It’s that time of year when students old and new are welcomed back to our little patch of England. Every autumn this brings back the memories of my own first weeks as a student – something for which I was not that well prepared.
Sadly for me, there was no prospect of getting into a hall of residence. That wasn’t just because I was a little late getting organised. It was because in 1974 the North Staffordshire Polytechnic, esteemed house of learning for the mining and ceramics industries, didn’t have a single room of accommodation of its own.
Indeed since my course, law, had only been running for a couple of years the Poly had few facilities at all for the future cream of the legal profession, as we thought we might be.
- Sorry, Rosie, but what do you expect from the party of Corbyn?
- Fancy becoming a friend of Dane John Gardens?
So I arrived in glorious Stoke-on-Trent having had a room arranged for me by the Poly welfare staff, in a shared house with three other hopefuls.
I turned up, as I suspect students still do, bearing my prized music system, which in those days was a HiFi, the fruit of the summer spent working as a bus conductor.
Like most freshers, my parents drove me to college, somewhat distraught at the imminent, if temporary, loss of their first born – and that they couldn’t claim I was at uni.
The accommodation turned out to be a terraced house overlooking the Etruria Valley, an area as misnamed as it is possible to be.
Step out of our front door and you could peer through the pollution to see the wonder of the massive furnaces of the Shelton steel works, with colliery lift gear dotted across the valley beyond. The glory of Tuscany it was not.
Worse, the house was filthy. The windows hadn’t been cleaned since the war, it seemed, and the carpets literally had a life of their own.
The bathroom was a mushroom farm, the kitchen a greasy hell-hole that would have disgraced a street market in the developing world.
It was a good job for us that neither cooking nor bathing regularly were high on our agenda. And for everyone else that playing both football and squash regularly gave me access to hot showers.
So, when we arrived our mothers rolled up their collective sleeves and dived in to give the place a going over. My new housemates and I retreated to the pub, mercifully at the end of the street, to get to know each other.
We became such regulars there that if we didn’t want the staff to start pouring a beer when they saw us walking up the road towards them we had to take a half mile detour. (In my defence, I should point out that in the subsequent 40+ years I have become capable of insisting that I’d do the cleaning myself!)
Anyway, our little house may well have been rather more like the inspiration for the Young Ones than was strictly healthy, since I don’t recall possessing a vacuum cleaner or ever actually doing any dusting.
Four fetid freshers isn’t conducive to clean living. The house boasted precisely two ancient gas fires, so winter mornings became a race to get downstairs without freezing solid in order to throw a match into the hissing gas – if the fires had ever boasted an ignition button it had long ceased to work.
Although the rent was only £15 a month – this is along time ago – that took up about half my grant. So food consisted of a rather unhealthy combination of Vesta dried foods (I especially liked the alleged Chow Mein), fish and chips, and the Staffordshire “delicacy” of grilled oatcakes, covered with cheese and bacon. Culinary heaven.
Nor was the Poly quite up to the gleaming spires of Oxford. Having been upgraded from a technical college not long previously, the new block for academic courses was a six storey cast concrete monstrosity overlooking Stoke station, a 30 minute walk from our house.
But it was there that I undertook my first political action. Having had the benefit of a rapid education in working class life and trades unions with the drivers and conductors of the Ribble Bus Company, in 3 months I’d moved from being a wishy-washy Liberal voter to a committed socialist.
So naturally when the October ’74 general election came along and the National Front put up a candidate in our part of Stoke, I joined the student union groups in delivering anti-NF leaflets across the city.
It tells you something – and something not to be forgotten – that the bully boys of the fascist right were sufficiently threatened by this democratic action that they took to driving round and beating up anyone they came across delivering these leaflets. Including me. But they lost, so it was worth it.
This isn’t simple nostalgia. That is, in any case, hardly the word for the recollection of such a character forming experience. We should welcome the fact that, in fact, things have changed massively since my time in sunny Stoke.
We should welcome the fact that these bright, idealistic, enthusiastic young people have chosen to come and live with us, with all the energy, vibrancy (and money) that they bring with them.
So as the students roll back into the city let’s be grateful that things have moved on. Let’s make them welcome. Let’s hope they find something that resembles a clean, safe and mushroom free place to live for the next three years. And, of course, that they remember that their neighbours may not always appreciate their choice of music.