DJ Taylor: How does ageing student Lucian afford his (surprisingly expensive) post-graduate lifestyle and what does he hope to get out of it?

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The Independent Online

People introduced to Lucian for the first time – usually fellow students at the University of Loamshire – very often wonder how old he is. The brightly coloured sweatshirts and the wispy goatee might suggest a resting point somewhere in the early twenties, but there is a faint suspicion, born of the practised manner in which he enters the university dining hall, that he is a good deal older than this. As it happens, Lucian, for all his young person's slang, brightly burnished Doc Martens and hand-rolled cigarettes, is very nearly 31.

Just at this moment, Lucian is in his fifth year of study for a PhD in TS Eliot's poetics. "You can't rush a doctorate," he will tell admiring younger friends with ambitions in this field. Certainly, his own engagement with The Waste Land and Four Quartets has proceeded with commendable caution, involving as it has a gap year at the start and a six-month furlough halfway through spent on a mushroom farm in Cardiganshire, not to mention a nerve-wrenching crisis of confidence six months ago during which three draft chapters were torn up and thrown away.

There are veteran academics at Loamshire who claim never to remember a time when Lucian could not be seen putting up notices about the Warhammer Club, drinking coffee in the graduate common room or reserving squash courts for odd times in the middle of the night, but in fact he arrived there as recently as 2007. Before this, he acquired a certificate in fiction at the University of Warwick and before that an MA (the course was supposed to take a year but Lucian spun it out to 30 months) at Nottingham. Tony Blair was contemplating his second term in the year he began his undergraduate degree, and some of the people he studied with have children at primary school.

How does Lucian afford the (surprisingly expensive) post-graduate lifestyle and what does he hope to get out of it? The fees, it should be said, are paid by a doting grandmother. As for his ultimate ambition, although there is occasional talk of research assistantships and overseas fellowships, the fact is that Lucian has rather a taste for student life, its shared houses, marathon computer gaming and mid-afternoon plates of beans on toast. At any rate, the thought that at some point he might have to quit the University of Loamshire for the world beyond is enough to fill him with the profoundest unease.