I started a law degree at Bristol University in October 1975. After my first day arriving at my hall of residence and wondering if I fitted in, day two started with my signing up for my course and meeting my fellow first year undergraduates.
My second day at University started overcast. This wasn’t untypical, though more typical was rain. Bristol is on the west coast, barely protected from the Atlantic’s prevailing winds by Southern Ireland. But that day, it was dry. An illusion but perhaps also an omen. It was going to be a better day.
I made it into breakfast, joining a queue of mostly newbies. The dilemma – where do I sit? – loomed large but I was saved by a cheery ‘mind if I join you?’ from my briefly encountered corridor colleague of the night before. I smiled my agreement, despite the several disgruntled noises from those Dave overtook.
The one thing that stood out – apart from the fact he was noticeably handsome and, unlike me, pretty much spot free – was his lack of a hangover. One reason I gave up alcohol completely in 1989 was because I hated hangovers. Dave never seemed to suffer from them. I should have hated him for his booze resistant DNA but rather I admired it.
Maybe it was a facade, but to me he oozed confidence. The product of a public boarding school in Kent he appeared everything I wasn’t. But what he was and what I fell for more than anything else at that point was his willingness to be nice to me. He wanted my company. Dare I hope, he wanted to be my friend.
The one thing you should know about Bristol, apart from its attraction to precipitation, is its hills. Our hall of residence sat at the top of the hills, pjust next to the bizarrely named ‘Downs’ when ‘Ups’ might have been more accurate. Having crossed these often wind and rain swept playing fields that ended in the cliffs of the Avon Gorge, you descended Blackboys Hill, probably some reference to Bristol’s shameful if financially successful past in the Transatlantic slave trade, to join Whiteladies Road – and no, I don’t know which pair complexioned females were in the minds of those charged with road naming. This long more gently sloping shopping street runs for a mile of so until you reach the BBC’s studios and then the Triangle, where the university buildings begin.
Bristol is a red brick university, not as grand as Oxford or Cambridge but in the next tier of old established places of tertiary learning. It is a town university, integrated into the city’s life rather than stuck away on a campus.
The law faculty to which both of us were destined found its home in the Wills Memorial Building. Wills. Ah that ubiquitous name. The Wills family made its fortune from tobacco and, yes slaves. As with many wealthy families it secured its place in the national directory of the Great and the Good by funding academe. Not that we misbegotten and still ignorant undergraduates knew it. No, the Wills building merely intimidated, like a stone headmaster glowering down on us.
Arriving as Dave’s Sancho Panza, I rode into the common room in his wake – ground floor, past the monumental staircases, first right and last door on the right at the end of the corridor – to be confronted by the other first years. 100 of us, and interestingly given this was 1975 and hardly a period redolent of modern egalitarian principles and emancipation, with a ratio of 50:50 Male:female.
So many women. That’s what I noticed. And I went to a mixed school, though the sixth form intake was more like 70:30. Dave, whose schooling had been all boys, nearly had a coronary.
I think mixing in that packed sweaty peeling room, I felt for the first time that maybe, just maybe I might belong here.
Who did I meet? I can’t be entirely sure but I think that was my first encounter with Jo, already swooning over some rugby hunk called Paul and buzzing with energy, Duncan, Jo’s opposite in terms of apparent energy – sloths give off more pizzaz on first meeting, Pete B a sober bespectacled nerd, who by year three was an orange-haired punk, Amanda, later my first university girl friend with stunning blond hair and a chest set to stun, Victoria, Penny, Kate – all three lovely and interesting and cooler disinterested in boys, or so it seemed, Simon with his shaggy hair and a sense of serenity which might have invoked Buddhism or narcotics or both, and an anaemic senior and American also called David who is only memorable for being older than the rest of us and dull. Of course, there were also early candidates to take on the role of Draco Malfoy to our Griffendors – one such inevitably called Nigel. As it turned out I spent three years entirely certain he was a prize wanker, met him again five years after we graduated and found he was a good lad. What a waste.
Back then, with nothing computerised we were given sheets of paper to read, forms to complete, herded into tutorial groups, given a tour of the library – ‘we’re moving next year’, the lecture theatre – ‘always take notes’ and the tutorial rooms – ‘you’ll forget which is which, just don’t be late’. The Dean of the Faculty gave us a pep talk, not that Professor Philip Petit was capable of anything approaching animation. He was the author of the definitive test of Equity and the Law of Trusts, and, yes he was a dull as his book. In the end of year cabaret I got to play him. Every year.
How long did that take? Maybe a morning after which we drifted in groups to the Student Union building.
Before that, though, I needed to toilet. Everything you needed in the Law faculty was accessed off the corridor and the only time you needed to venture into other parts of the building was for the toilets. These antediluvian facilities were oak panelled and sepulchral with the oddest noises. They also has some splendid graffiti. In one someone had carved ‘whither atrophy?’ Which needed explaining, while in another there was ‘Snow White thought seven up just another drink until she added vodka’ which didn’t. Today this would rightly be abhorred but back then it was thought of as the height of sophisticated student humour.
I think the first time I saw someone else having sex was in those toilets, when about 11 one Tuesday morning I popped in for a poo, pushed open a cubicle to be confronted by a pair of buttocks pulsating like demented bellows while one of the copulating couple hummed ‘Show Me The Way’ by Pete Frampton. I backed out as quietly as I could and held on for thirty minutes out of politeness, before returning for my own form of release.