Guide to University: The Dissertation

So you’ve finally made it to (what is most likely) your final year of university. You’re struck with a mixture of excitement, panic, awe, fear, anxiety, pure terror, and just a general feeling of being overwhelmed. If you’re in a career-guided degree, like Medicine or Engineering, then you won’t have to deal with one of the more larger pressures that everyone else goes through (aka what the hell am I going to do when I get out of here, how do I find jobs, how do I get interviews, someone please just help me etc), so enjoy that. However, what most people will have to suffer through, most of the time out of choice, is The Dissertation.

No one really knows what The Dissertation actually is – even halfway through writing it some people still don’t understand what it is – but essentially, or rather ‘for the most part’, it is a large essay which is seen as the main project of your final year. Although for most of us The Dissertation counts for just as much as some of our other modules, employers often ask about your mark for The Dissertation as it’s one of the only essays you’ll write which is entirely dependent on your own work. Sure, no one writes your essays for you (unless you are a cheat in which case you’re not welcome here), but there is a lot of work done for you and usually other people writing on the same thing. When it comes to The Dissertation, not only do you have to think of your own niche subject to write about (no vague or broad titles allowed), you have to do 100% of the research. Your title will likely change two, three, or even five times over the whole course of The Dissertation – sometimes just a few mere weeks before the deadline.

As someone who has only just handed in their Dissertation, I think I can safely say, now that it’s over, I’m glad I ended up writing one. A Dissertation allows you to write about what you find interesting, and sometimes is more enjoyable than your other subjects as you choose which bits to focus on, again, because it’s all your choice and preference. However, that does not mean that it’s not one giant ball of stress that weighs you down over the whole course of your year. So here are a few tips from one student to another on how to survive The Dissertation.

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First of all, once your penultimate year is over, you’ll have the whole Summer free ahead of you, and you’ll probably be planning a nice long break – and you deserve it. However, make Future You grateful by doing some reading in this break. I know, I know, it sucks, but just do a bit. Even if it’s just one or two books, or a few articles, that’s one or two books/articles less that Future You will have to do later. What truly helped me was actually figuring out exactly what I wanted to write about over the summer. I did my Dissertation on the presentation of Ancient Heroes by Modern Female Writers, and it was over the course of the Summer that I found out which books I did, and most definitely did not, want to focus on. A lot of people entered their final year having no clue what to write about, so it’s helpful to get that out of the way. And, above all, make sure you pick something that you like. Yeah, maybe you’ll lose some love for it over the course of the year, but you don’t want to be stuck working on something that bores you out of your mind.

Secondly, organise your time. Yeah, sounds simple, but do people always do it? Nope. If I could go back, I would definitely do things differently. At the start of the year, the April/May deadline seems like a long, long way away, so it’s easy to not think about The Dissertation that much. And then you start working and doing other essays, so it takes a backseat. I had the general plan of writing three chapters overall with an introduction and conclusion, so the first chapter was aimed to be finished by Christmas, the second after February Reading Week/Half Term, and the third by the end of term (which was two or three weeks before the deadline). However, what you don’t take into account is the simple fact that the first draft will not be your final draft. Sure, if you’re like me, you can finish a chapter by Christmas, but not actually finish it. I lucked out with a great supervisor, and when he sent back my first draft with a gazillion annotations and corrections, I came to the realisation that – even though I felt organised – I was already behind. In February I was still trying to redo the first chapter whilst doing the second, and when the second was sent back to me I was rewriting two chapters whilst trying to start my initial research for the third. So please, to save yourself, think ahead and organise your time. This is why employers like The Dissertation – it’s physical proof of your own proactivity and self-motivation.

Third, and I think three tips will probably be enough for you to start digesting, try not to forget about everything else. To the outside world, The Dissertation, although sounding scary, is just that – a dissertation. But in actuality, you’re not only writing a Dissertation, but are also working for several different modules, juggling various essays, and trying to keep on top of revision for your upcoming exams – not to mention trying to have a social life. So, do yourself a favour, and try to manage your time – basically a reputation of point two. Make sure you don’t let The Dissertation take over, and it will try to on multiple occasions. Set aside some time each week to work at it, and if you’ve done the first thing right and actually picked something you enjoy working on, you won’t mind researching your Dissertation instead of something else. You just have to keep chipping away at it, and sooner or later it will be a week before your deadline and, if you’ve done as I’ve recommended, you can sit back and relax whilst sipping a martini whilst everyone arounds you panics.

