People who have become accustomed to reading stories on this site about incontinent vomiting Polish girls and bitch-fighting Thai lesbians (the early days) or anecdotes about me house-hunting or my kitchen appliances breaking down (more recently, it’s an age thing I guess) might be surprised that I have an academic side and have written many widely-acclaimed papers on a range of diverse subjects.
Indeed it was when one such essay was described as “laughable” that I was first inspired to try writing comedy.
I thought it might be interesting to run through some of the downright outlandish things I’ve gotten away with whilst studying for actual accredited qualifications. Perhaps these will be an inspiration to others that putting fun into your studies doesn’t have to mean low grades (*note I cannot be held responsible if you choose whimsical topics and get low grades).
If anyone at work is reading this, particular from the HR department, I would like to point out that any qualifications listed on my CV when I applied for the job were genuine, and the following academic gubbins is either in addition to, or formed a part of, those legitimate studies. And if this article causes anyone to reconsider any offers of employment then I would simply say you should have asked more in-depth questions at the interview.
Subject matter expert
On the topic of topics. At high school, oh I had the usuals, your Englishes, your Maths’s, your Physics’s, your Histories. But I complemented these with the hardcore Accounting & Finance (a class taken by a woman who was a great teacher, but could have given Margaret Thatcher a run for her money), and also the utter genius that was Secretarial Studies.
I believe I have mentioned before (but why not say again) that I was top of my class in A&F*, a subject I genuinely excelled at, and very nearly went on to university the shit out of it.
(*class of two)
But what was Secretarial Studies? Well, it’s exactly what it sounds like. Writing cheques, bits of shorthand, taking minutes, addressing letters correctly. To this day it brings me out in a rash when I see someone write a letter that begins Dear Sir/Madam, and then ends with Yours Sincerely instead of Yours Faithfully. Idiots. Admittedly, writing cheques is a skill that I use less and less in my daily life.
No, the genius of Secretarial Studies was the class. I was the only guy there and the class was full of (in context) hot girls. OK, I had to endure a lot of jibes about my secretarial work, including many a “gay” taunt, but at the end of the day I was in class writing fictional cheques with all the best-looking girls in school, while my friends were in woodwork sanding bird boxes and mug trees.
I guess everyone has their vice.
I also had the opportunity to study for some recognised vocational qualifications. Over the past few decades I think I had downplayed the legitimacy of some of these academic sidelines, but during the census last year I was actually asked if I had any such accolades, and had to go and investigate. I discovered that indeed my qualifications here were as legit as anyone else’s and was only dismayed that the census didn’t ask me to specifically list them.
- Keyboard playing (I was a whizz at Super Trouper)
- Trampolining (yes, trampolining)
- Volleyball (it’s a sport)
- Local Investigations (the main investigation being to find out what the course was)
I switched to keyboard as my instrument of choice after a short-lived dalliance with the violin. I’d become disillusioned with the fact that a huge amount of practice was required to make an actual single note on the violin without it sounding screechy. With keyboard, pressing the button made the nice sound, and I could focus on adding additional sounds and making tunes. I kept up my fondness for the ivories and some years ago bought an upright digital piano. I am roughly as good at playing it as I was when I received this qualification.
People had heard about my Secretarial scam, so there were more boys in Trampolining than you might think, principally there for boobs-related reasons. Sign-ups spiked when a certain girl (who I won’t name) announced she was going. But I was genuinely interested in the technique and being of a dainty frame seeing just how high my puny body could be bounced.
Volleyball served me well, and I revisited the sport during the London 2012 Olympics, admittedly not as a player but as a spectator (and it was beach volleyball, and yes I will admit I went to that for similar reasons to why the other boys did trampolining – also it was at Horseguards’ Parade which was a nice venue “for it”…)
Local Investigations, well it was some kind of local history research group, but the syllabus seemed vague, and felt like it was being made up as the teacher went along. The teacher, something of a Harry Hill lookalike (in face rather than clothes), would generally leave the class for half and hour at a time declaring to the rest “McCann’s in charge”. We had bonded over a mutual love of The Wrong Trousers and its central villain Feathers McGraw – and ever since he had seen me as a peer who could enjoy all the responsibility of a fully-trained teacher.
The comic-book scam
I did more at school than just made-up subjects, you know. But even to these I brought a distinctly entrepreneurial approach to study.
The Review of Personal Reading (RPR) was a key part of the English Higher. For those of you south of the border, this is equivalent to an A-Level. So my English Higher was like a Scottish English A-Level, and the English A-Level is basically an English English Higher.
There was actually girl at school whose surname was English, I think she failed everything due to teacher confusion. And probably got bullied a lot because she was in Scotland and was called English. She really should have changed her name. Perhaps take a leaf out of the book of the girl I was at uni with who was genuinely called MacSporran.
For the RPR we had to pick a book of note and write a scholarly review of it. This presented most pupils with a number of challenges.
