29 May 2018

Lancaster Affairs

The old house is still standing....

The old hometown looks the same
As I step down from the train

Almost fifty years ago, in grainy black and white, I stepped warily off a train at Lancaster station, my head still heavy with farewells.  As in deportation dramas I was herded onto a bus with the small black, soft, suitcase my grandmother had gifted me, and delivered to the building site which was the County College, on Bailrigg Hill.  A smooth man, by the name of Roger perhaps, who said he taught linguistics, announced he was our tutor and gave us a glass of sweet white wine.

In my purple flares and stacked heels I staggered through freshers’ week, an eighteen year old with an empty head.  Somehow I made friends.  Ray Steele, son of a Crewe railwayman, a moustachioed Lawrentian character, confident with the girls; and Steve Blackham, from a broken family of St Leonard’s on Sea, whose dream of incessantly descending in a lift, stopping at all floors but never coming up, still haunts me.

We drank Boddingtons in the bar, conveniently close below my room, which looked out on the 200 year old oak tree (that I used to play on) in the quad.  We ate pies and beans and chips and sauce.  We smoked Players No 6.  We were introduced to teachers and study.  Philosophers who wore their jumpers backwards and smoked cigarettes and pipes simultaneously, who didn’t quite have a cat called Schrodinger but who talked about the table in the next room and whether it was there or not….  (Why didn’t they just look?)  Some of the Religious Studies staff wore kaftans and spoke with dense Scottish accents; others talked of India and Japan as if they were real places.  I heard that Gautama was a bit like St Francis, without the wolf, and that Mohammad was also a bit like St Francis, though with thirteen wives….

In the English department, there was talk of gest and Brecht.  Coal for Mike meant something.  Was I being indoctrinated?  Others talked of alveolar consonants and voiced dental fricatives, while still others wanted me to read Ancrene Wisse (Ondes Salue, Ich seide, wes feolahlich luue….)  I was being indoctrinated….  But wasn’t that what I had come for?

The University of Lancaster was taking shape. A nondescript brick building housed a computer, all punch cards, reels of tape, and whirring.  The chaplaincy centre conspired to refer to Le Corbusier’s Notre Dame du Haut, though only later, under the tutelage of Basil Ward, might I have come to this misconception. I found a music room somewhere to which I escaped to play a recording of Fernando Germani playing Bach’s D Minor Toccata and Fugue, at full volume.  Later I realised that full volume was actually eleven on the scale, when The Who accepted £1,050 to perform Tommy in the Great Hall, and my ears still ring from being up close and personal with Pete Townshend’s 2,000 watt speakers.  Still later my brain was even further rearranged when Bob Marley and Peter Tosh thanked me for help in shifting the Wailers’ gear with a dark introduction to Caribbean customs in their dressing room….

Around the same time I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s film of the 1936 Olympics; I remember asking someone in the interval how long it would go on, and was told that it was very long…. It covered the whole Olympics….  My understanding of the world was developing.

Kath Owen screamed I’m going back to New York City, I do believe I’ve had enough on grey walks under the M6 and over concrete tubes, even though she wasn’t from New York, she was from Treforest, a ward of Pontypridd, and it was there that her father took me on a tour of pubs, each of which had a back room with an ex-miner in a tuxedo and a bootlace tie endlessly singing Green, Green Grass of Home……

Sarah, from genteel Harrogate, slipped in a spillage of beer and broke an arm, so taught me to cook minced beef with sweet corn and mushrooms, with a crumbled OXO cube, in one saucepan.  For one.

Then Mary Lewis, one of four children of a Presbyterian Minister once of Coquetdale (but latterly of Geneva), became close, and stayed so through the second year in college and a year at 64 Dale Street in town, until, following her first class degree in history, the power of the US intervened in the form of a dandy don from Dumb Tom’s and I had to find consolation in Diane, from Stockport, and other drugs….

My understanding of the world continued to develop.  Slowly.