Then I recommend dropping that martini because, final point to make, even though your Dissertation is over, that doesn’t always mark the end of your university career. If you’re like me, you’ll still have other essays to deal with and exams to think about. So go forth, conquer your fears of The Dissertation, and good luck my friends (you’re gonna need it).

And enjoy the unending hunt for jobs, those of you who aren’t in career-focused degrees. The fun just never ends.

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Guide to University: Coming Home

Home has always been my ultimate happy place. Spending time with family always lifts my mood, whether it’s slamming my head against the table because my Dad has made another terrible (but admittedly funny) joke or playing hide and seek with the dog. It’s where my Mum cooks the best food and I seem to have far fewer worries and concerns, probably because I don’t have to worry about mundane ‘adult’ things like what I’m going to eat or whether I need to go to the shops or if I can stretch out my toothpaste for another day.

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For now when I think of home, I think of the ocean and the pebbled beaches that the dog rolls on. I think of seagulls waking me up during the night and the Chinese supermarket that makes the best pad thai. Before me moved, home was the place of more cows than people and a large wood where I would always walk the dog, filled with memories of picnics with friends and climbing fallen trees after primary school. I find it strange that I don’t miss that place as much as I thought it would, and then I remember that it isn’t the physical place, but the people. It’s not the specific walls or floorboards that I miss, but the place where someone is always making cups of tea and where there is always a stash of biscuits. It’s not the rooms where I spent my childhood or the stains of memories on the carpet, but the hugs and warmth and laughter.

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And these reasons are why I find leaving home so difficult, even though I’ve done it countless times now. Having to leave my family at the train station, watching as the scenery changes from fields and houses to built up London blocks and cranes constantly building new things. I get back to my flat and flop onto the sofa, suddenly having to think again about buying some food and sorting out my things for the coming days. London is my home as well though, and it’s hard to always remember that when I’m coming back to it. But there is a familiarity with London, from the odd little shortcuts through the city to the riverside with an endless stream of tourists and selfie sticks. I start to see my friends and discover new haunts, or be reminded of old ones. University is in London, and as much stress as it causes me at times, it’s also where I get to learn about everything from Milton to weird mythology involving gods having liaisons with swans.

So, although I’m leaving one home, I’m coming back to another. And as much as I love them both, sometimes you need the act of leaving to remember why you love coming back.

Guide to University: Discussion

Not much of a guide, but rather an encouragement to people who are at university or people thinking about going to university. What I want to talk about is talking itself, which isn’t particularly articulate, but bear with me. (On a side note, it definitely is ‘bear with me’ and not ‘bare with me’, as one is asking for patience whilst the other is an invitation to undress. You’re welcome)

One of the things I loved about school, in terms of learning, were the moments in class where we had those huge discussions and debates. Now I’m not talking about a classroom of 15 year olds shouting over each other whilst the teacher lets out a sigh of defeat that the ‘friendly debate’ has descended into an all out war. No, I’m talking about those moments in class – usually they were in my later years, when I was doing A levels at 17/18 years old – where a topic would begin and we would all throw in our own ideas. As a humanities student especially, there’s nothing better than having a group of people explaining their own interpretations (because we all know that ‘the curtains were blue’ can mean several different things, not all of which we think of ourselves). Even having a group of people to help your own idea, as you throw it into the middle and watch as they all add bits to it, helping it grow – it’s literally like the metaphor of planting a seed in someone’s mind, only here it’s your other classmates that water it and add different fertilisers and whatever else you like.

