The Word Rabbit

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This article was written on 05 Mar 2016, and is filled under Uncategorised.

I was a university wanker

I think that blogging, if it means anything, should involve bringing everything to the page. There should be nothing left, nothing which is secret. And I think real life should be much the same. The World War One French air ace, Georges Guynemer, a doomed and frail youth if ever there was one, said that “Until you have given everything, you have given nothing,” a phrase which I do battle with on a daily basis. Have I given everything? Nowhere near? Am I being as honest on this blog as I can be? Of course not. I’m falling short of my own, rubbish standards every minute I draw breath.

This is what has been chewing over in my brain this early afternoon and what I find it’s attached to is the idea of me, as a student, wearing a dinner jacket. This didn’t bother me at the time as I thought it was all a jolly laugh, but it’s bothered me in the years since and I feel as though, oddly enough, I need some manner of public recantation of past sins. It’s very Catholic, this, and while I’m not Catholic, I wonder if I’ve not inherited some Catholic gene through my forebears, many of whom most definitely were. There now follows an attempt to worry away at this and reach some kind of conclusion.

I grew up in an aspirational household. And I have zero problem with that. My whole family history is one of people who wanted to better themselves and to improve their station in life, which seems like a a fine and laudable aim. My problem with that is what the definition of betterment means in this context. To me, it means broadening your intellectual horizons and realising that the only limits that exist are the ones that society imposes on you. There was a documentary on TV some time ago that looked at how the miners who worked in the pits educated themselves and, through donating money to friendly societies, ended up with vast libraries at their disposal and many used that as a segue into the worlds of politics and workers’ rights.

Yesterday, I read about a barrister called Jeremy Hutchinson who successfully defended Penguin Books in the trial of ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover,’ partly by making the defence counsel, poor old Melvyn Griffith-Jones look like a fearful prig, which is exactly what he was. At one point, Griffith-Jones turned to the jury and asked them, at the end of a lengthy speech, if it was a book they would like their servants to read, which is rather like tap dancing across the stage and then stepping in a giant turd at the end. There was sniggering, he looked suitably ridiculous, and good reason ended up carrying the day.

What matters, though, is that a book in which one of the protagonists is a working class male, whose sensual life is explored fully and reverently, was seen to have merit. By extension, that means that the sensual lives of working class people also has merit and that, to the likes of people like Melvyn Griffith-Jones, was perhaps a disquieting thought. If the base soldiery of the Coldstream Guards with whom he had served with such distinction in World War Two had needs and desires that were fully human and were not just cattle, then society looks very different. It was also fitting that one of the people who was summoned in the defence was Richard Hoggart, a senior lecturer in English at Leicester University who had himself come from a slum in Leeds.

The Chatterley trial, then, saw the old order, if not overthrown, but at least mocked and derided, which is sometimes the best that you can do. But the aspirations I encountered were more social than they were cultural, and they were also so brittle that the people who held the were worried that they’d be shattered, leading to their exposure as frauds. My dad never had a university education, which in no way held him back in his career. In fact, he’d even failed that fatuous and stupid test of academic probity, the 11 plus. No matter to anyone, but as my dad grew older and progressed in his career, he was surrounded by ‘university people’ who he felt knew something that he didn’t. Incredibly enough, I’m a ‘university person’ and my brain is full of fluff, so he needn’t have worried, but then, he’s not to know.

As a result, our modest seventies build was done out, as was the fashion, like some kind of baronial hall, with claw-footed dark wood tables and chairs, velvet stripe wallpaper and leather-backed books that nobody had read. If you imagine a Harvester that had been done out by Charles Dickens, circa ‘Bleak House,’ you’d have been somewhere close. They’ve now changed their style, I’m happy to say, but this was the one that I grew up in and which came to seem normal.

My problem is that this is also the mindset I took with me to university. It’s inevitable. Every callow eighteen year old is a pretty perfect reflection of the circumstances in which they grew up, either if they follow it to the letter, as I did, or choose to react angrily against it. What both these positions have in common is that they take the same starting point, much as people at university find it oddly expedient to pretend otherwise. I recently heard a terribly well-spoken girl I was at university with on the radio who spent the whole three at university pretending to be a girl from the wrong side of the tracks from Manchester. Look into her biography, and she’s from a posh family and went to Manchester Grammar or some such.

So when I had the opportunity to get into a DJ, I leapt at it. And when I went to my first university ball, I found that an awful lot of people hadn’t, like me, hired their dinner jackets but already owned them because this was their ‘normal.’ Suddenly, my hired tuxedo looked a bit rubbish and my cheap Burton’s shoes which looked like brogue canal barges, looked a bit gauche. I had managed to be in a social situation, actually, many social situations because there are a lot of balls at university, acutely aware that I looked like what I was – to wit, a superannuated working class idiot whose father’s success at work had allowed him to think he belonged in the middle class.

As a kick in the tits, it took a while for this to sink in, but when it did, it stung. And more to the point, I had the image of my family in my mind gently being sick into a bush. Most of them had died before I went ‘up’ to university, but they had included my great-grandad, who had retired as an engine driver, a position he’d had to work his way up to through unimaginable toil, my quick and clever great-grandma, both firebrand socialists, and assorted others. The sense that started to creep over me, and which is very present for me now, is that I’d let them down in some great and nebulous way. I wasn’t worried about what was in my head, but what was on my back. And I can’t help but think they’d have been opposed to that with every fibre of their being.

My last time in a DJ was at the graduation ball, an overpriced shindig which represented a complete and utter waste of everyone’s time and effort. I’m not a natural student and for all my sham erudition, am as thick as mince, so I’d had to slog, hard, through three years of study. It deserved a better, more fitting epitaph than getting drunk with people whose names I can no longer remember and wouldn’t recognise if I walked past in the street, in some leaden pantomime of fun, but that’s what it got. And when it came to return my DJ the following day, I put that person away, because I no longer liked him very much. He was a fool and, for that, I’m sorry.

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