Thursday, 18 August 2011

We had it easy - student days in the Sixties

The publication of schools’ A Level results today set me thinking about my own education and the rocky road towards my third in BSc (Sociology) in 1968. The product of three years at what was then called Regent Street Polytechnic in central London.
A Level grades are make or break as to whether you can study your chosen degree course at your preferred university. I got C, D, E and on the back of six miserable O Levels grades no one would have me.
The only degree I was half-interested in studying was English. Without Latin O Level my choice of universities was very limited. I might not have passed Latin but I couldn't have done worse than the Grade 9 (the lowest) I got in German which I ‘studied’ instead.
I had a lonely third year trying to improve my grades in the 6th form of my north-west London grammar school. I dropped one subject and ended up with 2 Cs on the other two.
Once again I failed to get a place anywhere even though this time I was hoping to read Sociology (an ‘in’ subject in the 1960s) to broaden my choice of colleges. I had to get a job.
My father suggested I might become a (real) estate agent. In hindsight this was not such a bad idea; perhaps I should have stuck to it.
I walked down my local high street and after asking about vacancies in a half-dozen smart-looking agents, I walked into a dimly lit half-shop and was hired on the spot on next-to-no pay by an elderly chain-smoking extrovert.
His bread and butter occupation was as rent collector and bailiff. My job was to mind the shop and ring up people advertising their homes in the personal columns of newspapers and try to convince them to go on our books.
It would have been soul-destroying work had I not convinced myself that I would shortly be recognised as the world’s greatest living poet.
After six months or so – I think on prompting from my school – I applied to the Poly and was accepted.
It was easy then. Our tuition fees were paid for and the local council awarded maintenance grants. I repeat grants not loans. There was a parents’ contribution but I can’t remember asking my father to make up any shortfall.
I lived at home which was probably how I made ends meet with the grant and a few holiday jobs. Ostensibly I didn’t move into a student bedsit because of my mother’s illness but in truth I wasn’t ready to fly the nest.
The degree course itself was pointless and only had relevance for those students who wanted to teach it as a career. Sociology at that stage was desperate to prove it was a science and so statistics and economics featured heavily none of which I was interested in. A pity really as decades later I was to become City Editor on a national newspaper.
Two events left a scar on my student years. Hardly before the first term was over a male class student – handsome, charismatic, and good humoured – was assaulted by a gate-crasher at his own party and died.
I was a witness at the murder trial at the Old Bailey where the defendant was found not guilty in a travesty of justice. As you can imagine student life was never the same.
When we came to sit our finals, we had to re-take about seven of 13 papers, because some of the questions had leaked before hand.
I didn’t bother to go to the Royal Albert Hall for the degree ceremony.
Aside from these dire happenings student life was OK; co-editing the student newspaper was fun and was to help later in getting a job in journalism.
It was slap bang in the middle of the Sixties. The music was good; drinking convivial; pot smoking very occasional; and sex almost non-existent. I was reading everything that came my way except Sociology textbooks.
What I do remember vividly was the optimism of the period. Terrible things were going on in the world not least the Vietnam War; but London was the centre of the universe. There was so much happening at every level personified in Jimi Hendrix, his music, his psychedelic image, his lifestyle.
There was confidence that when student days were over, a reasonably paid job would present itself so the party could continue - if only at weekends. It wasn’t to be but for a short while at least we lived the dream that it might.
I get the feeling that today’s young (the rioters aside) have to be a much more responsible lot.
If they get there in the first place, they will be leaving university under a mountain of debt with no guarantee of a job. Yes, we had it easy.

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