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When I first started university, my lectures tried to bring in this element of discussion but, more often than not, it would fizzle out. Seminars were better, but again to start with I didn’t really throw myself into them. The thing I found really difficult about it was the fact that I no longer felt like an equal. In school I had been with the same group of people for seven years, besides the occasional people who joined the school later on. I knew them, felt comfortable around them and, most importantly, felt equal to them. Yes we were all from different backgrounds with varied privileges and different stories to tell, but we all took the same class, were all at the same level in our education. University was a completely different ball game. Here were people who had studied different things in school, some who went to private school or were several years older with another degree, having a head start that I couldn’t even process. It’s far easier to sit back and let those who knew, or thought they knew, better battle out their ideas.

I’m in my final year now, and it feels like I’ve only just rediscovered the joy of discussion. There are moments where I feel brilliant, having long discussions with my dissertation supervisor as we build up ideas, each of us throwing in new thoughts and material to use. Despite the vast gap in our knowledge (I do not have a PHD or a masters or even a degree yet, nor have I written countless papers and am a professor of my subject), it doesn’t feel like I am inferior. There are ideas and thoughts that I have, interpretations and links that I’ve made that they have not. And that is what I love about humanities – the creativity, the perspectives, the idea that it is unlikely to have the exact same conclusion as someone else.

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Equally, there are moments where I feel pretty inferior but just push that aside and jump in regardless. In my English classes especially, I’m at the point where I specialise more in Classical Studies and the knowledge and skill set that goes with it. This term I’m taking a class on sonnets, picked because I’ve never studied poetry at university and I wanted to. Everyone else knows the fancy language and the special ways in which to write about poetry in a formal, intelligent way. My first seminar, I joked about a point which in my Classics class would have been laughed at and accepted, whereas in English everyone just looked at me with a sort of blankness. Still, once I can get past the people who use a thesaurus for every word they use, I can contribute in a way they cannot. When we hit that sweet spot and are having a discussion of what certain words mean or how a certain sonnet can be interpreted a certain way, I’m reminded why I’m there.

At university, you’re there for the people as much as the learning. Yes, the lecturers are brilliant and learning new things from them is fantastic, but you need those classmates, those other people from different backgrounds who have different outlooks and perspectives to help you grow, and you just try to do the same for them. At the end of the day, it isn’t about who knows the most or can write the best essay in the world; it’s about those moments where everyone comes together, swap ideas, and just simply talk.

Guide to University/Life: Put yourself out there

I wasn’t sure whether to make this a general post or Guide To University, but as the inspiration came from experiences at University, I decided to go with the latter.

It’s bloody difficult getting your life together, as I’m sure everyone can relate to. From getting into good schools, to doing well in exams, deciding if university is for you, picking your career path, making steps towards said path – I mean, come on, that’s not even including your social life, your housing, bills, taxes, food, relationships, and everything else on top. Instead of trying to tackle all of these today though, for now I’m going to focus primarily on the career aspect.

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I’ve been told all through my life – by parents, friends, adults that actually have their lives together – that if you want something, you have to work for it. That you can’t just sit on your arse with your hands open, waiting for something to fall into them. That it’s not all down to luck and chance, that you actually have to work for it. It’s about perseverance, determination, and a bit of guts on top of that.

In the career paths I’ve looked into (journalism, writing, and publishing), networking is a large part of them. That means that whenever I’m in a setting where a contact could help me greatly in the future, I have to suck it up, go up to them, and get their details. I was crap to start off with, when I was on the Young Journalist Academy and seeing all these amazing people walk through the door and thinking ‘damn, wish I got their email’. Honestly, you have to just put yourself out there and shove some of those nerves, and maybe a little dignity, aside. You can’t be insecure, you just have to toughen up and walk on and, if they don’t give you that email, they don’t give it to you. You won’t get it without trying, and that’s the mantra I try to keep on repeat in my mind.

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Next step? Actually email them. I’ve only just started to make sure that I actually do that as soon as I can, rather than wait until a lot later when I think ‘oh, maybe so-and-so could help me out with this problem’. I suppose I’ve been lucky enough to have had the opportunities that I’ve had, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t worked for them. I only received work experience at The Sun by talking to someone at an event and asking for their card so I could email, which is when they asked if I’d be interested in experience. I’m currently on an internship for publishing now, which I managed to get after sending out email after email to as many publishing houses as I could asking for any experience in the industry they could offer.

