Beginnings

January 1945 was a month of bad weather and heavy snow – or so the record tells me: I don’t remember, as this was the month of my birth – very premature and under 5lb in weight. I understand I spent my first weeks wrapped in cotton-wool beside the kitchen range.

This would be in Wallasey, a huge dormitory suburb south of Liverpool on the Mersey. Visit it on Google Earth even now and you’ll see square mile after square mile of recto-linear streets lined with semi-detached houses – dwellings for aspirant escapees from Liverpool. My parents, for example. Our house was fronted by a gable-end clad in make-believe half timbering – tudor-style it was optimistically called – and the hall featured panelling in oak-veneer. You get the idea. I’m certain there are those who have some kind of affection for Wallasey: I am not one of them. It was a pretentious un-place, an aggregation of some half-dozen villages, wedged into the angle between the Mersey and the Irish Sea, and given spurious identity by the burgeoning need for dormitory housing during the brief, final period of Liverpool’s prosperity before the country turned its back on the Atlantic approaches and faced Europe.

So what do I recall with any affection of my early years? Not the town itself, for sure. It had nothing – no centre, no identity, no life.

The river, then? Yes, certainly. We could – and did – cross it regularly by ferry, and in those days the ferry might, at high tide, have to wait patiently for a gap in the in and outbound ocean traffic. Turbid, muddy and perilous, the Mersey was an endless source of fascination. We learned to identify the major shipping lines (Holt, Blue Funnel, CPR, Cunard) and to admire the skill of the tiny tugs that butted and towed the larger vessels through the crowded waters. In adolescence, an uneasy member of the quasi-military organisation called the Sea Scouts, I sailed a couple of times overnight with the Liverpool Pilot boats (you can see one now, in the Maritime Museum) and marvelled at the unceasing, perilous business that swam on the slick, black waters. The Mersey at night and in the dawn, a place of shifting lights swimming on black water, an element that left you uncertain of what was still and stable or what moved.

The sea, of course, licking hungrily at the concrete sea-wall and spreading its wide horizon out towards the sunset. The black, hungry sands, and the sand dunes. Places we wandered in childhood, in the years before danger was invented.

The tacky funfair and amusement arcades of New Brighton – still, then, a thriving resort for those without the transport to escape the muddy confines of the estuarial waters. Bathing beside sewage outfalls, the working classes of Merseyside thought they were having a good time. So did we, when we wandered that far. Our meagre resources put the major attractions of the two funfairs – one huge and outdoor, the other tiny and constrained implausibly under a roof – beyond reach. But we could wander, and look, and part with a few old pennies inserted optimistically in arcade machines.

Oh, and Bidston marsh – now long gone and concreted over under the M55, the footpath over the marshes to Bidston Hill was the nearest we ever got to open country. Left to its own devices, the northern Wirral peninsula would have been a maze of tidal salt-marsh out of which a cluster of red and yellow sandstone islands would have protruded – and Bidston’s hill was perhaps the most prominent. We would cross the last vestiges of primal marsh, green-mantled and (as I recall) dead, and climb up to where the old windmill, tattered skeletal sails still in place, though tethered, and the domed observatory looked out over the estuary. I wish I could recall a sense of history under the watchful eye of the observatory: it was, after all, the place which as much as any other enabled eighteenth century science to unravel the mysteries of Longitude. But no. For us, it was just a place of fun and some adventure. Far enough away from home to be different: not too far for us to be able to wander back – muddy kneed and probably bickering – in time for tea.

Where else? The church, of course: St Hilary’s, perched high on another of those sandstone bluffs and looking out over the Irish Sea to North Wales. From the great West door of the church (a huge and rather vulgar display of Victorian gothic, whose stones were – as I then supposed all stone structures to be – blackened by a few generations of soot) one could gaze out across the bay towards Anglesey, and see, perhaps, on a clear day the distant blue line of Snowdonia’s mountains; or, if the westering sun chose to appear from beneath the clouds, an often spectacular and moving sunset over the water. Twice every Sunday, for a few adolescent years, my brother and I would be despatched up the hill to don cassock and surplice and sing in the choir. Hair Brylcreamed, slick and black, we would stand behind the carved oak of the choir stalls and sing like – like what? Angels is the usual cliché. Well, we sang well. Music and its making were an important part of childhood, and we were a well-taught choir. When we sat down, however, we were not angels. Hidden from all view except that of the men-choristers, behind and above us, we would go about the normal pursuits of small boys while the liturgy rolled meaninglessly over our heads. And occasionally a tenor or bass would lean over from behind us and flick un unsuspecting ear – so that we should be reminded of the respect due to that impotent old Maiden Aunt, the C of E. For a brief while, after confirmation, I was persuaded that a deep spiritual calling was mine: what else could explain the suffusing and dizzying glow that accompanied my consumption of the Host? Then it dawned on me that perhaps I was feeling the effects of sweet and alcoholic Cyprus wine on an empty stomach. I have not been much prey to illusions since then.

