Tag Archives: university

Freshers’ Week

Oh Freshers’ Week. I’ve seen… 15, I think, of you roll by now. One was mine and 14 have been other peoples’. Even though that first one is almost half a lifetime ago now, I still recall it vividly: I remember being left alone in that brown room with a duvet and some posters and a stereo for company. I remember standing around, hundreds of us, outside the Student Union in light drizzle on the first Sunday night, no one sure what was happening, someone suggesting people go into town to find a nightclub, and that seeming like the worst idea in the world. I remember Jon (still the worst human being I’ve ever met), who seemingly had no possessions other than the clothes he stood in, writing the words “YOU FUCKING CUNT” on a hundred pieces of paper and Blu-Tacking them up all over his room like some profane wallpaper. I remember him meeting a girl he’d been at school with, neither of them knowing each other well or knowing that they were coming to the same third-rate university, and them ending up in bed together inside a week, even though she swore she wouldn’t, because, presumably, in those strange, disorienting first few days and weeks, you will cling to anything familiar and reassuring, no matter what. Or did she know Dan from school, and he introduce her to Jon? I don’t think so; Dan was Welsh and they were from Eastbourne. I remember Adam, with his Versace jeans (I had never seen anyone wear Versace jeans before; didn’t know what the logo was), and his enormous cathode ray tube television set, which literally filled his entire desk, preventing him from sitting at it and opening a book. I remember Ginger Nick, with his separates hi-fi and his hip-hop CDs. I remember Dave, from Birmingham, downing a pint in the kitchen and then bringing it up, seemingly still 100% lager, straight back into the stolen pub glass. I remember the guy from Crawley who owned a vintage MG back at home and whose girlfriend wasn’t here and who didn’t seem to deal with things very well. None of us seemed to deal with things very well. Sometimes I think that 18 and 19 year olds today are far more clued up and sussed out than we were. But I doubt it. I remember the delicious, disconcerting freedom, the distance from home, the not wanting to leave campus in those first days because, as strange and unsafe and uncomfortable as it felt, at least I had a safe space within it, however small. I remember not taking part – in societies, the students’ union, the student paper, in studying itself, much of the time – and feeling like I didn’t want to. I remember the incident in the kitchen one night, when I’d been ‘home’ (in the halls of residence flat) reading stuff for a lecture early next morning, and somehow, due to some kind of racial altercation with some guys outside, someone from the flat next door put his hand through our kitchen window whilst drunkenly trying to punch someone on the other side. I remember stemming the blood flow and picking shards of glass from his palm and getting someone to phone an ambulance. I’m sure I’ve written this before in an attempt to exorcise it and make myself feel like I had a more worthwhile university experience. Every time I think about it I’m transported to a set of emotional memories that belong to a different person, a less happy person. I remember a trip home, a desperate, expensive train ticket and a five-hour journey, a night out with whatever friends were left, everything that ought to have been familiar feeling unreal, as if it had slightly tilted off its axis, uncanny and uncomfortable when it should have been reassuring. I remember Magnus the mature student, an impossibly old 28 or so, who had rented a house with his wife, who I could talk about music with. I remember Friday afternoons in The Charles Bradlaugh with Olly and James and Ben and whoever else, reading The Guardian and drinking Guinness. I remember a drama lecturer telling me that after 30 years he had a particular “academic sense of smell” and that I had potential, or likewise, which is what teachers had been telling me, and I’d been ignoring, since I was about 10. I remember it still being flattering. I remember Andy, who was a few years older than us and local. I remember Kazi, who asked me to manage his rap group because I knew who Public Enemy were. I remember Emily and James and the girl with curly hair whose name I can’t recall (Liz?). I remember Ben, and the other Ben, and the third Ben, doing Fine Art. I remember Cat. And her friends who Olly was always in love with. And the two Welsh guys who looked alike and drank together and did their washing, drunkenly, by stealing a shopping trolley and piling their clothes into it and putting it in one of their en suites. I remember the nightclub on three floors – sofas downstairs, dance in the middle, indie and cheese on top – that might have been called The Lounge? I remember buying a Nick Cave album in a tiny independent record shop. I remember John the Geordie, who gave me a Richard Dawkins book, and whose accent was so thick that people thought he was Irish. I remember bumping into James about 6 years after graduating, randomly, in Piccadilly Station while I traversed London after a conference I’d attended. I remember thinking “what are the odds?” I remember Ben asking me if I wanted to go to London with him to take some diamonds across town for his uncle, or something. I remember drinking leftover absinthe at two in the morning rather than write an essay. I remember playing one game of football, scoring