What I haven’t manged to do well yet, and I imagine won’t be able to deal with perfectly for a while, is rejection. I am bloody terrible with rejection, feeling as if it’s a personal attack and agonising over wording in emails, whereas they were probably written within minutes. Finding the strength to not let yourself be upset when you’re not picked is so hard, but I’ve found the real challenge is picking up the pieces and getting on with it.

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Take a couple months ago for example, where I had an offer for an internship for two weeks that I already had set plans. I replied, angry at myself, only to find out I could shift my plans. Another email hurriedly sent, only to find out that they’d found someone else. (This all happened in about 15/20 minutes) Then comes the anger, the tears, the irritation, the cursing, and copious amounts of chocolate and tea.

So it’s safe to say that when you do put yourself out there, you’re also very likely to be rejected a few (a lot) of times. But when you finally get that ‘yes’? All worth it. 100%. (Well, maybe not the many calories you’ve put on, but you can deal with that later)

Guide to University: stress

Let’s talk stress.

The education system these days is built to be stressful, and my particularly secondary school excelled at creating the most stressful environment – and that was just for the end of year exams when we were 12, let along the actual GCSEs or A levels when we were 16-18. You could say that I’ve experienced a lot of stress, just as most people have, but when it comes to university it’s very different – at least, that’s what I’ve found.

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In secondary school, a lot of pressure was put on – and although I am talking from my own personal experience, from talking with people I’ve met it’s usually a guarantee that there is pressure. It was all about getting those GCSEs to get into a good sixth form, then getting good AS results to get university offers, then getting your actual A levels to get into university. There was a lot of pressure, talks about what you should be doing, and over-the-top comments about futures working at McDonalds if we didn’t revise trigonometry.

In university, I’ve found it to be very different. Instead of constant talks about exams and essays, they’re mentioned almost in passing. Oh yeah, you guys have an essay due soon, the essay titles are up online. Boom, that’s it, no more, move along, get to it. The stress isn’t put into you by others – no, instead, you are the one who will get stressed on your own. Personally, I worry about everything. Literally everything. I’m early, even when I’m late, and over-plan everything, double checking with friends about times and places and what’s happened and dress code and – god, it’s a stress just waking up sometimes (especially when I have 9ams). When it comes to exams and essays, I worry slightly in the run-up but the actual fear and anxiety doesn’t start to choke me until a month or so beforehand. It can be overwhelming, especially if you deal with anxiety on a daily basis. There isn’t any hand-holding at university, and dealing with everything on your own can be daunting. There’s no point lying and saying that really it’s all ok and you’ll be fine, because the truth is you need to work your arse off to even do average – at least, that’s how I am.

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The trick? Well, there isn’t one – and if there is a trick, then it’s different to everyone. Maybe you work better being in the library from dawn until dusk every day, or maybe you’re better at doing only half an hour every day for months upon end. I hate the library with a vengeance – even when I don’t have exams or essays coming up, just walking through the silent halls and creeping past people scribbling on paper or typing furiously at a computer freaks me out. I feel stressed whenever I try to work there, so normally I avoid it until I have to go to find books for said essays and exams.

My trick to combat stress? Take it one day at a time. I can’t work with timetables that map out my work for the next few weeks, it just makes me more stressed when I get behind schedule – and, trust me, I get behind schedule. I like to make a few lists of what I need to do for each subjects, and then each day I break them down. I pick one or two things to focus on each day. And if I don’t finish them? Not a problem, just finish it off the next day.

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Also use reward system – trust me, it’s a beautiful thing. You need restraint, yes, but if you set yourself achievable – let me just stress that again, achievable – goals that aren’t stupid like ‘write down the title’, then reward yourself at certain points. For example you could do so much as to say get halfway through an essay, or just write the introduction, yet for me I do it at the very end goal of finishing the essay. For exams it’s a more gradual process, so I of course celebrate when they’re over, but I also set mini goals throughout. Such as work through a set amount of lectures, or make all the notecards, or plan out as many practice questions as possible. Again, it’s taking one thing at a time.