Down the road I look and there runs Mary

We were taught.  Perhaps we learned.  I was still a teenager.  My head was a worm cast of ideas, mostly other people’s.  At a distance of half a century I can’t itemise what I gained.  I can remember excitements and disappointments, incidents and fleeting moments of discussion.  At best I think I know the differences between Mahayana and Marxism, Modernism and Mozart, but probably only to the level of Pointless….  I know too much to enjoy pub quizzes, but not enough that I can answer even half the questions on University Challenge.  I almost certainly wasn’t indoctrinated enough….  Or maybe it was the alcohol?  It killed Frank Goodridge, ruined Norman Fairclough’s marriage, cured Ninian Smart of smoking, and extended our Friday lunchtime creative writing sessions when David Craig would drive us out to Glasson Dock in his VW microbus to start the weekends….

The Lancaster Affair came about after Professor Bill Murray (Ghostbusters,  Lost in Translation sic) went swimming in Prague with the British Ambassador (not, I am sure, my old chum Sir Cecil Parrott, but, most likely Howard Smith, later DG of MI5) during which immersion the Murray picked up a viral kind of McCarthyist fear of red insurrection in his dept. and the witch hunt began.

Seven bona fide members of staff were targeted, and constructive dismissal was the aim.  It hit the national press; the Guardian featured David, the BBC reported.  

In the confusion we set up an alternative university and I helped organise sessions at David’s home as well as upstairs in the Shakespeare pub, near the Duke’s Theatre.  Eventually, at least I think there was a connection, we occupied the Senate House, where legend had it that Bill Corr, who in 1969 had invested a toad with the title Archduke of Lancaster on the occasion of the Queen’s visit to open County College, carried a shotgun.  Apparently Vice Chancellor Chas Carter sanctioned our intrusion on the grounds that we were welcome as long as we cleaned up afterwards.  But my memory is hazy.  

It was boring sitting on the floor and it was nice outside.  Eventually, thanks in large part to Adrian Mitchell’s fundraising at the Liverpool Everyman which helped with legal fees, the crisis passed, David taught again, and in due course I became more better educated (sic)…..  As a post script, the then Headmaster of Lancaster Royal Grammar School later told me that there had definitely been evidence of left-wing bias in student work of the time, but, like Bill Murray, he is dead now.  And they were both wrong.  Or I’m a brain surgeon….

Shadows drift round the city now.  The Castle and Priory Church still sit broodily on the hill above the Roman bath house.  Lune Mills and the empire of James Williamson, later Lord Aston, are dust, and lino no longer rolls here.  The exhilarating covered market, once dazzling with fruit and veg, fish, meat, and cheese, the thriving hub of a living city, is no more, having suffered that curious fate of places to be redeveloped - a minor conflagration…..  Some of the back-to-backs

are still there, grass-green and unloved, but nobody seems to hang washing any more, 

and those Scottish Streets (Elgin, Dundee, etc) are choked by pavement parking, and uniformly decorated with satellite dishes, all directed at Moscow…..

Up in Williamson Park, by the Ashton Memorial, kids taunt me for taking pictures of my memories, innocent of the fact that they are enjoying the space as much as I did. 

The view across Morecambe Bay to the distant hills of the Lake District is the glory it ever was, and brings back memories of the gleaming sea and evening skies.

I visit David at his home near Carnforth.  Still as sharp as millstone grit, though inevitably less likely to play football with his offspring now, we lunch together, our memories folded like our napkins, personal, but not completely private. 

I don’t know what has become of the others.  Occasional threads drift across my face, but where Ray, or Steve, or Kath or Mary are now, only they can tell…..

What are we without memories?  My mother, now 95, sits vacantly in the departure lounge, unable to tell whether she knows who we are.  So should we, like Hamlet, wipe away all trivial, fond records…. From the table of my memory?  Or, like Cowper, should we acknowledge,

What peaceful hours I once enjoy’d
How sweet their mem’ry still!
But they have left an aching void,
The world can never fill.

(Olney Hymns, I)

I loved Lancaster, and my times there.  It was the kiln I was fired in.  But there is no going back.  I just hope that those I shared my time with there have had good lives.

It’s good to touch the green, green grass of home…..

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed your reminiscences!
    Roger is no better! Still smooth and now living in Malaysia! Did you know Jonathan Keeley? We're in touch with him fairly regularly.

    Duncan R. Bell (his son), now living in Lancaster again too, after many years away.