a nice left-foot volley that took everyone but me by absolute surprise (because why is this geeky lost guy even playing football) and then not playing again for three years because I hated the football guys on my corridor so much. I remember supporting Roma because the only free-to-air football was Football Italia with James Richardson. I remember evenings buried in the computer room, hours wasted being angry at people on the internet in forums and chatrooms, minidisc player glued to me, convinced the £250 was worth it if I spent 10 evenings spending no money rather than spending £25 on 10 nights out. I remember walking across campus, across town, in the middle of the night, melting my eardrums to Ride or Idlewild or Orbital or whatever. I remember riding through the nature reserve at the back of campus. I remember discovering red wine and jazz and sex and cooking and not understanding or knowing what to do with any of them. I remember seeing a fox on a path in the middle of the park as I walked home at 5am, looking it in the eye. I remember the hoarders who lived next door and the crazy guy three doors down who emptied his house and sold all his possessions at boot sales. I remember buying a hi-fi for the first time; a mobile phone with a contract for the first time; salmon for the first time; chorizo for the first time; a DVD for the first time. I remember going in HMV and Virgin so often that the staff would say hi to me. I remember Spinadisc, and returning a couple of years after graduating and finding it had been turned into a Connexions centre for young people to find training and jobs. I remember not going to graduation. I remember begging to move flats because the football guys on my corridor hated me as much as I hated them (or did they?). I remember the first thing Olly said to me: “I bet you’ve got a wicked stereo”. I remember discovering that Graham was into archery and Charlie sometimes took his kids to McDonalds “because it’s easier”. (Idealistic me thought less of him for that; now I understand.) I remember Mike leaving to go and teach at a better university and feeling like we’d lost something. I remember Xavier and the postgrad with long hair. I remember people turning to each other and mouthing “what the fuck” during initial lectures on critical theory and Marx and semiotics and ideological state apparatus, and me thinking “yes”. I remember Charlie playing the video for “Come To Daddy” in a lecture. I remember getting half a dozen firsts in a row for Philosophy essays. I remember Charlie reading Deleuze out loud and proclaiming it genius even though he didn’t understand it, and thinking this was bullshit. I remember an exam on a Saturday morning in a sports hall that wasn’t even on campus. I remember feeling like it would never end. I remember modules in photography and postmodernism and aesthetics and moral philosophy and directing a play that scored a (really) high first for everyone. I remember being baffled that anyone would stay in that damn town after finishing. I remember rushing home every holiday. I remember drinking alone. And with John. And with Olly and James. And with Ben and Cat. And with Magnus. And with Tom. I remember meeting school friends in the summer and talking about what we were studying and each of thinking we were studying the most important thing ever. I remember kicking down Eli’s door with our landlord because he’d moved out without telling us and left it locked. I remember Liz not turning up for the third year because she’d transferred to another university. I remember Emily telling me that “even your anorak is cool”, which just goes to show that, even if you feel like the most uncool person ever, someone else probably thinks you’re not. I remember thinking my hair looked normal in that first term after I’d dyed it back to brown over the crazy bleachjob I’d had done that summer, only to go home halfway through term and see my reflection under non-striplights and realise I looked ridiculous. I remember wearing flares and a giant corduroy coat a lot. I remember the guy who used to walk a ferret near where we lived in second year. I remember sleeping through a raucous results party. I remember the guy who’d been in our flat the year before coming round on our first night there to sell us drugs. I remember Biggles and Caroline and Chico and Chippy and Miriam and playing Playstation in the kitchen and the guy with badly dyed indie hair (like I can talk) and the Spanish girl and the guy from Exeter who I swear I saw the other week and Tom and Pin and the other Adam who was almost a bit goth and Luke who lent me a Fugazi album and drinking in local pubs that didn’t like students and seeing Coldplay in a tiny venue in town way before their first album (double-header tour with Terris) and going to London and Wolverhampton and Leeds and Blackpool and loads of other places for gigs and album launch parties and waking up in Kingston and getting lost in Brixton and shaving my head and growing my hair and dancing and laughing and drinking and writing some essays and going to some lectures and Graham saying something about the 60s being made up by 100 people in London and his t-shirt of him at the statue of Karl Marx that he wore every week and which got progressively dirtier and dirtier and podiatry and leather technology and occupational health and the library being massively expanded one summer and realising all the buildings were named after nearby villages. I remember having a good time, some times. I didn’t think I’d remember much.

