I began my university life in October 1975. It was life changing in many ways and the degree I ended up with set me up on the path to success. But in that first term and year, I learned little law, understood less yet probably received a greater life education than before or since. This week, it’s time to explore my finances and my first date.
Let’s talk money, shall we?
In today’s press there is an article about students considering suing their universities to repay fees they spent on tuition that they failed to receive due to strikes and then lockdown. This is ignoring the living costs they incurred while not receiving their education for which a state loan maybe be the only option, putting the student into immediate and long term debt.
In 1975 neither was one of the worries that assailed me about starting university. To start with all the tuition fees for my tertiary education were paid for by the state. It didn’t matter if I was from affluent or poverty stricken circumstances, the tax payer funded my degree. In addition I received a grant, albeit means tested, that paid me for my living costs. From memory, in that first year it was in the region of £450 out of which I had to pay my Hall fees – where I was provided with 2 meals a day, seven days a week if I wanted them, and three at the weekend. I still had money left over for text books – and that ate up a fair chunk doing a law degree, which led to a significant second hand market and some subtle chicanery as ‘in the know’ second years palmed off out of date editions on gullible first years – plus general fun stuff. In a city university like Bristol – what was known as ‘town and gown’ as opposed to a campus university – travel costs could be an issue though bus fares were pretty low and anyway most walked or cycled.
We were well off. Better off in my second year when the maintenance grant went up to I think £750. I didn’t realise it immediately but I was bloody lucky to be educated when I was.
To be honest I had no real idea about living costs, in the first year. I valued money because like most youngsters I had little, but budgeting wasn’t a skill I was taught. While in Hall, that wasn’t much of an issue as things like heating and lighting were included in my accommodation, but when I moved into a flat I had to wise up. That, though, for this naive 18 year old was in the future. No, I had a bank account – I still have the same one at Lloyd’s Bank I had then, so much so my account starts with a 00, it being so old – into which I paid this gloriously huge cheque, even if, later that week I wrote a slightly smaller but still, to me, huge cheque to my hall.
We didn’t talk much about money, back then. Some, who were meant, under the means testing to recover large contributions from their parents – I didn’t given my family circs weren’t of the wealthy sort – and if they didn’t get it or all of it, that put them under pressure and they complained about it. But generally we had cash and that was all we needed to know
Some took the cash as a windfall to be immediately used – you hear of people wanting to have ‘liquid assets’ and had I heard that expression in my first term I would have nodded knowingly. Several were spending their evenings and some lunchtimes in the subsidised bars investing their grants in liquid if ultimately only borrowed investments. I think the quickest time from starting university to having burnt through the grant, mostly on booze was six weeks.
I didn’t. In part that was because I had my brother as a role model. When it came to monetary caution this man knew no superior. I have often wondered if his love of Jane Austen originated from his mishearing her name and thinking it was Jane Austerity because this man lived beyond frugally. Visit him in his room and he would offer you something home made. One specially was his coriander cordial. It’s not often I’ve flirted with Urophagia but there were moments, when sampling his finest that brought me closest to experiencing the joys of repatriated bodily fluids.
I soon realised I’d have to make up my own mind on my spending priorities and while I understood my bro wasn’t the role model I needed, neither was Dave my by now imbedded best friend. He didn’t drink to reckless excess – I will swiftly pass over the one evening we undertook a significant gin experiment and ended up covered in lightly flaming paraffin as we played rugby with a workman’s warning lamp that we’d freed from captivity by some roadworks. He didn’t do drugs. But he was determined to have as good a time as possible and if my bro’s stated aim was to have enough left over from his grant to pay for Christmas presents and see him through to January and our next cheque, Dave’s was to ensure there was not a penny left come the 12th of December when term ended.
I tried to be the voice of reason, but more often than not I was quite pleased to be drowned out. Some of our conspicuous consumption was moderate – I was introduced to deep fried spring rolls and sweet and sour sauce from a Chinese takeaway near Redland Polytechnic. I’d had neither before and while I doubt they cost very much they seemed like quite an extravagance the first time round. Some not so much.
For instance, it was he who pressed me to ask my dance partner and fellow law student out on a date. And having somehow found the courage to mumble the words and been surprised beyond reckoning when she’d said yes, it was he who suggested what that date should be. You’ll understand from this that, in making my tentative ‘a deux’ suggestion, I hadn’t actually any sort of event in mind. I kept things conceptual in case of rejection. Dave’s and my birthdays fall within a week of each other and while he planned a few drinks with mates for the day, mine fell on a Saturday. ‘Take her out for a meal, to celebrate’ he suggested. ‘And do something fun first so there isn’t too much pressure on the meal being ‘it’.’
Oh great. Like what? She was a girl… no, a woman. We’d talked a lot but had I the first clue what she’d actually like to do? Nope. To this day I don’t know why I suggested the zoo but I did and to be fair she seemed keen. Perhaps amused might have been the better way of expressing her reaction. On the 30th November I met her at her hall and we set off on a cold but dry afternoon for Bristol zoo, a ten to fifteen minute walk away. She told me she’d washed her hair, obviously had applied make up – 1975 was the era of blue eyeshadow and Sam was no different to other women of her generation in sporting two small blue crescents – and wore tight jeans and an even tighter knitted top. The outfit certainly emphasised her curves – to be fair, like Brooklands race track she was all curves – and I did well not to dribble. Did I have inappropriate late teenaged Male thoughts? Nah, I wanted to see the penguins.
We were having a lot of fun, even if most of the other visitors comprised groups of harassed parents when a moment that probably deserved a sort of inverted Churchillianism to describe it ‘this is not the end of the beginning but the beginning of the end’ occurred. Something large and airborne – from the quantities I surmise a genetically modified albatross or passing pterodactyl possibly – voided its capacious and clearly over full bowels adding an intriguing if unwelcome brown, green and taupe streak to her otherwise white-blonde hair.
This was a situation well outside my range of experiences and the correct response – sympathy, rippjng off my shirt to provide a cleaning aid, offering to put out a reward for the pelt of the incontinent miscreant – passed me by as I laughed. I may have added (a) it was meant to be lucky (b) at least the rest of her hair was freshly washed so it was easily restored to its previous glory and (c) should I wait for her in the cafe if she wanted to dab off the worst?
I’m not usually lacking in empathy and I’m sure the combination of facial expression and body language – possibly combined with the fury and ritualistic belabouring about the head with her fists – brought home to me the errors of my initial responses. I did my best to retrieve the situation but I wasn’t then and am still not very good when confronted with copious tears. She used my jacket – a homemade pink denim affair of which I was quite proud – Mum made it, not me – to grind off the worst while also redistributing her eye shadow in a way that left her looking rather like a giant panda that had swallowed a mix of antifreeze and slush puppy as I led us back to her hall where I was told – 1. She’d have to rewash her hair, 2. No, I couldn’t help and my presence was, it’s fair to say actively discouraged and 3. She’d meet me in the restaurant I’d booked and she might be late…
Not the greatest start. Maybe next time I’ll tell you about the rest of that first date. Spoiler: it ends with me embarrassed, more broke than I’d anticipated and back in my own bed in hall, alone. But she had agreed to go out with me again…