Peter Brown: 'Don't return to education until you have exorcised your devils'

Taking a career break (in my case after redundancy from a newspaper) also turns your life on its head. It's very good for you, of course. But it's also confusing, particularly on campus. You're surrounded by strange creatures with flat stomachs and iPods in their ears. They seem like your own children, but instead of telling them to dress decently you find yourself asking for advice about the course (which they always give).

Annoyingly, too, the 20-year-olds who are my immediate cohort can spell, form literate sentences, work hard and write well-planned essays. Many of them get better marks than me. So bang go some of my favourite prejudices. How can this be? The authors I have devoured all my life - Austen, Dickens, Lawrence - count for nothing, for one simple reason: I can hardly remember a word of them. But then, I wasn't taking notes.

Improving your memory is one of many good reasons to become a mature student. I still have senior moments. Often I struggle to find the right seminar group, let alone the right page, and I dreaded the first-year exams - that cavernous, silent hall, the ghastly tension. But, to my surprise, I found I could memorise largish chunks of Beowulf (and what a sheer delight Beowulf is. Yes, you at the back, I said delight). My theory is that people remember what they're interested in. And these days, I read more critically.

Luckily I have the convivial company of other older upside-downers, and without it I'd be lost. Some, like me, dropped out when young (the advice is, don't return to education until you have exorcised your devils). For others, widowhood, divorce, career frustration or simply never having had the chance to study are the motives.

To us, after all those years in offices, the leafy Royal Holloway campus in the Surrey countryside is Arcadia. Just imagine, a place where you can say "cool" without your children gagging. And having the time - the precious time - to get inside Renaissance poetry, or whatever ticks your box. For this I pay £1,100 a year. You might pay more now, but it's still a bargain.

Most mature students live at home (as I do) so a degree, unfortunately, is no passport to a re-lived youth. We can't pretend to be 20 when everyone mistakes us for the lecturers. And while we are poring over secondary sources and worrying about mortgages, our fellow students are discovering sex, drugs and Babyshambles. It really doesn't matter: Babyshambles are rubbish anyway, and at least we have the pleasure of showing student passes to unbelieving cinema staff.

At parties, when I say - usually rather diffidently - that I'm a student, I still expect pity. Instead, I now detect jealousy. It seems that everyone has a secret subject bursting to be studied.

What will I do when I'm back on my feet? Like most of my cohort, I have no idea. I might teach, go back to journalism, travel, write a book or - like Daniel Defoe - breed cats. One thing is for sure: Beowulf goes with me.

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