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Doing the 50: 'I don't like to talk about my charity work...'

Sheffield third-year James Ashford is bored of the student existence. His Philosophy degree unfulfilling, he was tired of doing nothing. Then, he discovered The Independent's ultimate list of 50 things to do before leaving uni. Now he's a man with purpose, and today he's five steps closer to 50.
  • @iamjamesashford

A few months ago, I stumbled across a list of 50 things to do before you leave university. The list was pretty bland and vaguely patronising, but it gave me some direction. I decided to complete all fifty things, write about them, and in the process have some 'life-changing experiences'. Everything is different now...

With five things completed on my list of 50, I decided to up the ante.

5. Busk on campus for a charity

33. Do something – anything! – silly, for charity

49. Learn a new sport or instrument or activity

Having been inspired by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West, I decided to take up the harmonica to complete these tasks. Luckily I had a musical background on my side, exercising reasonable capability on guitar and having an almost god-like command of the triangle.

I already owned a harmonica thanks to a Grandparents' Day gift I had received circa 1998. For some reason the idea of Grandparents' Day never really took off, and in the confusion it was my sister and I who received presents and my grandparents who provided them.

Fortunately they are very generous people and I am fairly confident that they took more pleasure in hearing me make awful, awful music than they ever could have had receiving gifts themselves.

I started the learning process by googling ‘how to play the harmonica’, and hoping to strike gold. After clicking on a few websites, it became clear that this wasn’t going to be as easy as I had imagined. Most sites I stumbled across were banging on about holes and spittle, and frankly I found the whole thing disgusting. Eventually, I managed to work out which key my harmonica was in and found an appropriate tune.

I headed down to university with my harmonica on a rack around my neck. I needed to keep my hands free so I could get an offbeat clap going when the crowds started to gather. I tried to tell myself that I came across as a young Bob Dylan type; in reality I looked more like I’d been attacked by an unusually sadistic orthodontist.

Unfortunately I had been unable to acquire any orchestral accompaniment for the performance, so I had to abandon my initial idea of an elaborate Baroque solo concerto and play Hey Jude instead. I put down a hat, sprinkled it liberally with some light coinage I had prepared earlier, and began my one-man show.

The cash wasn’t as forthcoming as I had hoped. After playing Hey Jude three times in a row, I had received 46 pence and a leaflet advertising an R&B night in town. My confidence was wavering, my future as a harmonicist was being questioned and I wasn’t sure I had the answers.

I knew that drastic action had to be taken. I realised that covers were quintessentially limiting and that my only hope was to improvise and see where it got me. I closed my eyes, put the instrument to my lips and let the music happen. Ten minutes later I had raised an invaluable £6.45 for the good people at Kidney Research UK. Three down.

17. Turn up at a 9am lecture dressed in your PJs

Nietzsche once said "Es ist unmöglich, in einer Vorlesung einen Schlafanzug zu tragen, ohne lächerlich auszusehen"‚ which roughly translates as "there is no way of wearing pyjamas to a lecture without looking like a dick".

It is safe to say that, while a controversial figure, this is one of Friedrich’s less contentious musings. The kind of person who thinks it’s hilarious to turn up to lectures wearing pyjamas is almost certainly the kind of person who thinks wearing a Hawaiian garland to a party is an absolute riot.

As an animal lover, I refuse to wear pyjamas to bed as a mark of respect to the geese that gave their feathers, and ultimately their lives, to keep me warm at night.  In order to avoid a night in HMP Doncaster, I picked up a traditional flannel number with which to hide my genitals from my classmates.

Being a Philosophy student, finding a lecture to go to is a struggle in itself, but finding one at 9am is completely out of the question. This gave me the opportunity to fulfil number 14 on the list, Sit in on a lecture that's completely out of your field. I opted for a Biomedical Science lecture on Modelling Human Disease.

The brilliant thing about Sheffield is that at quarter to nine in the morning, you can walk down the street wearing a combination of flannel nightwear, and no one will think you’re doing anything particularly out of the ordinary. Most will assume you’re raising money for either a charity, a sports society or a holiday to a developing country disguised as missionary work.

Thanks to the anonymity that such an active university provides, I was able to learn about why drosophila improve our understanding of the mechanisms underlying human diseases, whilst simultaneously sporting the kind of outfit a pair of bananas might wear when chasing a teddy bear.

James Ashford is a useful idiot. Follow him on Twitter: @iamjamesashford