In year two I got down to Politics proper and much to my surprise found that I could pick my own subjects. This was a huge benefit for me as there were very definite areas that I wanted to study i.e. Foreign and International Politics especially Europe. I was very fortunate in being able to do this and apart from an obligatory Political Theory course, which was very abstruse for an ex-Master, I found myself feeling far more settled and my confidence marginally boosted from having negotiated the traumas of my first year.
I still felt rather a fraud though and still out of my depth amongst the very bright and clever “children”. But they in turn, I later discovered, were very impressed by my grasp of all aspects historical; what they failed to understand was that I was so old (comparatively) that I remembered much of what we studied actually happening! E.g. the Cuban missile crisis, the overthrow of Khrushchev and other relatively recent political events of the 40s, 50s and early 60s etc. (I did not of course mention how much older senior apprentices were and how much more they had seen along life’s seedy path!). So along with pursuing Political Theory of the Liberal Tradition (the concepts of power and authority, liberty and freedom and punishment etc) which was taught by a really terrific character, my other second year courses were the Politics of the USA (something of a political pantomime), International Politics (rational action theorems! – I didn’t get on with the lecturer who was an idle so and so) and finally the Politics of Western Europe (which was incredibly interesting and something that I could have gone on and on with). The lecturer in the last subject was dynamite and made university feel exactly how I thought it should be. He was a young Canadian PhD who was really gifted. He made the topic absolutely zing; I wish there had been more like him.
So that was year two and it concluded with what is called Part I Finals. Much to my amazement, I emerged with passes all round and found myself sitting on a prospective “Second”. But I still had not been able to master the intensive revision agenda that was so imperative and for me had proved to be a real nightmare during my first two years. Despite my passes, what little examination technique I possessed simply deserted me as soon as I turned the paper over! In fact a young student recited one of my answers in year one back to me in the year behind me. It was one of those examination “howlers” you so often hear about. I could not believe I had been that stupid. Fortunately for me it was in Constitutional Law, where they used anonymous marking. But I can imagine that they still trot my howler out every year!
I should explain at this point that a year at Durham wasn’t quite as laid back as I have maybe made it sound. I have left huge gaps; brevity is not my strong suit, but as you may recall, bullshit is! Apart from exorcising the “bull-shit”, I had quite a few basic problems to overcome. Essay writing, essay style (I had to create one!), note taking at speed (my shorthand was well dead by this stage) and learning to read economically and selectively (i.e. you do not read absolutely everything). And that really was silly because I didn’t read half of what I should have done when I was in the RAF so why did I suddenly find it necessary to reverse the process once I got to university? The first essay I handed in (History), in my first year, came back to me with the comments “OK as far as it goes…. C minus”.I was furious and took myself off to confront the history lecturer who had been so condemning of my first masterpiece. “Well Mr Danes” he retorted when I had finished “asking” him just what he meant by his remarks, “You’re a very good story teller but there isn’t much analysis, is there?” So I took myself off looked up “analysis” in the dictionary and then promptly rethought my act.We had to produce eight essays each term (two for each course), four were “Presentation Essays” and had to be a minimum of 2,000 words and had to be presented during term by certain seminar or tutorial deadlines. These would be discussed, dissected, questioned and then marked. The other four submissions were “Term Essays” and had to run to a minimum of 2,500 words and be submitted by the end of each term. Terms were of nine weeks duration so that added up to quite a tidy workload. But I have to admit that since everybody was in the same situation, we all had an essay crisis at some time or another; it had the effect of creating quite a buzz as the end of term got closer. But it was a measure which illustrated how, as the course progressed, the screw was slowly but relentlessly tightened and how the emphasis was progressively and inexorably shifted to put the accent and the stress upon the student to perform to a higher standard with increasingly less supervision. No problem for an ex-Master you might think; don’t you believe it.
Came Year Three and this change in emphasis became even more apparent. Apart from choosing a further four courses, there was a dissertation to consider; an original piece of work related to a political topic of your choosing which had to be not less that 10,000 words. Thus, with the standard eight essays each term and the dissertation, years 1992/1993 are lost tracts of time for me; not helped, I might add, by losing from my hard disc my almost completed dissertation one month before the
submission date. If you would like a further discourse on how to contain an acute anxiety state coupled with extreme emotional trauma, I am now an expert on that as well!
My final year was taken up with Politics of the Middle East (totally absorbing), Italian Politics (more interesting and engrossing that could possibly imagine, but again headed up by the young Canadian PhD). Political Integration in Western Europe (this left me as a confirmed Europhile and taught me an immense amount about future political concepts (I am not sure that my Euro enthusiasm is quite as ardent now however!). Finally Politics of the Soviet Union (I thought this would be a fascinating topic but it was incredibly dry and not made easier in 1992 by the constantly changing political situation in Russia itself). My dissertation was entitled “Security and the European Institutions – an Appraisal of the Potential to Create a New Security Order”. I did my research for this at HQNATO in Brussels where I had done a ground tour. It was an incredible experience going back there and having access to some stunning material and some fascinating people. I also had some time at the EU, which was a real eye opener. That of course was in the days long before they were talking about a Common Foreign and Defence policy.By the end of year three I had mastered the examination technique and I got three “Seconds” and a “Third” and a “First” for my dissertation. I was home and dry with a Second Class Honours Degree in politics – just like that, dead easy!
Well, no, it wasn’t easy, I worked like a one legged man in an arse kicking contest and I learnt, perhaps for the first time in my life, that you get out of life (especially at university!) Exactly what you put into it. I had a stupid smile on my face for weeks after I graduated; I felt unashamedly proud of what I had achieved. My Professor of Politics compounded my self-satisfaction by telling me that if the course had been of four years duration, I could have got a “First” and how I had got better and better as the course went on. Quite a compliment, but more probably a reflection of how unacademic I was when I started.I now understand a great deal more about so much; certainly about politics, but far more beyond that one narrow subject. I met some super people; the youngsters especially were incredible. The “Academics” were a mixed bunch, the good were excellent, and the not so good were bloody awful. I found other mature students rather serious and a bit boring! But, believe it or not, I became far more tolerant, more enquiring and more confident within my own mind and of my own ability. I feel the benefits of having “done it” still today and I sense that they will stay with me forever. I certainly look at things differently now and I am much more aware of situations and circumstances. I often surprise myself with something that I find I know or understand. And it has all been an imperceptible process and one for which I feel extremely
indebted. I would recommend the experience thoroughly and unreservedly to anyone. I suppose I have realised and fathomed ideas and notions that I should have latched on to years ago. There doesn’t have to be, nor is there, an age bar to learning. I really had enormous fun and numerous surprises during my three years as a student. When I started I was 48, when I finished I felt nearer to 80; when I got my results I was the same age as the kids! Stunned, elated and not far from tears. Age doesn’t matter, believe me; only when you are looking for a job. Mind you I really did miss my Student Rail Card.And would I do it all again? Most certainly not!