Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.
Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.
In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?
In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.
In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.
The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would!
|Posted on December 29, 2014 at 7:40 AM||comments (0)|
In 2006, when I was fifty-seven, I was made redundant. I wanted to find some constructive things to do while I looked for another job, and I heard that Richard was looking for people to read to him.
Richard was married to Ruth and they lived just a few miles from us, in Broxbourne. I had got to know Richard and Ruth through Marilyn, my wife. Both Marilyn and Ruth are artists who had co-operated in joint selling exhibitions from their respective homes. Both families had grown-up daughters of a similar age.
Richard was a biochemist. Originally an academic at Southampton University, he and Ruth had moved to Broxbourne in the 1980s when Richard joined the research team at Merck Sharpe and Dohme. Shortly after Richard joined Merck he was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. The disease attacked Richard's central nervous system particularly aggressively; by the time that I was made redundant Richard had recently had to retire as by now MS had robbed him of the use of his legs and had also affected his eyesight, which is why he was looking for volunteer readers.
For the next six years I visited Richard and Ruth's house almost every Wednesday evening and read with Richard. We read about twenty-five books in that time, including works of fiction, biography, science, economics, politics and current affairs, history and travel. Some of the individual books were chosen by Richard, I suggested others. We read hardbacks, paperbacks, e-books, books we'd bought and books we'd borrowed.
The first book that I read was Richard Dawkins' The Ancestors Tale, a natural choice for a biochemist but not a book that would ever have made its own way on to my reading list without his help. But Dawkins deals with complex biological and genetic concepts in a very accessible, and very literary way. He borrows the structure of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, structuring the narrative as a pilgrimage, with all modern animals following their own path through history to the origin of life. Humans meet their evolutionary cousins at rendezvous points along the way, the points at which the lineage diverged. I enjoyed The Ancestors Tale a lot, much to my surprise I decided that I liked reading science literature.
Ruth loves cooking and gardening and she's very good at both. She wasn't always at home when I was there, as she's a chorister and often I would be reading with Richard while she was at choir practice. But if she was there she would keep me supplied with delicious homemade cakes or fruit pies that she'd made from her own garden produce.
The next two books that we read were Bill Brysons' The Thunderbolt Kid and A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson, we discovered, was already a firm favourite of both of us, and so was Alan Bennett. We shared Bennett's Untold Stories in the autumn of 2008.
I introduced Richard to Paul Torday. The first Torday we read was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, and we quickly followed that with The Irresistible Inheritance of Wilberforce. Wilberforce is a computer geek who starts, and then sells a multi-million pound software company. After the sale, he no longer has anything to occupy his time until he discovers fine wine. He is now a fully-fledged wine nerd. He has no other interests; wine has absorbed his entire life. Torday tells the story in four sections, each describing a different year, but in reverse chronology. The book begins in the year Wilberforce dies. He staggers around Mayfair, drinking 250 units of alcohol every week, and hallucinating. He spends six grand on two bottles of 1982 Petrus in a Michelin 5 star restaurant and drinks them alone at a table, then gets thrown out when he starts abusing the other diners.
This section really is very funny, in a tragic way. And when you' re reading aloud, your eye is about twenty or words ahead of the words that are coming out of your mouth. This meant that while I was reading about this incident I started to laugh, before Richard knew why I was laughing. But we'd both been laughing together earlier in the Chapter, both of us "got" Torday's sense of humour, and Richard trusted me enough to start laughing a split second before he knew exactly what he was laughing at. Paul Torday didn't let him down though. Richard was a big man, very tall and if his muscles hadn't started to waste because of MS, he would have been very muscular. He had a loud, deep throated laugh which got even louder when my speech finally caught up with my eyes and brain and we both dissolved into even bigger fits of laughter. The only resident of the house who didn't find it funny was the cat, who was asleep on Richard's lap. The cat woke up, gave us both a withering look and went into the next room to get some peace and quiet. This is my favourite memory of Richard, and it's why I say that I read with Richard, not to him.
As well as the twenty-odd books that we finished, there were a few that we gave up on. We'd both thoroughly enjoyed Terry Pratchett's Going Postal. Neither of us had read Pratchett before, and somebody had recommended this book to Richard. We both found it a very funny, very clever satire about global corporations, human rights and the excesses of the market economy. Enthused, we tried to read Pratchett's later novel Unseen Academicals, but neither of us could finish it. I think the problem is that there is such a large cast of characters, and if you're only reading the book once a week, you find it difficult to remember which characters you've met before and which you haven't. Another failure was Mark Haddon's The Red House. This book has a large number of very short chapters and sections of chapters, each written from the point of view of a different character, and I found it too difficult to convey these point of view changes to Richard while reading aloud. I subsequently finished it on my own.
Richard died in January 2013, almost two years ago, after a long series of critical illnesses and hospital stays caused by the progression of MS, and I still miss my visits to him and Ruth. During that six years both his and my elder daughter married, and both of our younger daughters graduated and began their careers. A lot of good things happened in parallel in both of our lives. Sometimes I'm browsing in a bookshop and I pick something up and think "Richard would like that". Then I usually, but not always, put it down again.