My initial focus, naturally was on my new course (just stay with me, okay) and the joys of learning about the English and Welsh legal system. That was a bit of an eye opener, too. Having been brought up to believe that, except in connection with sports where we could let our English credentials be given full rein, we were really just all bits of Britain, the idea that we and the Welsh shared a legal system, but the Scots and Northern Irish did their own thing was a bit of a surprise. So many shocks to absorb.
And it wasn’t just in connection with academe that my eyes were to be opened. There was this novel concept of a social life. When I arrived in Bristol I thought I understood what an 18 year olds’ social life looked like. The pub. That’s because, in rural Hampshire, until one of my friends learnt to drive and secured the use of a car, the only conceivable venue for any sort of social engagement was (a) the school once a year disco which was more like a nervy cattle market which ended in an unseemly version of British Bulldog* set to music or (b) the nearest pub which my dad didn’t frequent. There I might quaff some awful gassy beer, declaring it the best, lose both focus and the power of rational thought (not that that took much pissy hop water) and somehow find my way home without becoming the human equivalent of the blattered windscreen bug.
Freed of both parental inquiry and clock watching, with money in my pocket (I’ll come to that too) I had a city to explore. In less time than it takes to order two pints in an empty bar – I was pretty expert, believe me – Dave and I began to explore all the opportunities available. These included, in no particular order:
1. The theatre – Yep, culture, huh? I’d been to a panto aged about seven and some school trip to watch a Shakespeare – memory suggests Romeo and Juliet but it could have been the Tempest: much of a muchness to my puny, puelling mind. That was it. In the first few weeks we visited the Theatre Royal and saw the Duchess of Malfi – I lied when I said I loved it; I couldn’t fathom it, in truth – and something by Alan Ayckbourn involving several doors and various pairs of trousers, which I did understand. I also saw something that involved an actress baring a buttock – maybe two, though it was the first that stunned me. Though the play’s title has been long forgotten, that pale pendulous gluteus maximus will stay with me. This was the first adult female, live, in the flesh buttock I’d seen at that point in my life. Quite a watershed. University opened up, for me, a cornucopia of various previously hidden body parts, something I think they underplayed in the various guides to try and attract potential students to apply.
2. Ballroom dancing. These days I’m a bit of an addict for my weekly spin around the dance studio, honing my stork-legged cha cha cha, but back then we’d been prevailed upon to join in with two of our fellow undergrads to take a weekly class. They were girls. That was all the incentive I needed. I was crap but so was Amanda – Sam as she was known. She seemed gorgeous – long blond hair, a ready smile and a penchant for the tightest of knitwear – though the heels she wore and regularly ground into my feet occasionally made me wonder if I’d be better of with Jo – Joanna – who clearly understood the concept of each dance having specific steps. We laughed, we talked at length about everything and I felt at ease in female company in a way I’d rarely experienced to that point.
3. The informal get together in a student’s room. Bristol had – still has – several halls and other accommodation for students. There were all male halls – Wills and where I was in Churchill; all female halls: Manor House; and mixed: Hiatt Baker, Baddock, Goldney and Clifton Hill House. Some were set near mine, on the Downs, while others were clustered around the Student Union in Clifton always a trendy part of inner city Bristol. While this might not sound much like a social life, the availability of relatively cheap booze in the many offies – off licences – the lack of any throwing out times and the novelty meant we had all sorts of parties. Often these were the best of times followed inexorably the next morning by the worst of times as the impact of the cheap booze took effect.
4. The night club. Now this was a novelty. I’d seen them on TV and in films but never been to one. As my university career developed I became familiar with two that were regular haunts for we students. The railway arches that was Lautrec’s Disco and the more up market, housed in old warehouse near the docks, the Granary. In Lautrec’s I experienced a Stygian gloom, walls that sweated and a floor that stuck to my feet. The toilets were the only places with lights it seemed and there were bouncers, huge boulders of men with suits apparently full of stones that bulged and rippled as they moved. If they talked they used nothing like an English I’d ever heard. I was in another parallel but not unwelcome universe. The Granary’s most notable feature was its mirrors. Not, as I’d experienced to that point, hung in bathrooms or occasionally over mantelpieces but stuck to the ceiling. I felt compelled to look up as often as anywhere else which meant this was probably the first time I become award of my thinning thatch. We learnt early that we could hire Lautrec’s on any Tuesday for nothing on the sound basis that, back then students had money and drank it, so the club made its return at the bar while we felt grand having a party in a club in our name, it being written on a blackboard by the front door. Indeed my first ever date with the Textiliste was intended to be my friend, Andy’s birthday disco there, in March 1977; that it wasn’t is another story.
5. The music concert. There were four venues at which I recall seeing bands in my time in Bristol. The biggest bands went to the Colston Hall. Until a week ago that would have generated no name recognition but since the #blm protests and the deplinthing of Colston’s statue, his name, at least here in the UK has become synonymous with our unthinking retention of stone and bronze memorialised individuals that time and tide should have made us more sensitive to their history. I saw many bands over the years: ELO and the Average White Band are two that stand out. Some good ones were to be experienced in the Student Union – punk exploded in my last year and both the Clash and the Stranglers performed there. My few attempts to crack the classical oeuvre saw me at the Hippodrome, uncomfortably forced into a jacket and made to hang so high from the ceiling in the cheapest of seats that even the gods were below us. I recall Orpheus in his Underwear or some such, but these evenings were usually trying to impress a woman and the ulterior motive involved generally meant I failed to make as much effort as I should have to understand what I was experiencing. And finally, Redland Poly – polytechnic, a sneered on – at least by we snotty University types – alternative form of tertiary educational establishment, this one aimed firmly at wannabe teachers. The truth is I felt more at home in this scruffy, modernist – maybe new Stalinist might better give you a sense of the architectural style – than the vaguely Grecian splendour of the bedoriced columns of the university. The Textiliste and I spent one amazing evening there in early 1978, pogoing to the Jam and a spotty furious Paul Weller amongst other angry incompetent punk bands. Ah young love!
6. The poetry evening. Dave had this thing about poetry. I’d studied it at O level. I sort of liked it, when the teacher explained all these layers of meaning. It didn’t occur to me it was anything other than something the people who devised syllabuses for school stuck in courses to pad them out. The idea of voluntarily paying money to listen to a poet read his or her verse never occurred to me. But, hey, I could and I hadn’t so, heck, let’s give it a try. The evening had three poets, Liverpudlians all. Brian Patten led the way, followed by a block with a cough and a penchant for ending in mid sentence, or so it seemed to me. And then there was Roger McGough. I knew of him from his days in the Scaffold** but not as a poet. He read from his wonderful book Sporting Relations and I knew I’d found something I didn’t know existed – poetry that I could access, enjoy and not feel like there was something there that I couldn’t access and no one would tell me about unless I asked very nicely, pretty please. Maybe that was the start of my love of the form. I’ve certainly loved McGough’s poems ever since and when I had to choose a favourite, for many years it was ‘Let Me Die A Young Man’s Death’***
7. The meal out, both the takeaway and the sit down “can I serve you’ sort. Next time I’ll have a look at that alongside dating as the two were often inextricably linked… and I’ll tell you about the money side of student life in those days when Britain was bust, ‘the poor man of Europe’ desperate to join its rich man’s club, the EEC and with a chancellor who would soon be off the the International Monetary Fund to borrow us out of bankruptcy. It wasn’t bad, all things considered….
***Let Me Die A Youngman’s Death