I suppose university is only good for a certain mindset. If you need someone to tell you exactly what to do and when to do it, university probably isn’t for you. Hell, I’m at the end of my second year and I still haven’t been told how to write an essay. I’ve just been told not to write an ‘A level’ one, whatever that means.

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I’m not sure how helpful this guide can be, as really it’s just advice for a younger version of me as these are the tricks that work for me, but trust me when I say I can understand stress. I know how, well, stressful it is. It’s tiring just being stressed, and most days I just want to stay in bed and call in a sick day. But there’s no stopping time, no matter how hard you wish for the hands on the clock to just pause for a moment, so you just need to take it one step at a time. What’s that cliche phrase about how every marathon starts with a single step? You know the one. Think of that cliche whenever you’re stressed, and then laugh at yourself for being so cliche. Cheer yourself up with whatever cheers you up – whether that’s seeing your friends, eating copious amounts of chocolate, watching an episode of your favourite show, playing with your dog – and then tell yourself to just work a bit longer for that day. That’s all it takes. It’s a long haul, but in the end it’s worth it.

At least, I think it is. I’ll let you know next year.

Shit. Next year I finish university. Now I’m stressed. Again. Luckily I’ve just booked a trip home so I can play with my dog and take it one day at a time.

 

Guide to University: subject disparity

The first thing you’re asked at university is: what are you studying. It’s not surprising, really, if you think about. People want to know what subject has driven you to this point and whether or not it’s the same as theirs. Unfortunately, the subject you pick to study defines you in ways you may not like. For example, people who study medicine are clever, those who study physics are astronomically clever but never get dates, those who study philosophy are pretentious, english students just like reading old books, history students are all mainly male – same goes for war studies, etc, etc, etc.

Thankfully, in this day and age, these immediate presumptions about subjects, these ridiculous stereotypes that are more false than true, are slowly dying out. Still, the amount of times I encounter them are ridiculous.

‘Classical Studies with English’ is the full title of my degree and, honestly, I probably don’t help matters with my explanation of it. As soon as I finish saying the title, I’m met with blank stares and crinkled brows, so I quickly clarify with ‘basically, lots of books’. In all honesty, there are a ton of books that I have to read, so that’s not a lie, but there is so much more to it. It’s about learning language, culture, the context of literature, how to write well – and that’s just the English side of the course. In my Classics side, I’ve learned about ancient history, philosophy, literature, archaeology, language – so many different areas, it’s a surprise it all fits into one degree. Yet, when I’m asked about Classics, my short answer normally starts with ‘ancient greece and rome’ then goes to ‘do you know Homer?’ and, finally, ‘have you seen the film Troy?’. It’s pretty dire.

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So there are my faults and failings for all the world to see, but it could be worse – and I’m doing my best to change that. However, not everyone is of the same mind and there is one thing that helps cause this: contact hours. Contact hours are the amount of hours you’re at university each week – and by that, I mean the hours of lectures and seminars you have, not the hours you’re at university having a coffee or studying in the library. Contact hours vary considerably between subjects, and the reason for this is that some subjects need more teaching, whereas others require more time for individual work and research. Take physics or maths, for example. The quickest way to learn is to have lots of lectures and seminars, as it would be pretty difficult for students to be just given a textbook and sent on their way. However, when you get subjects like English, students need time to actually read the books, research critics, write essays etc etc. Despite knowing this, most people – students included – still make presumptions on the difficulty of your degree based on your contact hours.

At this stage, I’d just like to remind you that – at least in the UK – every student pays the same amount. Whether you have a lot of contact hours or very few, each student pays £9,000 a year.

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I live with two medical students, one of them being my brother (but I’ll save that topic for a different post). My brother is in his final year, and the other one is in their third, so they both are in hospital from early in the morning to at least late afternoon Monday-Friday. This makes perfect sense; they’re training to be doctors, to help heal people, so they need practice and experience rather than just staring at a book all the time. I, however, only have 8 contact hours a week. This is supposedly so that I have enough time out of lectures to read all the material set and write my essays etc, but there are some weeks where it doesn’t feel like enough time at all. One week, I had two essays to write, three books to read, and 2 critical papers to study for every module. It’s tough. Those who say (insert subject name here eg. Classics) is an easy degree are idiots. Each and every degree is difficult, and you get as much out of it as you put in.

