In 1975 I started my law degree at Bristol University. I was, frankly, feeling like a duck out of water until I encountered David, a fellow law student on my first evening in my hall of residence. Between us we immediately formed something of a team, though looking back it was more me playing Snowy to his Tintin. Day two dawned with us signing up to our course and then setting off to the Student Union…
The big excitement as a newbie, after seeing my fellow first year law students for the first time, was what is now, pretty universally called the Freshers fayre. Back then in the oh so twee and pretentious 70s it was called FAFFY Squash. The Squash was an appropriate reference to the crowds, but FAFFY?
Even then we suffered a surfeit of acronymitis. Find A Friend First Year.
Sounds good if a little worthy.
Freshers is, of course where the important part of university begins. The societies and, more especially the promise of a social life. In Dave and my case that meant finding fora for meeting girls.
I should take a moment to consider our respective experiences of girls to that point. Dave had an older sister, me an older brother. Neither of us benefited from their introducing girls into our lives. Dave went to an all boys boarding school in deepest darkest Kent whereas I went to the epitome of the liberal educational opportunities back then: a mixed state sixth form college. I should, therefore have had an advantage in my interactions with the other sex. But what I made up for in opportunity and exposure was more than compensated by an excruciating shyness. Dave was my antithesis, the Yin to my Yang: absolutely no exposure, total confidence in his star attraction appeal. Or at least that was the impression he conveyed those first few days; as time went on it transpired he was as hopeless as I was.
As we walked towards the Student Union building – a tower of sixties concrete over about ten floors and as ugly as a building can be without being condemned – we talked clubs and especially those that might lead to some sort of male:female interface.
Well, he did. I remained outwardly breezily confident and inwardly dying in anticipation of the moment when I would be shown up for the charlatan I was.
We eased ourselves in gently. The Law Soc was first – all first years joined – and, in passing we encountered a rather manic if engaging second year who promised us a fantastic time and a part in the year end Law Review if we were good. Riches indeed. But he was a second year, so unlikely to give us the time of day – birthday hierarchies still applied that early in our University lives. Little did Dave and me know then that we’d see a lot more of Leo over the two years we overlapped at Uni.
Dave wanted to join Opsoc – not as a budding ophthalmologist, but to sing comic opera. Not for me that one. I hunted out the sports clubs and joined cricket and rugby and learnt that our hall had pretty good squash courts we could use for nothing. I had no pretentious to being any good at any sport, but a place somewhere in one of their lower teams would be nice. Ever the optimist.
We agree to join up again on the ground floor, where, as I waited fir the boy soprano to reappear I’d bumped into Jo, who’d I’d met briefly when we signed up for the course. She was the single most bubbly female I’d met to that point. She came from the Essex coast and seemed to want to meet and get on with anyone and everyone, especially a certain sort of hunky rugby player (a category I failed to make). At the point I bumped into her she was on a mission which happened to coincide with Dave and my recently instigated criteria: maximum time spent with girls.
‘I need two men for ballroom dancing. Sam and I are signing up but only if we have partners. We’re not risking being paired off with some creeps.’
‘Dave and I will if that’s okay?’
Spending time with Dave must have been rubbing off, because to this day I have no idea where that confidence came from. More to the point, speaking for Dave after less than 24 hours of contact was beyond brave. Jo disappeared, not as I surmised because she’d just realised her mistake in allowing me an opening, but to find ‘Sam’ who turned out to be Amanda, a statuesque blonde, already something of a fixation amongst some of the First years. With the benefit of time served I realise how sexist this must seem. I suspect modern late teenagers are more adept at hiding their raging hormones than we were, so please try not to judge us too harshly.
‘Shall we browse?’
Dave was back.
‘I think I’ve signed us up to ballroom dance classes.’
‘You are kidding?’
Before explanations could be given, Jo and Sam appeared, both highly enthusiastic about us joining them. Dave, whether he liked it or not (and he too noted the obvious charms of our to be companions) agreed that we were both delighted to help them out of their dilemma and accepted, with alacrity their suggestion we find somewhere for lunch.
By reputation the Student Union had the longest bar in Bristol. But as anyone knows it’s not length but how you utilise that’s important and sadly this cavernous impersonal corridor of a room had more in common with a dodgy underpass than somewhere with a relaxing ambience. We weren’t the only ones to try it out and nor were we the only ones rarely to return save on nights when a band was playing in the Union, which was quite often. We met more law students there – Hilary and Jane, Andy and another David, as well as re-engaging with Duncan and Simon.
The conversation flowed: school, some travel, holiday jobs, family, likes, dislikes. None of them seemed to have another half, or if they did they hid it. We were all singles, open and willing to make new friends.
It was exhilarating, intoxicating and bloody overwhelming. These days you’d be friending people on Facebook or twitter or instagram or snapchat or tiktok or wherever. Then we just remembered three details, none of which we wrote down. Name, course and hall of residence. Somehow, with that paucity of information we managed a pretty full on social life across the university.
The cliche had it that by the time FAFFY finished you’d be friends with 100 people. And for the rest of the year you’d be desperately trying to avoid 93 of them. If that was true then I was sure these law students wouldn’t come within the cull. Another error.