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 January 12, 2017 at 8:55 AM||comments (21)|
Most of the scenes in George Orwell's Animal Farm take place in the Big Barn of Manor Farm, Willingdon. Orwell never states in which county Animal Farm is set, but it is almost certain that Wilingdon is based on the tiny Hertfordshire village of Wallington, near Baldock, where Orwell lived on and off from 1936 to 1944.
Small villages and towns such as Haworth and Hawkshead are today almost entirely defined by their connections with the Brontes and Beatrix Potter, but Wallington wears its literary associations lightly. I discovered Wallington by accident, while walking the Icknield Way footpath from Baldock to Royston. The national trail skirts the village, but Orwell's House is only a few hundred yards off of the trail. There is no souvenir shop, no cafe, no pub and no National Trust sign.
The house where Orwell moved to in April 1936 was known as the Stores, and had been the village store until the owner went bankrupt in the 1920s. It was a very basic dwelling, this is how Miss Esther Brooks, one of its later occupants, describes it:
"The medieval Lords of the Manor built their barns in composite units of eleven feet since that was the space needed for a yoke of oxen. They built the cottages to match....They were constructed of lath and plaster on a timber frame with thatched roofs. The materials were local beechwood, chalk and wheat straw."
By the time that Orwell lived there, the thatch had rotted, and a corrugated iron roof had been erected over the thatch. Miss Brooks continues:
"Each cottage has two room up and two rooms down, with a lean-to at the west end. This cottage was special in that while the downstairs rooms were the usual height of six foot three inches (the same height as Orwell) the upper rooms rose to that height before sloping to a very pitched roof. Downstairs, the floor is now sixteen inches below ground level. Two steps rise to the sill. The height of the door was three foot nine inches....A ladder gave access to the upper storey, smoke curled up through a hole in the roof. Hams hung from hooks embedded in the centre beams. Water was fetched from the Church Well."
As well as no water, the house had no electricity or gas, Calor gas cylinders provided fuel for cooking and heating, and The Road to Wigan Pier was written under a the light of a Tilley lamp. Orwell re-opened the shop. He sold a few groceries and sweets as well as eggs laid by the hens that Orwell kept, together with goats, on a piece of rough ground that he rented opposite the cottage. At the time Orwell was a struggling writer and the reason that he moved into the cottage was that it was cheap - the weekly rent was only seven shillings and six pence - and he made about thirty shillings a week from the shop. He had to invest in a bacon slicer, and his letters to his friend Jack Common show that he took the role of shopkeeper quite seriously.
Or at least one member of the family did, because he was too busy - writing The Road to Wigan Pier during 1936, fighting as a volunteer in Spain from December 1936 to July 1937 and in a sanatorium being treated for tuberculosis for six months during 1938. So the shopkeeper was probably Orwell's wife Eileen O'Shaughnessy, an Oxford psychology graduate whom he had met at a party in Hampstead the previous year and whom he married at Wallington Parish Church in June 1936. A villager recalled:
"The occasion was very simple. Eileen and he walked down the road from the cottage together. George vaulted over the churchyard wall so as to be standing inside the gate to pick up Eileen and carry her to the church door; having plainly got his folklore muddled."
After the wedding there was a lunch at The Plough, which was next door to the cottage. Eileen later recalled Orwell's mother's advice to her daughter-in-law on that day:
"Mrs Blair shook her head & said that I'd be a brave girl if I knew what I was in for, & Avril the sister said I obviously didn't know what I was in for or I shouldn't be there."
Both the Orwells chain smoked. Imagine the atmosphere in that cottage. Rotting thatch, Calor gas, paraffin lamps and hand-rolled shag tobacco. This very basic environment must have contributed to Orwell's TB which would kill him at the age of forty-six, at the height of his literary powers. Eileen would die even younger, in March 1945 when she was only thirty nine. Her death certificate reads "Cardiac failure whilst under anaesthetic of ether and chloroform skilfully and properly administered for operation for removal of uterus." In June 1944 she and Orwell had adopted a three-week-old boy they named Richard Horatio. After Orwell's death in 1950 Richard was brought up by Orwell's sister.
But did Wallington actually become Willingdon? There is a competing claim from the village of Willingdon in East Sussex, but there's no evidence from the Orwell archives that he'd ever been there or even heard of it. Wallington is a much more likely explanation. The biggest farm in Wallington is Manor Farm, and one of Manor Farm's most historic buildings is a medieval barn called the Great Barn. Every time that Orwell went to the village well to fetch water he would have passed the great barn, and he almost certainly used that building on that farm as the setting for the big barn at Manor Farm in Animal Farm. The Plough at Wallington has become the Red Lion at Willingdon, which is where Farmer Jones got so drunk one night that he forgot to shut the pop-holes on the barn. The rest of the story is Orwell's. Willingdon East Sussex does actually have a Red Lion though, and the pub's owners are careful to make the Orwell connection on their website.
There are no pubs left in Wallington, though and you can't go in to the barn as its privately owned, as is Orwell's much modernised house. You can't but a coffee or a beer in the village, let alone of Orwell's own books or the many biographies of the man. In St Mary's Church you can leave £2.50 in the honesty box for a facsimile of his marriage certificate, as well as a few local history booklets describing his life there. There are no longer any people alive who remember him. As long ago as 1975 a local historian asked elderly locals of they remembered George Orwell and none could. However one old timer remembered Eric Blair (Orwell's real name) who kept the shop and had a dim recollection that the shopkeeper might have written a book.
The commemorative plaque on Orwell's House
The Great Barn at Manor Farm