In October 1976 I started my law degree at Bristol University. This was the most important phase of my life to date and as such the memories of those early days remain as vivid today as they were then. This is the beginning…
It is just after eleven and I’m struggling to carry a large stuffed suitcase along platform eight at Bristol Temple Meads station, while juggling a rucksack and a carrier bag containing two rounds of sandwiches and an apple from the garden. Ahead my older brother has reached the stairs to the underpass. Somehow he’s fully in control of his bags. When we left home they seemed to be much the same size. Now his have miraculously shrunk and developed a compliance that mine refuse to acknowledge.
I think this might be the first time I’ve hated the idea of university though not the first time I’ve hated my brother. The fact that we will be at the same university this year – his final year, my first – is to him a matter of poor form on my part. Ignoring my presence, as this current decoupling immediately establishes, will be his default position.
I’m a country lad from rural Hampshire. I’ve never lived in a city. The most people with whom I’ve ever shared any sort of accommodation is eight and that was in a cold and oddly scented (in a sort of sour goat’s cheese cum old socks kind of way) Scout tent. Now I will be resident in Churchill Hall with some three hundred other male students. To reach this exotic if terrifying destination we will catch two buses and, given the quantity of our luggage receive the kind of silent loathing of which the English are past masters. And despite the fact we are both wearing anoraks of a matching distressed bronze hue courtesy of our mother’s assiduous if thoughtless bargain hunting, we best to appear to have no connection beyond a deeply instinctive lack of sartorial taste.
Why, I ponder as yet another wordless dart seeks to impale a vital organ from the gaze of a disgruntled fellow passenger, did I think university is for me? Why Bristol? Why this year? Why did I choose law? At this moment the same answer bounces around my head like a over exuberant pinball: because you’re a moron.
And yet not three hours ago, as mum resisted the urge to adjust the zip on my coat and to require me to ‘hold still’ while she spat on a hanky before polishing away an imaginary but no less resilient blemish on my forehead, I was glowing with excitement, proud to make her proud, certain in the knowledge that this would be an adventure worthy of all the lost hours put in to differential calculus and Balzac for one reason only: not the joy of learning (I mean, students didn’t call Balzac Balls Ache without good reason) but to achieve the grades needed to secure my place as an undergraduate. Never again in my life will the excruciatingly irrelevant exploits of the Cure de Tour or anything with a constant value of C feature.
‘We’re here.’ I must have been dreaming because we seem to have left the grindingly slow traffic of the narrow city streets with their tight packed hilly terraces and constant shops and entered a windy and frankly bloody cold section of countryside.
I hesitate. Only for a second, because the stares of our fellow travellers are like the sights of so many snipers aimed at my forehead. In the next moment I’m hurrying to disembark (though ‘hurrying’ is as inapt a word as it is possible to describe how I take my leave of the bus while I fight to extract my case and rucksack from amongst an unfeasible quantity of pushchairs, shopping and other detritus).
With a puff of diesel, my sibling, our luggage and I are alone. For a brief moment I contemplate the possibility that his antipathy to my presence is such that he’s tricked me into coming to this desolate isolated spot to do away with me once and for all but instead of brandishing a lethal weapon, he hefts his own rucksack onto his bag and smiles. ‘We’re here,’ he repeats and this time points beyond a low yellow stone wall through some trees to a road sign ‘Stoke Park Road’ and the barely visible corner of a red brick building beyond. Churchill Hall.