Ah, the war. It is not possible to think back to childhood without acknowledging the omnipresence of that conflict, so recently terminated. Bombs, chiefly, of course. Though the sky was clear for us, the post-war children, it was still full of ghostly visitors. Incendiaries, like the one which had crashed through our roof and landed, mercifully inert, in the cockloft, or the one which burned its terrible magnesium white-fire out in the back garden, still fell in scorching sticks through the dark skies of my parents’ memory. Land-mines floated softly, prettily, lethally down on silken parachutes – until their flash and dull percussion flattened the pair of semis over the road, or the line of arcaded shops on the main street, or simply blew out our lounge windows. And in a battered biscuit tin under the kitchen sink (a chipped porcelain trough) was kept a clattering handful of relics: metal fragments, twisted into gargoyles by extreme heat; the still-recognisable tail-fin of an incendiary; fragments of silken parachute cord that slipped easily through the fingers. We would tip the contents of this tin of death out on the back step, and sort through its mythical contents. Children, wondering. And listening and storing away all the small stories of the terrible years of the war.

One night in August 1951, as a wide-eyed and wondering six-year-old, I was, with my brother and sister, wrapped up warmly in overcoat and – at an hour when ordinarily I should have been asleep in bed – taken on the river. One of the elderly Wallasey ferries, took us out onto the Mersey to watch a display. Many, many other boats were on the water – tugs, pilot cutters, coasters, all dressed in their finery and lit stem to stern. And then the moment. Dashing in line, riding high on their own bow-waves, a line of MTBs sped past us threatening to fly. They roared into the evening towards the Bar – the lightship seven miles out to sea that marked the entrance to the navigable channel into Liverpool. And almost before we had watched them vanish (or so it seemed to me in the heightened and alienated state of mind of a small boy who should have been in bed) they were back – roaring and powering their way through the Mersey’s tide-ripped narrows. I ought also to remember the fireworks along the river, pluming from barges moored along a two mile stretch of dark water – and I do, just. But it was the flying MTBs which then, and even now, stirred me.

This was the regional, provincial arm of the Festival of Britain; of which I recall one other curious and – in its way – poignant detail. A visit to a coal mine. Or so it was represented to me. We travelled in a huge cage down into the dark and saw – not much, really. A rough-hewn roadway underground. That is all I recall. But it was not, of course, a coal mine. Canning Place it was – or so I believe. For years after the war, hoardings hid the bombed out ruins just behind the docks, ruins you could just glimpse from the top deck of the rumbling trams. And it was – I think – those ruins which were pressed into service as a mock-up coal mine for the Festival. Why a mine, and in Liverpool, I have no idea. I imagine that, lacking the resources for immediate regeneration of all the vast destruction of the Blitz, it seemed good to someone, to put the ruins to educational use.

So, then, the river, the sea, the war. The furnishings of childhood memory.

Musical Interlude

The sound a Charles Buthod cello makes when it strikes the platform of Central Station Liverpool is distinctive – and not musical. A kind of boomy crunch – boom from the resonance of the wood (at that particular point 90 years old) and crunch from ... well, from the rending of the beautiful, figured wood that makes the hard back-piece of the cello.

My cello cost £25 in 1959, and another £25 to put it in working order. A lot of money – though not what the instrument was worth. It was a bargain, negotiated for me by Amos Moore, that wonderful cello teacher, from a fellow cellist on the RLPO whose drinking habit had become more expensive than he could sustain. I don’t recall what it cost for Mr Fallowfield to repair it, but I do remember the distress I felt at the accident.