- A book had to be read in full
- This book was under no circumstances the kind of thing you’d want to read at that age
- You then had to think of things to say about the book
- You then had to write this up using good English and multi-syllabic words
The book choices were all made, usually with some recommendations by teacher. It was always the likes of Austen, Steinbeck, Orwell, Twain. Books we’d have a hard time reading & understanding alone, never mind reviewing.
I had different ideas.
In what could be deemed my “smash the system” childhood moment, I approached teacher with a unique proposal. I’d recently read a Superman novel. It wasn’t on the reading list, it hadn’t won any awards, it wasn’t regarded as a modern classic. On the other hand, I had already read it, I understood what the words in it said, and who the characters were, and I had formed some opinions about it. And you know what, if I absolutely had to, I’d even be prepared to read it again.
Using the same kind of intellectual confidence that had skyrocketed me to the role of Deputy Teacher in the Local Investigations class, and by explaining in advance some of the topics my review would cover, I managed to convince the teacher that this was a legitimate choice.
You might think this is impressive enough, reading Superman books when my classmates were dredging through turn-of-the-century greats with a dictionary permanently open by their side. This wasn’t even the best bit.
Every week in English class we got an hour to work on the RPR. I didn’t bring in the book, I’d read it already, no I brought in the comics it was based on. The adaptation being a key part of my plans for the review. So I spent that class, every week, reading comics while everyone else pored over their literature. And every week, people complained. And every week the teacher reaffirmed that it was allowed.
What. A. Swiz.
(by the way the line above also includes the grade I got)
If you’re feeling like the education system failed you by not including Superman books on the curriculum, don’t panic. I have sourced and scanned the original document which I include below for future literary scholars to find and plagiarise.
I left school with surprisingly decent actual grades, three As (English, Secretarial, Accounts), two Bs (Maths, Physics) and a C (History). I did worst in the subject I actually find most interesting in my actual life.
A degree of comedy
Appling for university, the norm was to apply for loads of things. I focussed my efforts on two – Accountancy (proper job, monies) and Media Studies (fun, whimsy). I got accepted for both, and fairly immediately went for the fun option. When you consider me academically as the trampolining/secretarial/superman guy, it’s easy to see why.
University was an even bigger swiz than school. There was more flexibility on topics, and I was studying media, which covered all my favourite things. Superman is even more a media thing than a literature thing. No, I’d done Superman, now the sky was the limit…
My Communication & Mass Media course was wonderfully diverse. I studied film, broadcasting, journalism, music, advertising, marketing, sociology, psychology, history.
I was once again top of my class when we were tasked to write an essay on propaganda, a topic I’ve maintained a strong interest in since, and something that has served me well when dealing with fake news and bullshit internet stories.
For the Psychology module I wrote about brain disorders aphasia and alexia. Wait let’s get a quote from that:
To conclude, the study of split-brain patients – the findings of which there is no room here to fully discuss, is also a field in which post-mortems of damaged brains are a key tool. Commissurotomy – the severing of the corpus callosum – leaves both hemispheres entirely separate, and this has demonstrated, true to Dax’s original vision, that the left and right hemispheres perform different functions.McCann, 1998
I wrote about the agricultural revolution and its effect on the British economy in the 1830s.
Enclosure in England rose from around 70% at the turn of the eighteenth century to 90% by 1830, although other parts of Great Britain did not experience quite such an uptake in the enclosure system. The costs of this change, and the considerable ‘havoc’ it wrought amongst the poor later, were justified by reasons of efficiency. Awkward rotation methods employed with ‘open fields’ caused significant trouble and led to poorer productivity. Improved drainage, for example, which could be implemented more extensively in the enclosed land led to less cross-infection from one part of land to another, as this was one of the greatest faults with the communal ‘open’ fields.McCann, 1996
Right? Pretty strong stuff. But I know you don’t come to McCannecdotes to see proper smart-sounding prose. You come to read about my zany ways and how much of a fucking unbelievable idiot I am. So let’s get to the good stuff.
On the milder end we have an essay on US talk shows and their infiltration of UK tv culture. It opens with this:
The screen fades up on hordes of jeering unknowns, each thumping out some barely comprehensible duosyllabic chant. From the sea of excited bodies emerges a British-born American Jew with a microphone in one hand. He gestures for the masses to calm, and a caption punctually appears at the bottom corner of the screen:McCann, 1998
“I slept with a horse.”
Jerry Springer courts some curiosity from his invisible home audience, before he begins to explain, with due and unwavering contempt for normality, the topic of today’s show. This is not exactly what Jurgen Habermas had in mind when he first defined the public sphere.
Now, I don’t know anymore who Jurgen Habermas is, but I bet he never got “I slept with a horse” into the second paragraph of any of his academic “papers”.
I did an in-depth textual analysis of a scene from the film Goodfellas (the bit when Henry is paranoid about the helicopter chasing him).
I did a study of the film Braveheart as it related to Scottish national identity at the time.
But it was Post-modernity class where I really started to excel/take the piss.
For a few naive moments, I had been expecting music.McCann, 1999
This is the opening line to “Music by Numbers in the Post-modern Age”, my ground-breaking analysis of Post-modernity as it relates to the band Steps.
