These Days

It’s mid-September and crunch time: my husband intends to hand in a complete draft of his PhD thesis next week. He’s been studying part time while working full time and technically has another year to submit, but this month is his self-imposed deadline before the frantic busyness of a new academic year. For weeks now, he’s been going to campus just once or twice a week, working mostly at home out of a makeshift office in our summer house, to which he reels an extension lead each morning so he can plug in his laptop and desk lamp. There’s no Internet signal that far from the house, so it’s a distraction-free zone – or at least the distractions are mostly pleasant ones like birdsong and the cat padding in and out. He’s been known to stay out there until well past 10 at night working on his writing and mapping.

It’s been nice for me to have a bit of company at home during the day (though it’s definitely for the best that we work in different spaces). We reconvene for morning coffee and afternoon tea and also break for lunch. Twice a day I’ll traipse out to the summer house with a tray of hot drinks and snacks and a tote bag of books over my shoulder to spend an hour or so relaxing before getting back to my proofreading or other work upstairs. I’ve tried to be kind and supportive through all the catastrophic announcements about the results being wrong, the statistics going screwy, and the project being basically impossible to finish.

On a practical level, I help out by preparing very simple meals – bean burgers from the freezer section at Aldi plus homemade coleslaw and corn-on-the-cob; fresh oven chips with a fried egg and steamed broccoli – or at least doing the sous chef chopping for complicated ones. My husband cooked for himself during his last two years of uni and enjoys improvising meals, so he’s done pretty much all the cooking for the 11+ years of our marriage. When I was in America I picked up a “Vidalia Chop Wizard” from Bed Bath & Beyond. Some will be thinking “what a pointless, cheaty device!” – but I knew without it I’d never get more involved in cooking, especially because I hate to have lingering savory smells on my fingers.

It’s been a stressful couple of months for my husband, and that stress has of course spilled over to me somewhat. Still, I’m trying not to wish these days away, even as I look forward to the relief of his thesis being finished. It’s never good to wish your life away. I even tried to do some peaceful sitting in nature (i.e., our garden) last week, which led to this short Guardian Country Diary-style piece. (However, you’d better believe I have plans for the post-PhD evenings and weekends. After all these weeks of letting my hubby off the hook, the chores have piled up. I envision a deep clean of the kitchen, tidying up all the little half-finished projects that are sitting around, gardening, banking, and much more.)


This past Saturday we gave ourselves the day off to attend Newbury Real Ale Festival. It’s held just across the canal from our house, so we could hardly pass up the opportunity to sample 146 beers and 118 ciders (my tipple of choice). The music was terrible but the weather stayed decent for much of the five hours we were there. Along with plenty of reading and snacking on crisps, I had the chance to try six ciders, which ranged from the almost undrinkable (beetroot and orange flavor sounded interesting!) to the sublime.

Appropriately enough, the best of the bunch was from Thistly Cross, a cider company based in Scotland: next Wednesday, to celebrate (we hope) the thesis being handed in, we’re off to Edinburgh for a long weekend. It’s something of a work trip for my husband – he’s traveling on to the Cairngorms for a two-day PhD student workshop while I stay behind at our Airbnb – but we’ll have a couple of days to enjoy the city together as well as two very long train rides on which to sink into books.

You’ll be unsurprised to learn that I started planning what books I’d pack weeks ago: some on a train theme; some by or about Scottish writers; some set in Scotland. I’ll also take at least one October review book (probably Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered or Sarah Perry’s Melmoth) and one of the multiple library reservations that have arrived for me all at once (most likely John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky or Melissa Harrison’s All Among the Barley).

I’ve been to Edinburgh twice before, but both trips were brief and the most recent one was in 2005. What should I see and do? Where should I eat? (I’ll have to find at least one meal out in the city on my own.) I plan to visit the Writers’ Museum for the first time, and may drop into the National Gallery again. Since I was too skint to do so in my early twenties, I’ll probably also treat myself to a tour of the Castle (though, 17 quid – really?!). Any other recommendations of secondhand bookshops, cafés, free/inexpensive attractions and casual dining establishments will be much appreciated!


45 thoughts on “These Days

  1. Good luck to you both with meeting that deadline. You’ve brought back memories of my own partner racing to finish his PhD. I was also on deadline for a project which had just been shortenend. We both made it and survived. You’re very wise to have a break planned!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. We had initially hoped to make it more of an adventure: two weeks by train into Scandinavia via Germany. But for a while it looked like my husband wouldn’t be finishing this year at all, so we didn’t book anything. We waited until closer to the time and then booked this long Edinburgh weekend at fairly late notice. It will be a nice little getaway for him before term starts. We’ll save the Scandinavia trip for when we can do more planning.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Stargazing is a fantastic book. Might have to buy myself a copy. If you are going to Scotland then you need to read some Iain Banks. Let me know if you need any recommendations. Sarah finished her PhD in the year we got married (1995), I remember that being fairly stressful.

    I hope Chris’s draft is acceptable with only minor amendments

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Chris read Stargazing some years back and I’ve always meant to pick it up. Now I have a good reason to! Bonus: I opened it up and realized for the first time that it’s a signed copy. (We bought it in one of the Hay-on-Wye shops.) I have not yet read any Banks, but I have The Crow Road on my Kindle.

      The plan is to hand in the chapters as draft files via e-mail to his supervisor just before we head to Edinburgh, and then to make any minor revisions before getting proper copies bound to hand in by the end of the month.