The Forum

Nearly ten years ago I started working in a university library, in the film and music department. My office was on the lower ground floor, and my desk was by an internal window, which looked out on an internal corridor, which looked out on a tiny external window, which looked out on the bank underneath the bridge that people walked over to get into the library. Which is to say that I had daylight, but it was third-hand and weak. Opposite that bridge was a string of grotty, dingy campus shops. I dreamed of working in a modern library, with big windows and light and air and space.

On Wednesday the Queen opened that modern library, in the same building that I worked in nearly a decade ago. My desk, my office, my internal window and my external window, have long since gone. There’s a glass-walled courtyard, an open-plan entrance, twice as much space for people to study in… it’s been quite a transformation.

This new modern library is part of a development that’s been christened the Forum, because it’s intended to be an open, public space at the centre of the university campus. It’s taken five years or more of planning and construction from the first whispers I heard about building a roof from the library to the shops. Four and a half years ago I helped make a video that kick-started the fundraising campaign that has paid for this development, and on Wednesday I took photographs of it being opened.

I’ve moved job several times since I started working in the library, across several departments. I’ve not worked in the library for four years or more, but I’ve paid close attention to all the building works and developments, kept in touch with people I used to work with. I know that the last two and a half years of serious construction has been difficult for both staff and students at times. But I also know, from the smiles I see on pretty much everyone’s faces inside the Forum, from all the Facebook and Twitter comments we’ve received about it, from all the conversations I’ve had since Wednesday, that people think it’s been worth it.

The Forum is a weird, inside-outside space, part airport terminal, part shopping centre, and part library. Some people have said the shop feels like a duty-free store. There is oodles of technology and commerce stuffed into it, learning labs and an auditorium and coffee shops and banks, but I don’t care about that. I care about the library spaces, the study spaces, the public spaces. Inside 24 hours, students were using it like we’d hoped, plugging in laptops, spreading out books, performing impromptu pieces of theatre, meeting, talking, sharing, planning.

In some ways the Forum signifies the professionalisation of support services at the university, help desks and queuing systems and interview rooms and one-stop-shops. Some people will doubtless see that as a bad thing, as if doing things in a modern way was somehow regressive. Some people think we should have spent all the money on books, or staff, or something else (as if we’ve not invested in those things too; sometimes you need big projects to give the impetus to get little projects done, too). I’ve already taken hundreds of photos of it, given spontaneous tours to postgraduates, been interviewed by students on how I feel about it, had meetings in there, arranged to meet people for lunch in there. Buildings are important. They help people live. Great buildings help people live in a great way. I’m proud to work at a place that recognises this.

Rites of passage

Adam’s massive television filled his entire desk; this suggested, to me, that he wasn’t that interested in, you know, studying, at his desk. Which is what the desk was for. The TV was probably only 28” across the diagonal, but this was 1998, and flat-panel plasma, LCD, and LED TVs were either prohibitively expensive or else didn’t really exist yet, so Adam’s massive television was an old-fashioned cathode ray tube, and thus deep. It was black, as I recall. I think Adam was from Scunthorpe. I cannot remember his surname for the life of me. He owned a pair of Versace jeans. I suspected they were knock-offs. I had never heard of Stone Island clothes until I met Adam. I have still never seen anyone wearing anything badged with Stone Island who looks as though they could legitimately afford it.

There was a little guy called Dave, who was a Brummie, I think. I remember little about him except that he liked a drink – I recall one incident where he downed a pint of lager in one go, brought it straight back up into his glass, and then drank it again, because, to all intents and purposes, it appeared to be unaltered apart from having lost a little fizz.

Then there was a guy called Jon or something who was from Croydon, or somewhere, in the room next to me. He’d play bad house music very loud. His name wasn’t Jon. I don’t know what it was. He’d go home at weekends. I think he had an old MG back there, probably working on fixing it up with his dad. He didn’t seem to deal very well with being away from home. I think he had a girlfriend back there, too.

Dan was Welsh but not so as you’d notice. He knew who Tricky was, I think, so I felt like I had more in common with him than any of the others. Brummie Dave owned a copy of Urban Hymns but only because everyone did back then. Dan could have gone one of two ways. He went the other way, and I don’t think I really spoke to him after the first six weeks.

That’s four. Plus me makes five. Our flat had six bedrooms and a kitchen. The sixth flatmate was definitely called John. His surname began with a P. I can’t remember it now. I once, in a fit of pique, called him “the worst person I have ever met”. He was prone to yelling things like “let’s fucken ‘ave it” and “you fucken cunt” very loudly, and downing pints of strong lager. In the first week, when everyone else put up posters and photos to stamp some personality on their blank halls of residence walls, John stuck up several dozen pieces of A4 paper upon which he had scribbled the phrase “YOU FUCKING CUNT”. I wasn’t convinced that this was a psychologically beneficial thing for him to do. I also suspected it indicated that he might be an absolute raving sociopath. I have a feeling he was doing Sports Studies with Management, or something.

