I’d just got knocked back from Oxford University and felt the whole thing was unfair.
The main area I’d fallen down on was the Songs of Experience section of William Blake’s poetry. He was a master poet and I’d learnt extensively about his Songs of Innocence during the school term.
Bishopshalt School where I was studying didn’t offer much in terms of preparing for an Oxbridge application so it was wits and will be all I had to rely on.
Tom Paulin was the man who interviewed me – I still remember later being told he was somewhat well-known in academic circles (no wonder; given this article).
It all fell apart however as I’d not yet read anything on this section and so the interview went south from there.
All in all, having not gotten into the university I expected to, I decided I would reapply next year and in the interim take a gap year.
In this letter, I’d like to focus on the events leading up to my actually departing rather than the adventure itself.
My family was a lot more traditional back then. After finishing your A-levels every child in our family was expected to head immediately to university. This was the prevailing thought of the time.
On my decision to take a gap year, so I could reapply – my parents responded in shock and horror. I could still go to King’s College London or Queen Mary’s where I had been accepted and they were perfectly good universities.
But this wasn’t what I wanted and I told them so.
Whilst these decisions were being made I also reached out to my cousin Shiva whom I had gotten close to during my teens, as I played for his same football team on and off in spite of being two years younger than him.
‘What do people normally do during a gap year?’
‘You could travel – go backpacking – a lot of people do that before they go to university’
And this was how my initial decision was made.
I looked up to my cousin who was now at LSE studying law – and if he said it – it meant it was probably something worth doing.
So I would resubmit my application via UCAS to Cambridge, Warwick, UCL and some other universities I forget now.
This was the simple part.
The real challenge was convincing my parents I would actually return to university.
When I told them that I planned to find a job to save some money up to go backpacking – they told me that I’d probably end up getting used to having money and not return to university. Furthermore – if I wanted to go backpacking they wouldn’t support me and I’d have to save for it myself.
Thankfully; my mum had taught me well from the age of 13 when I first wanted some more pocket money so I was able to go to the cinema.
I knew from then that if I wanted things in life I needed to figure out how I was going to get them all by myself.
What immediately followed was getting a job at the Odeon.
I was already used to the recruitment agency experience as well as finding jobs all by myself. This time I wandered into my local Odeon in Uxbridge – asked if they had any vacancies which they did – and passed the interview.
The challenge underneath this all was that equally – I didn’t want to work at the Odeon for the year. It didn’t pay so much (but I needed the money and the job seemed fun, so I’d take it) and wasn’t what I had in mind for a gap year job.
I kept searching and via a recruitment agency soon found myself being offered a job at Natwest.
That was a very useful interview experience where I had to communicate why I wanted to work for the company – why not continue pursuing a university degree and what my interests in banking were given I was clearly a creative student.
It seems communication has been something that has always been a strong suit of mine and I managed to answer all of these questions successfully.
Wish I could remember what I had bloody said – but the truth was equally that I had been interviewing (as you know) for jobs since I was 13 so this was nothing new some 5 years later.
And so this is how my journey to backpacking would begin.
This was in August, after finishing my A-Levels in June and I had a job offer at the Odeon where I’d already started working, as well as a job at Natwest where I would begin working several weeks later.
Fortunately, Natwest Bank and the Odeon were an 8-minute walk away from each other, so I could feasibly work both jobs – and boy was I up for the challenge.
I wanted to make as much money as possible to save for a trip abroad – but also to show my parents that they ‘look – I can do this ALL myself’
I didn’t really appreciate it then – but that message my mum instilled in me when I was a 13-year-old asking for money has stayed with me my entire life and served me well.
Furthermore, Natwest was paying significantly more than Odeon. The starting salary was something like 19.5k – and in 2004 for an 18-year-old – this was good money.
It later turned out I was earning more than all the other customer service officers as we were called (basically the guys on the till) by some stroke of luck.
But the job wasn’t without its challenges – all of us had sales targets we needed to hit by upselling credit cards and mortgage appointments based on a customer’s credit rating – which we were able to check whilst carrying out a transaction for them.
Even at Odeon, we were encouraged to upsell popcorn packages and the like when people came to the till.
This was a turbulent time in my life which started to run me down. I’d work from 9.30-5.30 at Natwest Bank and then head over to the Odeon to start my shift from 6 to 11.30 pm.
It was an interesting mix moving between working in a suit at the bank by day to working in a crinkled shirt with my Odeon badge by night.
I enjoyed the different challenges they bought and the challenges they brought to my general well-being.
I didn’t have much time to myself; therefore didn’t have much time to spend any money anyway so managed to save up relatively quickly.
A couple of months in and I had amassed around £3,500, a sum I’d never had in my bank account before.
Having determined that backpacking was what I wanted to do with this money and nothing else on a lunch break at work decided to take the plunge.
I called STA Travel and asked them about the cheapest around-the-world tickets they had that began in India.
This was my only prerequisite as it made sense to actually go and see my motherland.
These were the things I thought about as I looked across at my smiling dad several months later.
After everything was said and done, they had seen me save close to £7,000, book the flights, ultimately get a place at Warwick University and prepare to travel the world.
I was headed to India, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the United States (some of those countries I didn’t know I’d get to when I left).
But I stood proudly next to my dad who had taken 2-weeks off from work to accompany me to India for the first leg of a 6-month trip that would change my life forever.
Off I went, initially with my father; in search of adventure!
That’s all for this one, catch your next letter!