Sunday, March 6, 2011

Past Imperfect 7 - University

Me in 1982 - et in Arcadia ego?
A letter arrived on Friday, redirected from my old address. It was from Leicester University Alumni Association. After thirty years they'd found me; probably want some money, I thought.

But I was wrong, the Alumni is free to join. There was even an apology that many students from the Seventies and Eighties had, for so long, been overlooked. Using modern tracing techniques they were contacting ex-students and they hoped I would join. Perhaps I'd visit the University for the 'Homecoming' event in July.

I went to Leicester in 1979, a northern boy with a world of opportunity. It was an awakening, and like many people of my background and generation I look back with deep affection for the three years I spent  studying, partying, earning and learning about life. Ten years ago I happened to be in Leicester on business; I took some time to visit the campus and as I strolled back to my car I was not surprised at the hot tears rolling down my cheeks.

Nostalgia is heroin for old people, my eldest son once chided me. He has the confidence of youth and a healthy disregard of his father's sentimentality. Yet last Christmas he insisted on travelling two hundred miles to be with his girlfriend on their 'anniversary'. And last week my middle son was sitting with his girlfriend cooing at old photographs - we're reminiscing, he said. At fourteen, I laughed! We all of us, I suspect, have a yearning for times that can never come again.

It was always my ambition to return to university. In my last year at Leicester I won a scholarship to study for an M Phil in Philosophy. They would pay my fees and I'd have a full post graduate grant - that sort of funding would be unheard of now. But it was 1982, there were three million unemployed and whilst many of my friends were struggling to find work I was offered a well paid job by a newspaper. I remember the letter I wrote declining the postgraduate course, my heart is in further study, but my head says I have found too good an opportunity.

I was twenty years old when I wrote that. Astonishing to think I'd graduated, started my career, bought my first house and still had a month to wait for my twenty first birthday. And therein hides some of the imperfection. For if university had felt like Arcadia, home was not. During the three years at Leicester my father's depression had worsened; my mother had finally divorced him and was living in a small flat - she had no room for me and boyfriend problems dominated her time.  No one came to see my graduation; I watched my friends from the stalls and understood I was essentially alone.

And in truth university was not entirely Arcadian. I suffered from severe anxiety attacks, triggered by a student prank with a Ouija board, but rooted in a childhood riddled with fear. I seldom went home; I was emotionally dependent on my girlfriend from school, who had little idea of what I was getting up to at college. We were married three years later, divorced by my late twenties - not my finest hour, but I hope forgiven now.

After the letter arrived on Friday I looked for the first time in years at Friends Reunited. And amongst the hundreds of names were a few that I recognised; an old girlfriend (two actually), a flat mate, a drinking pal whose remembered wit still makes me smile. I even found the chap with millionaire parents, whom for all my adult life I have regarded as the perfect example of why private education is unfair - it turns out he became a teacher. (I once wrote about him here)

And as I looked at the list and read of their lives and achievements, I was reminded of that scene in Dead Poets Society when the inspirational John Keating (played by Robin Williams) shows his pupils the faded photographs of long dead students. They were just like you, he says, full of hormones, invincible, destined for greatness. Lean closer, he whispers, listen to their legacy...

Carpe diem; seize the day - and make your lives extraordinary.


  1. you are invited to follow my blog

  2. Those last two paragraphs sent shivers up my spine. A day not seized is a day truly wasted.

  3. Another amazing post.

    I nearly cried when you described your graduation, how sad to have that realisation at what should have been a joyous occasion.

    Dead Poets' Society is one of my favourite films, and I love that particular scene especially when he starts to whisper 'Carpe Diem'...very moving.

  4. Well Carpe Diem to you. I enjoyed reading this. I think we are all aware of past events like your testimony. Actually, you said you were """20""" and that sparked the fire to tell you to take a look at what I was doing at 20 and where I was.

    My Travels in Japan

  5. Yes, seize the day!
    Getting away from home to live first in a hall of residence and then in a series of ghastly flats was was being able to spend my days and evenings in the library, enjoying myself.
    It was a true liberation and I am still thankful that I was around when proper grants and scholarships still existed.

    But not being a social animal, or a networker, I don't go back.

  6. Very sad about your graduation, a painful memory obviously. And I wonder will you look up any of those old names you found on the FR site?
    I never had the chance to go to university, never wanted to, it was almost unheard of in the small fishing town where I grew up in the 50s/60s. I don't know anyone who went. Now of course, I can think of all sorts of things I would like to have studied... but there is no point in regret. I have done plenty of interesting 'stuff' with my life, had some really frightening times, sad times, gleeful times, all of them have made me what I am today. Antisocial, inquisitive, strong. Plus a whole lot more you probably don't want to know.
    Thanks for the comment on mrsrunofthemills Mark.

  7. You certainly had a good head of hair in those days!
    You know it's years since I saw that film, I must get it out of the library.

  8. I'm also a Leicester graduate, from 2005 though! It's a great place and I have a lot of fond memories of it myself, I think nostalgia is infectious. Great blog :)

  9. Oh Mark..seems ages since you posted. This made me rather seepy weepy. "Nostalgia is like Heroin!" I'll use that please if you don't mind. Two thirds through life, nostalgia is my friend.

    As always, beautifully composed, dare I say gripping...yes, for me it was. Truly a pleasure to always bring out emotion! You know that don't you.

    So about that M Phil...

  10. You remind me of the last scene in South Riding which I have just watched, that too brought a tear to my eye. A very touching post.

  11. The word verification was

    these sort of things keep happening to me!

  12. Well you've hardly led an 'ordinary' life since uni days Mark, judging by just some of your many world wide travel exploits in this blog alone.

    Like the line "Nostalgia is heroin for old people". Especially when you have much to be nostalgic about.

    And Robin Williams as John Keating in Dead Poets there's an emotional dichotomy for you.

  13. reader here. This post was so interesting to read...particularly you re-visiting Leicester and feeling tearful....going back into the past is a very emotional journey isn't it?
    Just like the others I love the heroin quote!

  14. I am not sure I can bring myself to write about my university days, not because I didn't enjoy myself but because that girl seems almost like someone else now. Perhaps I will have a go. Liked this though.

  15. As always, you signal such significant universal experiences and emotions through vivid descriptions of the everyday. You have a gift of being able to capture and describe your individual experience in a poignant way that resonates with others. Reminds me of the way a Mike Leigh film captivates evokes empathy from audiences. Dead Poets used to be one of my fave films, now I see it as overdone and Keating's ego annoys me. That said, I love that quote and the notion of making one's life extraordinary. Your posts all suggest you have done that Mark, and some. There are many ways to seize the day. Cheers. Cindy

  16. I don't do much writing about schools because I really never liked them and didn't think they taught me much. But then that is just me.

    About your fruit trees...
    I wrote.
    I hope they all fruit for you. Mine were dwarf and those were grafted and sometimes grafted do not last long and if there is a bug that might get in a fruit tree it will get in at the graft spot and kill the tree as it did this apple.

  17. Another new reader here Mark.

    An interesting and revealing post, but a very emotional journey for you.

    As you write, carpe diem.