To the outsider, it doesn’t look like I work as hard as my room mates. When they come back from a day at hospital to see me reading on the sofa having had only one lecture that day, I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising that they make comments about how ‘easy’ my degree is compared to theirs. I mean, look at how much they work! I couldn’t possibly understand how difficult their degree is. And, one of my favourite comments, ‘reading isn’t work’. You can imagine my frustration at a house party where I was the only one not studying medicine to hear my room mate say ‘Eleanor’s work this week is to read Frankenstein. Man, I wish that was what I had to do! That isn’t work!’.

Ok, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading Frankenstein, but that’s beside the point.

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The issue here is that there are disparities among subjects. In all honesty, I would love to have more contact hours a week and actually feel like all my money is going somewhere. But the fact people are so quick to jump to conclusions is really quite upsetting. There are weeks when I’m set books that I do not want to read, or books where I think there is no chance I’ll be able to finish unless I don’t do anything but read. One week, for just one module, I had to read Joyce’s Ulysses. People take months to read that book, let alone a week! On top of that, I had to prepare short paragraphs answering questions on the book, and that was just for one module. For my others I had to read certain chapters or prepare essay questions, draft an essay and critique someone’s assignment due in for that week. Some weeks are a nightmare, other weeks are a dream. Obviously I wouldn’t change it for anything, I absolutely adore my degree, but the amount of times I’ve had to defend it seem ridiculous. When someone says ‘I wish all I had to do was read ___’, I say ‘well why don’t you?’. You pick your degree, I pick mine. If you’re going to be the person that complains, then do a different degree.

It’s an unfortunate fact of university, I’m afraid. My advice? Stand your ground, don’t be ashamed, and ignore the haters.

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Guide To University: London Weather and Walking Antics

I made a post a while about called ‘Independence and Rain‘ where I mention the pandemonium that is London weather. As I can now walk to university (halle-freaking-lujah), weather has a far bigger impact on me than it used to, as well as the things you notice when you actually walk in London. So, this is a guide for those going to university in London but also for anyone in London or just in England because, let’s face it, it doesn’t get much better.

The weather is temperamental, to say the least. It’s like a cat who one minute is purring like crazy when you stroke it and the next is trying to scratch you to death. You could be walking down the road in the sunshine, whistling away (because just like the movies, when the sun is out everyone is automatically happy and occasionally burst into song), when out of nowhere it starts raining. Immediately you can tell apart who is local and who is not. Most locals whip out an umbrella from their bag without breaking stride, and I’m proud to say that my umbrella is in my bag 24/7. There are a few locals who have forgotten their umbrella, or who have changed bags and didn’t move it over, or whose umbrella recently broke, so they are normally the stormy-faced, resigned individuals who stomp through the puddles. Then you have the tourists, who all start off the same; excited at the prospect of English rain. Not even joking, I overheard someone say, ‘Oh, how British‘ when it started raining. Some of these tourists laugh for a while, then realise that the rain is no different here than anywhere else so immediately go to seek out shelter. The others are sort of prepared, brandishing ponchos but realising that ponchos really, really suck and don’t even work that well.

There are other things about London that I didn’t notice as much when I wasn’t walking. The first is the fact that scooters are used by children under 10 and also 30-40 year old businessmen. One minute there’s a cute little boy pushing himself on his bright blue scooter, and the next there’s a middle aged man in a suit and tie doing the same. If that isn’t mid-life crisis, I don’t know what is.

The other thing I noticed is that it’s ridiculous how angry I now get at tourists. Most likely due to the fact that I have to walk through south bank and past the London Eye every single day. I’m so tired of being caught in the middle of a huge group of school kids from France and getting hit by selfie-sticks left, right, and centre. Also to the people who are walking and then stop in the middle of the path – there is a special place in hell for you all. On a side note, although I do enjoy the aquarium Sea Life and the London Dungeons, why, tell me why, ‘Shrek Adventure’ exists. Seriously. It’s a thing.

Ok, I think I’m ranted out for now.