I arrived at Bristol University with a spitspot Mary Poppins determination to be supercalifragalisticexpialidocious but things never quite work out as you anticipate. I’m trying to find my feet in my Hall of Residence but the rules and impenetrable protocols are giving me conniptions
If things looked good after meeting some of my fellow law undergrads and being rather overwhelmed by the offering at Bristol’s version of Freshers, I was still unsure back in hall. I think there were several reasons for this. While I’d met Dave and found what felt like a kindred spirit, none of the other first year law students that I’d met were billeted in my hall. Add to this, Churchill Hall was very formal and solidly male. It felt a bit like something out of a pipe advert at times, in those early weeks. Earnest, short haired and tweedy. And there were rules and protocols to learn. Some people are blasé about such things, either getting them right by instinct or shrugging off their failures as it they were the fault of the institution not the individual. I’ve always defaulted to compliance and if I fail my head takes me back to my first week at my grammar school where I was lined up with a group of non compliant boys and threatened with the cane; I was the only one who had appeared terrified at the prospect. Now while failure wasn’t likely to lead to physical chastisement the result would be worse: social humiliation.
Take eating. We were fed two meals a day, three on the weekend except Saturdays when we were given a packed meal for the evening repast. Sunday was a pig out: a full English for breakfast and roast lunch which, once a month became a formal gown wearing extravaganza of three course and wine.
Weekday breakfasts were relatively easy: queue for a tray, select from the buffet and find a seat. Of course, someone with my diminished confidence found that ‘choose a seat’ piece unutterably awful, unless I trailed after Dave and sat next to him. To do that I had to leave my room at the same time as he did and to avoid looking as needy as I really was that involved peering through the keyhole for signs of life. Even I understood that was the way to perdition, or worse wearing stat press, so I limited myself to maybe three times a week, perhaps four.
Gradually, as I got to know some of the other residents – mostly first years but some from other years too – that problem reduced, as did the number of people who were in a fit state to make breakfast. A lot – mega-tureens full of any available alcohol – was often consumed in the evenings in the subsidised Hall bar with no one in charge remotely interested in placing limits on consumption. At least two and probably more drank their money in the first term as had to leave.
Having eaten the etiquette required you to stack your dirty crockery and cutlery on a sort of mobile shelving unit. Easy? Well, in theory but there were rules – which I’m pretty sure the kitchen staff made up as they went along – involving what plate could be under what bowl, how to lay out the cutlery and, most bizarre the requirement to separate the cup from the saucer – oh yes, we had cups and saucers, darling.
‘Oi!’ Why is that such an intimidating combination of vowels? In fact it lost something because of the Bristol accent that adds an ‘L’ at the end of words ending in a vowel sound – Bristolians never have an idea, theirs are ideals. So Oi! became Oil!
Everyone turned to see who was to be eviscerated.
‘Yeah you should be. Ain’t you meant to be a brain box or something?’
After which your lack of gumption would be loudly explained for the room’s benefit.
Evening meals were easier; fewer shadowy drunkards, a sense of relief that we’d collectively survived another day of learning and, in my case, a pretty safe bet that I’d go to dinner with someone I knew because, if it wasn’t Dave, I’d head for the common room or the bar and find a friendly face: Steve Pill a trainee doctor whose clothes Dave and I stole one night and put in the communal shower; Mike Howard, a Northern Irishman whose vocal similarity to the Reverend Iain Paisley was uncanny and who we all thought was called Mike Hard for two terms because of the impenetrable pronunciation; Colin something who studied chemistry and biology and ate like he’d have been happier dissecting whatever it was first.
I must say the food was pretty good. Let’s face it, back then the English palate was about as sophisticated as a Carry On film so the bar wasn’t high but it was always hot, not vulcanised and left at least my digestive tract able to perform with same regularity as spots appeared on my chin.
Things began to settle and gradually I found my feet around the Hall. I played squash a lot. I ran round the Downs with a view to getting fit for rugby and I played a huge amount of snooker on the beautiful and full sized table that took up one room in one of the annex buildings, Holmes.
Ah Holmes! This was a fairly ancient building that at one point had housed Gen Eisenhower during WW2. Second and third years, who’d stayed on, bid to occupy one of its spacious rooms, for very good reason since it was more redolent of an Oxbridge College than most Universities.
Things felt good. But there was the odd dark spot on the horizon. Next time.