  3. I’m sort of envious about your husband’s study because the idea of immersing yourself in a subject sounds wonderful. I’ve contemplated doing an MA or even a Phd in the last few weeks but every time I research possible locations I come away shocked by the price. £7000 for an MA in Cardiff is a lot to spend on what is basically a hobby rather than anything career related now I am retired. Even the Open University prices have shot up.


    1. It certainly can be expensive. He’s lucky that the university has covered his fees while he’s been in full-time employment with them as a teaching associate. I recently read Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell & Me, which is autofiction about writing her PhD on Elizabeth Gaskell and the circle of expats in Rome. Her supervisor tells her at one point that your subject has to be an absolute obsession or you’ll never make it through. I doubt I could ever do a PhD because I can’t imagine a topic I’d be interested in enough to devote several years of my life to. And if I ever did come up with a topic, I’d want to get a mainstream book out of it instead.


  4. Sounds like your husband is lucky to have you around in this stressful time – best of luck to him in finishing the PhD! I still haven’t been to the Edinburgh Castle because of the cost. I remember Holyrood being cheaper (?), and really interesting – or maybe I just prioritised it because I wanted to see Mary Queen of Scots’s embroidery of Elizabeth I as an evil-looking cat.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. The best free attraction is the city itself – It’s so beautiful and walkable. Buy a guidebook with some walks and just revel in the Georgian beauty of the New Town; try some pubs/cafes in Stockbridge; visit the Golden Hare bookshop; walk around the Dean Village and down by the Water of Leith; visit the Scottish Parliament; walk up and down every atmospheric little close(alley) off the Royal Mile. Go to the Grassmarket and Victoria Street. Read the Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. It’s my home town ( I left it 40 years ago) and I fell in love with it again on a literary visit this summer with 6 other retired librarians. Savour it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for these wonderful suggestions! I will be sure to do lots of walking. We have a guidebook out from the library; I’ll check it for specific walks. I read Miss Jean Brodie some years back now but perhaps a reread would be in order.


  6. Good for you for taking on some of the cooking and food prep. My husband is the cook in our family too and I really need to try and learn and experiment a bit more but I just don’t want to – ha ha! Although I do very much enjoy baking, which makes him nervous – go figure. Anyway, sounds like you have a great attitude about the stressful time. Enjoy your upcoming trip!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I much prefer baking; I honestly don’t enjoy cooking very much, though I do get a certain amount of satisfaction from chopping everything up and laying it out ready for my husband to cook with when he gets home. I know I’m lucky that life has never required me to cook for any extended periods of time — just for a while during my Master’s year, and then I cooked super-easy stuff like stir fry, fajitas and baked potatoes.

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  7. No Edinburgh tips here, unfortunately–never been. However, I do have a tip for getting rid of onion/garlic smell on your fingertips. Rubs your fingers on stainless steel–a pot, an appliance. Learned that on a blog here at WordPress! Loved your piece–and your husband’s blog. Good luck to him on handing in his thesis–and well done on your braving such a trying time!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hubby & I went to Edinburgh last year for our wedding anniversary.

    The real Mary Kings Close is interesting. A taste of how the city used to be although all subterranean now.

    There’s the JK Rowling connection to. We went to Greyfrairs churchyard & found some of the stones that inspired some names in the Harry Potter series.

    I’ve recently been reading Ian Rankin so if I went again I’d like to see if I could find places to do with the Rebus series.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Greyfriars Kirkyard is a MUST. It’s gorgeous and so fascinating. The grave of Greyfriar’s Bobby (a terrier who laid at the grave of his person for years and years before he eventually passed away himself) is there and people leave sticks for him to play with.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. That sounds like it will be a lovely break and it’s nice that you have some company in the middle of his long workdays; I can imagine you packing your bag to cross the grass and unpack it again. 🙂 Cooking was like everything else for me – once I got better at it, I enjoyed it, but I sure wasn’t a fan in the beginning. Cookbooks can be inspiring for some, especially the illustrated ones, but for me it was just a matter of enjoying the eating part enough to want to get better at the cooking and eventually that happened (although Mr BIP has his chef’s papers so I don’t HAVE to do it all now, which means perhaps all my efforts were just a waste of reading time. *grins*)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m sure you’re right — it’s just a matter of practice. I’ve been awfully pleased with myself for producing some complete meals from start to finish these past few weeks, even if they were dead simple.


      1. Maybe not everyone’s like that, but it’s the case for me. I also find it a nice break from all the thinking and writing – just chopping and stirring and hands-on-ing sometimes snaps the clarity back into place for me to take another run at a revision that had been going blurry for me.

        Liked by 1 person

  10. Melissa Harrison’s book is brilliant, I can highly recommend. Re “cheating” at cooking (and, honestly, who cares—Nigel Slater says you’re allowed), I’ve found frozen pre-diced onions to be a game-changer. Garlic powder/granules, too.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Good luck to Chris finishing his PhD! I recommend the Surgeons’ Hall Museum which is a history of medicine with some really gory exhibits (think The Butchering Art!). Definitely a must for anyone who follows the Wellcome Book Prize! The Surgeons Hall cafe next door does excellent jacket potatoes. There are also lots of charity shops on that road for cheap books 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yeah, you’ve been recently for the book festival! I will definitely look up the Surgeons’ Hall. Thank you for the recommendation. We’re travelling by train so I mustn’t acquire too many books … but I daresay I’ll have a poke into the charity shops 😉


  12. I’m very late to this conversation, but I hope the rest of your husband’s writing went well. And I believe you are in Edinburgh now, so I hope you’re having a good time!

    Your diary-style piece was beautiful. You’re very good at that!

    Liked by 1 person

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