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. The story continues as I find my room and wonder if becoming Christian is essential…
Walking through the doors of Churchill Hall feels familiar – rather like school – and unutterably strange – so many people around my age. As will be the case throughout my life, walking into a sea of unfamiliar faces evokes dread and a sense that I am they only one here who hasn’t the first clue what to do. Of course my brother knows the ropes and in the vague way he has that combines a knowledge that our parents expect him to ‘look after me’ and an expectation that that is the last thing either of us wants, he waves me towards some glass panelled double doors.
Beyond I can see milling multitudes – well perhaps forty males of my age – and tall metal framed windows showing glimpses of tall oaks and beeches beyond. This room I learn later is the junior common room, an expression redolent of worthy literature and a mysterious world of well spoken scholars and pipes. Why pipes? Frankly I’ve no idea except in 1976 boffins smoked pipes in the same way goodies wore white hats and spivs sported trilbies.
‘You register in there.’ The hissed frustration brings me back to the moment. I’m dawdling near my anxious-to-get-on brother when he wants nothing so much as to pass the burden with which mum has entrusted him to someone – anyone – else.
And indeed on hand is a rosy cheeked smiling conundrum: on one level it seems likely we are of a similar age; on another, principally in terms of his dress, he isn’t so much older than me but rather from a different century. ‘Hello! Can I help?!’
I can feel my bro begin to slide away. Whoever this Woodhousian throwback is, I’m now his.
Everything is irritatingly interrogative.
‘Churchill Hall! Wonderful!’
And what’s happened to verbs?
Still spouting nouns and the odd adjective he leads through the glass doors and into the smokey stuffy common room, expecting me to form a one man wake. I foam along behind having nothing else to do. My bags stay where I’ve dumped them. Surely no one is going to pinch them?
I’m not given the opportunity to ask as he’s already waiting for me, his ludicrously happy cheeks reminding not so much of polished apples as Gates’ arse in the first form after he was canned and insisted on showing us the result. I vowed to avoid the cane after that.
There are several tables, manned by harassed looking, prematurely aged students. They all appear to be wearing tweed and collared shirts, as if someone has corralled a group of trainee bank clerks into this room. Beside me – though given the levels of unrequited onanism that are the only explanation for his effervescent jiggling, my guide is beside himself as well as me – said guide asks my name and leads me to a queue. ‘Later! Chat!’ And I’m alone.
When he’s gone the man in front of me turns. ‘Christ, thank god he’s gone. Is it me or is he unreal?’
And so begins a recurring dilemma. After seven years at school and similar apprenticeships at the Scouts, the rugby club and so on, I’ve learnt the hard way who you can be indiscreet with and who you are wary of sharing anything that might be repeated back to your detriment. Here, I have no clue with whom I can share a less than flattering comment. I smile a little thinly; he shrugs and turns away, muttering ‘bloody Christian’. My guide it appears is part of a strong Christian community here at Churchill and my fellow queuee is not. Ah well time enough to unpick who is who later and decide where my loyalties should lie.
Soon enough I’m at the front, being handed a key, given directions and told there is a briefing after dinner for we newbies and if we want to begin to get to know our fellow undergraduates a pre dinner visit to the bar is recommended.
I collect my bags and with little trouble find my room – number 18 – on the first floor of A block. As I unlock the door and drag my worldly clutter inside, the smell is of dust, disinfectant and, unmistakably old feet. The latter never really goes and garners me a lot of odd looks and some less than complimentary suggestions involving soap, water and, once, amputation.
I lean back on my door to shut it, close my eyes.
– out of my depth
– And wonder what the fuckety fuck I’ve done in coming to this place. If the rest of my life is to start in a ten by twelve box painted puss yellow and scented with second hand verrucas then I need to adjust my expectations.
Of the various options, crying and screaming compete for first place.