Friday, 18 March 2016

On going back

Don't go back, they say. Never go back.

They are usually talking about relationships or jobs when they say this. Now I've never gone back to the former (though I have been the one that a woman went back to, with predictably calamitous results), and I've never been in the position of having to go back to a former workplace, though I have thought about it. But now … now I have sort of gone back, almost in time.

I'd better explain that, in case you're wondering whether I have a DeLorean parked out the back. I don't, obviously. Instead, my career, via its usual circuitous and serendipitous route, has just taken me back, as I am now gainfully employed at the same university I did my undergraduate degree at, a barely credible quarter of a century ago.

A lot has changed since I graduated in 1992. Old buildings have been spruced up and refurbished. Lots of new buildings have appeared. One old building, a breeze-block hall of residence that I lived in for one of the happiest years of my life, has gone completely, razed to the ground and replaced with something modern, shiny and en-suite. And student numbers have nearly doubled since my day. In my day … that's a phrase I've said a lot in the last month.

So what about those students - have they changed? Well, yes and no. The essential quality of being a student seems largely unchanged - there are still those making a beeline for the library, those making a beeline for the bar and those not really making an obvious beeline for anywhere or anything. Judging purely from overheard snippets of conversation, I'd say that all the usual student pretensions are still in place too, albeit a little more mass-market. I'm not entirely sure what I mean by that, other than to say I don't believe today's school leavers are proportionally brighter and therefore more deserving of a university education than they were in my day … yet so many more of them follow that path. Something must have changed, right?

Anyway, that's probably a subject for another blog post. Where was I? Oh yes, changes in students. The biggest change, bar none, is how much more affluent they all seem these days. So many of them seem quite happy to spend more on their lunch than I do. And they're all so well dressed. Designer labels and latest trends are everywhere. In my day (there we go again), so many of us relied on charity shops for our "new" clothes, and it showed. Not so any more. And I guess maybe it's viewed as an essential item, but they all seem to have their own laptops now, in addition to tablets and smartphones. I guess what I'm trying to say is, okay, today's students may all have loans and be in debt but they don't seem, on the surface at least, to be poor. I did my undergrad in the last years of the old means-tested grant system and, although I got something, I didn't get much. In my first year, living on campus, my food budget for the week was £7. Yep, a pound a day to live on. Even in 1989, that didn't go very far. The supermarket was my friend - in fact, a shopping trip often involved cycling to four different supermarkets, buying things from my carefully planned list wherever they were cheapest. In my second year, my grant was for the princely sum of £1,400 which sounds a lot until you realise that my rent that year was £1,680. And okay, it's true that there were no student fees in my day … but there were no loans either. Students like me scrimped. In fact, scrimping was an essential part of the student experience then, far, far more than it seems to be today, from my admittedly third party perspective. Nothing seems to typify this change more than the fact that there is no longer a second-hand bookshop on campus. That was always the first port of call after the first lecture in a new subject - in fact, there was often a mad dash to try to get one of however few copies of the required text might be there, knocking about at 40% of the new price. These days, I guess students just take a stroll to the on-site Waterstone's or download an e-book copy onto their tablets.

So, some things have changed, others have stayed basically the same. Sunrise, sunset, all that. I still love the place. I always will. It didn’t shape me in the same way my secondary school did, but it was my place, and the backdrop to indelible memories. I only hope, four weeks into my new job, that coming back here in a very different capacity only reinforces the connection I feel, rather than tarnishes it. Earlier this week, on my way back from lunch, I took a detour through my old faculty building. I made my way out through the distinctive atrium, with blue handrails and loud, clattering metal walkways, and really did feel that I'd stepped back in time. Only then did I realise that I've gained 20lbs since 1992, have less than half the hair I had then and am now essentially invisible to the students that were milling around me. That, my friend, is a good way to feel old.

All of which is a good excuse for embedding this song. I was a bit late to the party with R.E.M. and didn't hear their first two albums until the most amazing woman I'd met at that time played them to me in her room just up the corridor in that now-bulldozed hall of residence, in the early months of 1990. From "Reckoning" then, here's the appropriately titled "(Don't Go Back To) Rockville". Whilst you enjoy it, I'm off to reminisce about that year, indelible memories and, if truth be told, that woman.


  1. I don't know where students get their money from - or how they'll pay it back considering how tough the graduate jobs situation is at the moment.

    Hope your new job goes well - you paint a very rosy picture...

    1. Cheers Rol. Rosy, maybe, but it's still work. Until I write a bestseller and the film rights go for a seven figure sum, I'll just have to keep on keepin' on.

  2. How I remember on my visits the meatballs on toast being the only meal of the day for a student Mr P.....

    1. 43p for a tin, a cheap meal. Maybe not the most nutritious, but never mind... Golden days, those... I have particularly good memories of when you came up in the Maestro to see Blur...