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 30, 2017 at 10:25 AM|
Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and since then his name has been indelibly associated with Christmas. This novel is credited by historians with reconstructing Christmas as a family centred festival of generosity.
I have my own childhood memories of Dickens at Christmas that I'd like to share with you, and I'd also like to share with you a tale of the remarkable generosity of a man I've probably never met, Mr J.G. Street. I have no idea what the initials J G stand for.
Every Christmas when I was a kid the Harrods van would turn up at our doorstep on the council estate where we lived in Edmonton. That was unusual, I doubt if any other doorsteps on the estate got such a delivery. On the van there were always three parcels for our family; a Christmas cake and a bottle of whisky for my Mum and Dad and a book, usually a Dickens volume, for me. The book was always inscribed in what is now to me obviously an old person's handwriting:
"To Andrew. from Mr J. G. Street. XMAS - year"
Mr Street was my Dad Charlie's pen friend and they'd been writing to each other for over thirty years by the time I was eleven in 1959. Charlie was then just over fifty, but Mr Street was then in his nineties.
Charlie was a working class boy from Edmonton who worked on an assembly line and Mr Street was a public school and Cambridge educated man who had been a successful barrister. We lived in a London council house, but Mr Street lived in a Surrey mansion that had servants quarters, and he still employed servants up to his death. I have no idea whether he ever married or had children, but I suspect he hadn't.
The original reason My Dad and Mr Street had started to write to each other in the late 1920s was because when Charlie was three he had caught the polio virus which left him disabled in both legs and his left arm. This meant that as an adult, before the birth of the NHS, he had to buy crutches, leg irons and wheelchairs and he - as well as countless others like him - didn't have the money to do so.
The Shaftesbury Society - a Christian charity - used to provide people like Charlie with a list of potential wealthy benefactors to whom they could write and ask for assistance, and Dad was given Mr Street's name. In other words they had to write begging letters. But Mr Street gave him financial support for about twenty years until the birth of the NHS meant that it was no longer needed. But these two men from such different backgrounds had become friends. They now wrote to each other as equals.
When Charlie married Kathy - another polio survivor - in 1945, Mr Street was an honoured wedding guest. His wedding present was an art deco seven day clock by Heal's that sat on the mantelpiece in our living room. When I was born in 1948 he sent me a christening present, and he sent me books every year until he died in the early 1960s. I must have met him when I was very small, but I have no memory of it. I do remember my Dad reading the letters from his pen friend and writing back, and the fact that Charlie's letters always began "Dear Mr Street" while the return letters always began "My Dear Bradford". I suppose that's how you were taught to write a personal letter at public school in the 1890s. I also remember having to write him a thank you letter for his Christmas gifts. It wasn't something that my eleven year-old self did very willingly of course.
I still have seven volumes of the Dickens books that Mr Street gave to me - I could never think of giving them away, but the book I really value most of all is my copy of "Treasure Island". It's probably the book that gave me a lifelong love of literature. It's inscribed "Andrew - from Mr Street -Easter 1955." So he must have thought of us at Easter as well as Christmas and birthdays.
How appropriate that so many of his books were by Dickens. Prior to the publication of A Christmas Carol most families simply celebrated Christmas by going to church. They didn't give gifts to each other, and they didn't see it as a reason for giving to Charity. But by the spring of 1844, The Gentleman's Magazine attributed a sudden burst of charitable giving in Britain to Dickens's novel; in 1874, Robert Louis Stevenson waxed enthusiastic after reading Dickens's Christmas books and vowed to give generously. In America in 1867, a Mr. Fairbanks attended a reading on Christmas Eve in Boston, and was so moved he closed his factory on Christmas Day and sent every employee a turkey.
So let's remember just how much Charles Dickens has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas, and I'll also remember the way he influenced the remarkable Mr J G Street.
Let's also remember that the period that I'm recalling - the 1950s and 60s - was in some ways a golden age for people whose disabilities meant that they needed to use expensive mobility aids such as wheelchairs and mobility vehicles. Quite simply, these were just supplied by the state - the user never entered into a financial transaction. It is of course true that the equipment the state supplied was very basic; there was little choice and little innovation, but the commitment to supply these products rendered the generosity of people like Mr Street redundant. But his friendship was never redundant, even twenty years later.
Today, the state provides cash to people with disabilities in the form of Personal Independence Payments , and it is out of these cash payments that the users are expected to purchase their own mobility aids. It is true, that this form of support provides users with choices about what aids they purchase and from whom they purchase them, and it is also true that this encourages more innovation. However, for many people PIP payments do not provide sufficient funds to purchase what the user needs; assuming of course that they can jump the significant hurdles to qualify for this assistance in the first place
On Facebook today you can see crowdfunding appeals to provide wheelchairs and other mobility aids. These are the twenty first century's equivalent of the begging letters of the 1930s and they are being responded to by a new generation of Mr Streets.