When I graduated from the University of Durham in 1993, I swore that my essay writing days were finished, irrevocably and totally. I had not, I am afraid, legislated for the demands of your erstwhile editor. Just like University, he has put a deadline on this article. And before we progress any further, I can assure you that this offering will very quickly disabuse you of any idea you may have had that university turns out even moderately competent essay writers.
So why did a very unacademic, not particularly well read, some might accurately say, pretty thick ex-Winchman renounce the vocation of Search and Rescue, cast aside the protective cloak of the “Masters Mafia” and set heading for university? I can recall telling people at the time that I felt the need to take on a new challenge; that I wanted to cross the “T’s” and dot the “i’s” and that I wanted to use university as a bridge between the RAF and whatever the future held. It all sounds pretty high minded now but quite simply, I wanted to try and get a degree. I wanted to see if I could prove something to myself. But the truth is that having decided to leave the Service, going to university happened more by accident than design. I will not bore you with the how or why, save to say that at the eleventh hour I did try very hard to wriggle out of it. I had a very severe dose of cold feet and felt very uncertain about the whole thing and especially uncertain about my ability to crack it. The confidence I had gained from getting a couple of “A” levels during my last year in the RAF suddenly seemed very fragile indeed. But the ignominy of backing out was too much to contemplate! The time had come to lie on the bed that I had made for myself.
Thus I arrived at Durham with the other (young) students; I referred to them as “The Children”, and that was my first surprise, the “Younger Generation”. They were in fact, one of the major revelations of my time at university. Obviously, necessity and circumstances did not separate us and their insecurities and tensions were as real as my own. I simply had more experience at hiding my anxieties and more confidence to carry it off. After an initial standoff they accepted me on equal terms; it must have been nerve racking for them having an old goat on board who was in most cases much older than their own parents. But once the thaw had taken hold I found them to be great fun; very witty, incredibly clever and great source of help and inspiration to me. I learnt a great deal from them and still count a number of them amongst my friends today. At university though, we seldom if ever socialised, mainly because student antics were more reminiscent of barrack block behaviour in my days as an airman and I had absolutely no desire to relive experiences like throwing up over the banisters at three in the morning. Thus I tended to restrict myself to giving them supper occasionally in my “two-up-two-down” terracedhouse that I bought for the duration of my time at Durham. But, for the parents amongst you, believe me you would have a “duck fit” if I revealed some of the “Kid’s” secrets that they allowed me to share. Some of the things that did, thought and said were hilarious. Like two girls, rather posh, talking about how awful it would be to be old and, more especially, to have wrinkles like one of the girl’s mother: “But Imogen” said the other girl, “Your mother is absolutely gorgeous”. “Yes” replied Imogen “but only at a distance!”
I resolved at the outset that, in going to university, life should not be all reading, library time and learning. There had to be more to it than plodding one’s way through three years and so I joined the Durham Union Society (the Debating Union). That was one of my better decisions and throughout my time at Durham I enjoyed spending any (perhaps too much) of my spare time at “DUS”. The debates were great fun as well!
It was at “DUS” where I was privy to a conversation amongst “The Children” who were discussing “the revolting thought of their parents having sex”. As the conversation gathered in lurid detail with a liberal supply of “yuks” and “I don’t even want to think about that” type remarks, I sunk ever lower behind my Times (the old broad sheet version). I really didn’t have the courage to contribute to the proceedings and I certainly didn’t think I would be able to retrieve the reputation of mine or older generations. I was left feeling quite inadequate! The bottom line however was left to a flinty young Glaswegian lass who said “Well, I cannot imagine my mother getting her kit off for anyone!” It really was excruciatingly funny.
And so what about the academic side of life? I had opted to read for an Honours Degree in Politics. No joint honours for this boy; as I rightly surmised, keeping my eye on one ball was going to occupy more than enough of my time. My first shock was that having assumed for years that I had fostered a deep and abiding interest in politics, I discovered that what I had in fact nurtured was an abiding passion for current affairs. I very soon leant that there is a world of difference ‘twixt the two and I wasn’t quite as prepared as I thought for what was to come.
My first year was probably the most frenetic, cluttered and worrying of my life and even now I raise my eyes aloft (metaphorically) and give thanks that my years in the RAF had taught me organisation, time management and the ability to work on until the job is finished.Shock number two came when I found, much to my dismay and apprehension, that in year one I wasn’t going to be doing very much politics at all. To successfully negotiate Preliminary Honours, I would be required to study three subsidiary social science subjects outwith and in addition to my major subject. It will be quite obvious at
this stage that I hadn’t done very much research into this university game at all! My (graduate) son who gained a degree in economics and history at Hull severely warned me off having anything to do with economics and my (undergraduate) daughter who was doing psychology at Newcastle severely warned me off that subject and also sociology. As I did not very much fancy philosophy the options were serious narrowing. I then found that my (rather mediocre) A Level grades (2 “C’s”) were going to
determine what subsidiary subjects the social science faculty would allow me to take. I decided that the only way I would overcome this very blatant bias toward educational achievement would be to kick down a few professorial doors and state my case in person. In order to do what I wanted to do rather than what the system thought I should do, or thought I was capable to doing, based on my A Level results. Apparently this was not something that undergraduates in their first year (first days
even) at Durham were supposed to do, but it was I found surprisingly effective, although it did gain me rather too much notoriety. Oh well, nothing new there then! I had become used to Squadron Commanders who operated more of an “open door” policy rather than something akin to cloistered reclusiveness. In the end the system buckled and I settled down to study Constitutional Law, History of the Totalitarian Era and Anthropology.
So year one passed in a blur of blind panic but by being organised, if not particularly able or outstanding, I scraped through my “Prelims” without the ignominy and distress of having to do any “Resits”. That was at least an improvement on my days at Apprentice school!