In my first week I spent £250 on a minidisc walkman, theorising that if I spent my evenings in the computer room, messing about on the internet and listening to music, rather than getting hammered in the crappy nightclubs in town, it would soon prove to be a sound investment. Messing about on the internet and listening to music became a bit of a theme, obviously.

One night, about five weeks into term, I’d stayed in to read some poetry for my English class the next day, while everyone else in the flat had gone to one of the nightclubs in town. Visage, I think it was called. I never set foot in it in three years there. They got back late, drunk, and went into the kitchen, with a couple of other lads from adjacent flats. Northampton was not a great university. The entry requirements were not high. I had an A at A Level and this made people ask me what the fuck I was doing there. I didn’t know; I only had the one A though.

Some Asian guys passed the kitchen window, and some shouting and idiotic, racially charged bravado led to one of the guys from an adjacent flat punching his way through the double-glazed window, presumably in an effort to demonstrate his masculinity and idiotic racist “superiority” to one of the Asian guys outside. As the only sober person there it was up to me to call an ambulance and pick shards of broken glass out of the moron’s hand and wrap a clean pillowcase around it to stem the bleeding. This wasn’t the first incident where I’d thought I should probably move out of the flat as soon as possible. In fact, there had been lots, and lots, over the course of six weeks or so, to the point where I thought I was going mad, and felt like a pariah, and suspected I might actually be some kind of weird gibbering freakazoid who no one liked and who had no social skills. I ran to Student Services the next day and begged to be moved to a different flat. They moved me. It was better. I’ll write about Chico and Ginger Nick and Biggles and the guy whose name I can’t remember who kept all his dirty dishes underneath his bed some other time.

Having known and been friends with almost literally everyone at the school I’d done GCSEs and A Levels at, having played on the football team a few times and been ‘principal student’, and been student rep on the board of governors, and having been in every school play, and just generally been a big fish in a small pond, going away to university and suddenly becoming a lonely freak surrounded by football hooligans was a humbling and confidence rattling experience. I “should” have been president of the students’ union, editor of the student paper, etc. etc., but instead I withdrew from any kind of participation at all, apart from with a small circle of (admittedly pretty wonderful) people, who also probably “should” have all been president of the students’ union and editor of the student paper, too, but who, instead, found themselves lost and isolated at in a weird bit of the country that didn’t know if it was a suburb of London or a part of the midlands or an outlier of East Anglia.

There were good times, too; the midnight drive to London with a stolen gnome; Oliver’s opening words to me after our first seminar together, still frighteningly prescient (“I bet you’ve got a fucking wicked stereo”); parties with Jewish Ben and Emily and everyone else, real people, nice people, at the hall of residence across the way; a certain sense of belonging when our lecturers battered us with Marxist cultural theory in the opening weeks of term in an effort to make people who thought the course would be a “doss” drop out at an alarming rate; lots and lots of laughter with Olly and James and Cat and Ben; hours spent trawling record shops; listening to records with Magnus at his house where he had a wife, and, after 10 months of university, a baby too(!); Friday afternoons spent reading The Guardian in The Charles Bradlaugh pub with a few pints of Guinness; late nights listening to music and talking shit with like-minded people in halls – well, one like-minded person. Etc, etc.

I spent Wednesday this week on an epic all-day photoshoot for work, taking pictures of students for the profiles that we put in the prospectus. The vast majority of them were recommended because of how much they participate – in Community Action, in the Guild, in RAG activities, in societies, in training and employment and study abroad opportunities, in student media, in starting their own magazines or companies. They all, every one, love the university they’re at. I love the university they’re at more than the one I went to study at myself. Which isn’t really surprising, given that I didn’t participate at all, felt no sense of community, of ownership, of identity, of belonging to the place. Experiences like Wednesday give me a little pang of regret, make me wish I could have my time at university over again, pick somewhere different, be someone different. But it doesn’t last long.

It’s not Adam or Dave or Dan or John’s fault; it’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just the way things happened. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing at university, for the most part; I didn’t really understand that you get back what you put in. I didn’t know how to put anything in, and at the time I didn’t want to and probably couldn’t have anyway even if the inclination had been there. I’m lucky that I got from there to where I am now, which is a very nice place indeed for the time being. Sometimes I wonder what Adam and Dave and Dan and John are doing. But not very often.