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 November 13, 2017 at 6:40 PM||comments (0)|
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1994-95
Few cities have such a strong sense of both time and place as Jerusalem. This is not only because of its religious importance, it's also because it has been continually inhabited, conquered and reconquered since the iron age.
More than three thousand years ago Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. King David conquered the city in about 1000BC and made it his capital. Since then it has been conquered and lost by Babylonians, Romans, Persians, Byzantines, Muslims, Crusaders, Marmelukes, Ottomans, British, Jordanians; and since 1967 by the Israelis. It is of course the City where Jesus was crucified and Mohammed flew off to the skies. No other city has such a continuous history of settlement, faith, and conflict. Ironically its Hebrew name means 'city of peace'; but Jerusalem has almost never been peaceful.
I've been there twice. My second visit was in the spring of 1995, when Marilyn and I and our two only just teenage children went as tourists. We saw all the famous sights - the Wailing Wall, Temple Mount, the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - as well as the Church of the Nativity in occupied Bethlehem. I'll never forget the sights of the Dome of the Rock and the Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalen as we stepped out of the coach. These are the buildings that gives Jerusalem its soubriquet " The Golden City".
My first visit, was almost exactly a year earlier. It was more memorable even though I didn't see any of these iconic sites. I was working for a software company and was part of a team that responded to an enquiry for one of our products from an Israeli bank. I was accompanied on this visit by Murali, a colleague from our New York Office, and Murali and I met at Heathrow for our flight to Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital. Murali is an American who was born in Bombay, and like me, he had never visited Israel before.
Both of us expected that the security on our BA flight would be intense, but both the departure and the arrival security was just like any other flight. When we reached our hotel at about seven pm there was a message from Ari, our client - who we had never met - that he and five others would like to meet us for breakfast at the hotel the following morning at 7.30.
The Street names of Tel Aviv - King George Avenue, Balfour Street and Allenby Street - remind you that Palestine, as it then was, was once part of the British Empire. Breakfast over, the eight of us walked a short distance along Allenby Street to the bank's art deco offices for discussions that carried on until well after ten o'clock that evening. When the bank closed its doors at about six thirty we continued the discussion at the home of one of the participants. Somebody ordered a Chinese takeaway. Murali works in New York, and I work in London; and in both these cities high value business meetings can be very intense and pressured, but this is the only time that either of us had been in a fifteen hour meeting. We retired to bed exhausted. The following day was a Thursday and the meetings only went on for six hours. That evening Murali had to return to New York. My flight was the following evening and Friday is not a working day in Israel. Ari asked me what I would be doing tomorrow. When I said I would just write up my notes and when finished I would just stroll around Tel Aviv he replied "But you can't come all this way and not visit Jerusalem".
I asked him about buses. "Ach!, I'll take you" he replied. "Meet me outside your hotel at seven." I had hoped for a lie-in.
The following morning Ari and I had breakfast in the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv - a kind of Camden Lock/ Borough Market-like labyrinth started in the 1920s by Yemeni and Russian Jewish immigrants. Ari mentioned that his father had walked to Tel Aviv from the Yemen at about the same time. We then set out on the ninety minute drive through the desert to the gates of Jerusalem. On the way he asked me what sights I wanted to see. This phased me, as I had not given it any thought, so I replied with the first place that came into my head "What about the Dome of The Rock?
Ari winced."It's the Muslim day of prayer, there may be violence. Not a good idea, my wife would never forgive me if anything happened to you."
After a pause. "I know what we'll do. We'll go the Mea Sharim". He explained that the Mea Sharim was the ultra orthodox quarter and asked If I knew Stamford Hill. I said I did, and he told that it would be like Stamford Hill on a much larger scale.
The Oslo accord, which was supposed to end fifty years of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians had been signed a few months earlier. As we drove into occupied East Jerusalem we saw the black white and green Palestinian tricolor flying. Ari was clearly shocked. He said that he never thought he would live to see that sight. He was fifty, and was still a reservist inthe Israeli Army. He didn't want his children to still be serving soldiers when they were his age. This was a short-lived time of optimism in the region, which is why we went as tourists the following year. I don't know whether I would want to go now.
The Mea Sharim is one of Israel's most deprived communities. The poverty is visible when you look at the food on sale. Like most Mediterranean countries the rest of Israel has wonderful, colourful food markets - the most famous being the Carmel Market. But the fruit and vegetables on sale here were poor in quality, sparse in quantity. According to Ari the reasons for the deprivation include large families, lack of women in the workforce, the fact that most men prefer to devote their time to studying the Talmud rather than earning money, as well as strict adherence to purchasing food from growers who observe Jewish dietary laws to an extent that makes it difficult to provide modern wholesome food.
Ari 's opinion of the ultra-orthodox residents was scathing. He openly detested these men in their frock coats and fur hats, and the women with shaven heads, wigs and headscarves. He was still a serving soldier prepared to die for his country, but these "ants" as he called them were exempt from military service. They didn't recongnise the state of Israel which gave them security. This was not his Israel, it was just as alien to him as the Arab West Bank.
He took me into one of the many shops that sold nothing but objects of devotion, or as Ari put it "They don't sell anything that's been invented inthe last three hundred years". Inside, an elderly man, who was in a state of some distress, was complaining to the shopkeeper about something they were looking hard at. Ari was listening intently to a language he didn't know well, because Hassidic Jews speak Yiddish, not Hebrew - which is reserved for religious observance. He made me buy something for one shekel, the cheapest thing the shop sold. Once outside he told me what he had understood. The man had bought a mezuzah from the shop. A mezuzah is a piece of parchment contained in a decorative case and inscribed with specific verses from the Torah which is fixed to the doorpost of Hassidic homes. The complaint was that there was an error in the calligraphy, which had brought pestilence to the family, fulfilling a biblical prophecy. The two of them were searching for the error. "Superstitious garbage!" in Ari's opinion.
I looked at my watch. I had a plane to catch. We decided it was time to drive to the airport. I thanked Ari for his hospitality; I had had a once in a lifetime experience on so many levels. Then I encountered Israeli security. Before I could board I was questioned by an extremely polite, extremely insistent security officer. The interview took forty five minutes. Quite simply he asked me to account for every second that I had spent in Israel, to give him the name and job title of every bank employee who I had met, and to explain where my hold luggage was when it was not with me for the whole three days. Had I intended to deceive, I would have failed, he would have picked up any inconsistency.
But I had it easy. The following Monday I was at my desk when Murali rang. He asked whether I was questioned at the airport and I told him what had happened.
"Hmm." he said. "
Was that all?" I could hear the indignation in his voice.
"Yes, what did they ask you?"
" He asked 'Where were you born?' I answered Bombay. His next question was 'What happened next?' "