It’s often the case that people have come to regret things they have said and published in the past, usually on Twitter but I don’t use Twitter. For me, I do feel I was unfairly harsh on Steps, still to this day the band I have seen live more than any other (I think it’s six times, seven if you include Christmas with Steps at the London Palladium, which I’d rather not).
However, I was conscious of my audience here, and the tutor was unlikely to be cultured enough to appreciate the RAW MUSIC a band like Steps offered.
I have to include this entire essay here as a PDF, because you cannot appreciate the sheer gall of this piece of coursework unless you can see how I presented it, not only with photos of the band down the margin of every page, but also with each section interspersed with actual lyrics.
Even if Jurgen Habermas did manage to get “I slept with a horse” into an essay, could he stretch that to “And if I let you hold me, will I ever survive, oh oh”. I don’t fucking think so.
(unless there somehow was Habermas with Steps at the London Palladium, a crossover I doubt exists)
It’s an unusual McCannecdote this, because I don’t really know to what extent people are going to stop and read these actual embedded essays.
I was becoming adept at shoe-horning silly themes into serious critical topics, but in my fourth and final year (in Scotland degrees are four years not three, I didn’t get held back or anything), everything came together.
While my schoolfriends were at uni doing back to back exams in subjects like genetics, maths, computing, microbiology – I had one single exam in my final year…
…in Situation Comedy.
In a year that was mainly practical (including a documentary I made about a local foul-mouthed pub quizmaster whose final round was a record-sleeve guessing game called “The Wall of Cock”), I just had to study up on sitcom as my one examable subject.
I’ll be honest, that exam was FUCKING HARD. All explaining how Hancock’s Half Hour was reflective of the cultural context of the time, and that kind of stuff. But still, it was a sitcom exam.
And such a subject – where lectures routinely involved being spoken to about jokes for half an hour, then sitting watching an episode of The Golden Girls) – naturally had an opportunity for some A-grade comedy coursework.
For me, it was to an old favourite, The Young Ones, and a piece about Thatcherism and alternative comedy. In what was to be a more seamless execution of the idea I had about Steps lyrics, I had sewn quotes from the series throughout the pages. Then, having realised the essay was too short to include all the quotes I had lovingly selected (after an unnecessary but thoroughly enjoyable rewatch of the whole series under the banner of “revising”), I included an appendix with more quotes, starting with “I’m going to insert the first nail. You might feel a bit of a prick | So what’s new”.
While checking this upload I’ve noticed on page 6 I misspelt “as” as “ass”. I can’t say if I got penalised for this or if it was regarded as anarchic, which would have been fitting.
If you’re familiar with The Young Ones it’s important to realise that yes, my earlier essay about the agricultural revolution was actually, literally, about “crop rotation in the 19th century”.
I’d somehow managed to find a way to make studying as fun and less like work as possible. Imagine my surprise when I started working at PlayStation and discovered it wasn’t all playing games all day, but there’s probably a trend here towards valuing doing something I enjoy and trying to make “work” as interesting as possible.
I finished my academic career with my Honours Dissertation, on the film Heat. Fascinatingly, Heat was actually a remake of a 1989 tv movie called LA Takedown. They were both written and directed by Michael Mann, had the same plot, and often exactly the same lines of dialogue. But Heat is one of the best films of all time, whereas LA Takedown is pretty forgettable and cheesy bog-standard fare. My dissertation was about the factors involved in this, challenging auteur theory, and how much a film is one person’s vision or the sum of its parts.
Did it have pictures? Yes. Did it have quotes? Yes. It was basically the culmination of all my daft techniques, but they sort of worked better in context.
My long and varied academic career served me well – not least in my first job in academic publishing where one of my books had … yeap, quotes down the margins. I’m nothing if not a creature of habit.
And if anyone wants to quote from any of my academic works, in their own papers or journals, or perhaps a lecture tour, I’m happy with this on receipt of a nominal payment, by way of a perfectly and properly filled out cheque.
You missed a trick here Al – failing to mention that in Higher English you also abstained from memorising ‘Dulce et Decirum Est’ and big chunks of ‘Sunset Song’ – and instead answered questions on the media section of the paper – which we hadn’t been taught or prepared for. And still scored an A.
Quite a feat when you add that to the RPR…
Oh, and I met a guy on holiday who used to run a bar and they used Dr Paul quizzes. If I hadn’t see your documentary, I’d have been out of my depth in the conversation.
Alan, I can reveal to your vast readership that your attempts at subject avoidance began in primary school. The fad at that time was for a visual timetable of the day’s lessons to be displayed. When it came to the slot allocated to R.E. your hand shot up and you announced you would not be participating in the lesson as you did not believe in God.
Referring you to the visual timetable I asked you what R.E. stood for. Of course you knew it was Religious Education. I pointed out the differences between instruction and education and the importance of acquiring knowledge on which to base your decisions. I concluded by saying, ‘So Alan as this is education and that’s what you’re here for you will be taking part in the lesson’
And you did!