to pick it up, received it whilst the blue narwhal was out, single-handedly re-arranged our furniture around it and hefted it into place, polished it, and enjoyed the look of astonishment when he walked through the door.

I neglected to consider that the life of an academic is an itinerant one, and that pianos are heavy.

Moving into our latest flat the piano had to be got up a set of stairs with two 90 degree turns and a door at either end. The people we had engaged to move our worldly goods failed to bring the third person and vital piano-moving equipment that their employer had promised would be present. We spent an agonising 60 minutes stuck outside our house as the piano and the two men lifted it were stuck on the stairs, moving it with nothing but their bare hands inch by creeping inch. I was honestly  convinced that at any moment the piano would come tumbling down onto the man at the bottom and that we would have a truly awful situation on our hands and consciences.

Of course, the piano made it, and we gratefully shook our moving people’s hands before collapsing onto a pile of boxes (which turned out to have been soaked overnight thanks to a leak in the moving van) and eating fish and chips straight out of the cardboard.

Anyway, I don’t think the minimalist life would suit us (we love physical books too much, for one thing), but sometimes I think back on the sheer trauma of that hour, and look at the piano, now safely ensconced in the corner of the living room, and think… maybe, that particular piano has had its last move. Because I don’t even want to start thinking about getting it down those stairs.

From tiny acorns…

…do very silly webcomics grow.

Just under four years ago, I came back from a party – just a little tipsy, you understand – to my then very-new boyfriend’s house. After fetching me a glass of water, he said he had to show me a video that he and his housemates had just discovered. That video was Mr Weebl’s “Narwhals”. I then proceeded to spend about half an hour giggling and singing it over and over very loudly. By the time I went to sleep that night it was pretty much stuck in my head, and me and my boyfriend sang it at one another for weeks on end.

At some point, the song-singing evolved into a slightly eccentric alternative to “sweetheart” as an appropriate pet name for one another. From calling one another “narwhal” we moved onto “pink narwhal” and “blue narwhal”, and sometimes just “whale” (fellow-shoppers must think it very cruel when I’m told “that dress doesn’t suit you at all whale!” outside changing rooms). At some point the gooey love notes exchanged in the first flush of a new relationship began to be adorned with narwhal-related art: usually little cartoons of two narwhals hugging, or sometimes more elaborate sketches of, for example, narwhals house-hunting, or hiking. Then about six months ago I had the idea of turning these little pictures into a comic strip. And, so, the Pink Narwhal was born.

As for that brand-new boyfriend of four years ago… well, reader, I married him!