I was quite a good cellist in those days. Promising, anyway. Amos hoped I’d earn my living at it. My parents were chronically impoverished and I have no idea how they found the money for either the instrument or the lessons, but music mattered to them. We all had piano lessons from the execrable Emily M. Taylor, a dumpy spinster with an incipient beard and no feeling for music at all – but when my school acquired a beat-up old cello and Bob Davies the music teacher asked if anyone wanted to learn, I was filled at once with a yearning to play that improbable looking instrument.

Fortunately Wallasey Borough Council had an enlightened approach to such matters and before long I was able to secure a studentship that bought me free lessons with Amos, membership of the Merseyside Youth Orchestra, and lessons with Stan Lawrence in “musicianship”. Stan was a big, elderly red-head whose stumpy fingers earned him a living as an accompanist, and whose idea of musicianship was to intersperse the hard stuff (rules of composition!) with sessions of listening to him play samples of music down the ages. He really loved the impressionists, which was odd, because his slightly brutal piano style did not suit them at all. But I enjoyed it all – all except the Youth Orchestra, on the way home from which I broke my cello. The Buthod was made of kiln-dried wood which gave it a strong and singing voice which could be heard even above the combined noise of the orchestra’s huge cello section. And I played wrong notes. Often. Because I did not practise my parts. Because I was 13th cellist and there were never enough parts to go round.

But the Philharmonic Hall, on Hope Street, was worth the journey every Sunday. We had the run of the place, and I learned to love the clean lines of its Art Deco interior – and the amazing views from the top. I recall watching a man demolish an old church tower from up there, by walking backwards along its high walls, knocking out stones with a sledgehammer as he went. And I wondered, at each corner, how he knew to avoid the huge drop to the ground behind him. What skill.

We played some wonderful things. Perhaps my favourite was Tchaikowski’s 5th symphony with its surging and deeply musical cello melodies. Even I could get those notes right, and I would be transported by the amazing feeling of sitting in an orchestra of maybe 60 players, and being part of its music. One ceased altogether, for magical moments, to be an individual at all – just part of a huge, emotional whole.

Some daft things, too. The William Tell Overture, to the accompaniment of which our harpist, sitting by me at the back of the cello section would ride his harp like a bronco. He had no harp part, so he improvised a mime – and I played many wrong notes as I laughed.

One way or another, music is part of me. There is no moment of waking time when some song or other is not going through my head – and I have a passion for instruments. As I write, I possess a piano (on which I strive to play Beethoven Sonatas – oh the huge chords at the opening of the Pathetique, and the impossible, desperate acceleration that follows!) two guitars, a keyboard and a handful of mouth-organs (ask my children, and they’ll all recall the plaintive solitary notes played on some remote Scottish beach).

Oh – the cello. Thank you for reminding me. No – I haven’t played the cello for decades. It is no instrument for playing solitarily to oneself: it demands a context, and as a busy teacher, husband, father, I had no time to give it one. I sold it in 1980. Really good cellos – and it was – should be played: there are few enough of them around. I hope someone who loved it bought it – and that they play it as well as, in my dreams, I still do.

Water

You could not be brought up on Merseyside without an intense awareness - and experience - of the possibilities of water. I was a Sea Scout - the 10th Wallasey, an admiralty-recognised unit in those days, which meant that we could and would be called upon to support the Royal Navy in the event of need - so close did the war in those days still lurk over our shoulders! We never questioned the absurdity of the fiction but donned our little sailor uniforms weekly, and entertained a serving RN officer annually on our formal inspection.

And yet, we did experience the water, and learned many of its ways. I still have, somewhere, a Class B waters navigating certificate which declares that I can safely be trusted with a small boat on inland waterways. The Wallasey docks were our training ground; specifically Canada Creek where timber boats unloaded, where the Liverpool Victoria Rowing Club propelled its needle sharp boats (eights, fours, double and single sculls) in practice - and where we paddled our home-made sailing and rowing dinghies and canoes. I learned to row in a minute PRAM dinghy which would spin on sixpence and certainly capsize of you stood in it. I tacked back and forth over the industrially polluted waters (rumour said that if you swallowed any you needed a stomach pump) in a blunt-prowed Cadet dinghy - a handy little boat that could be relied on to dodge the occasional passing coaster or tug quite nimbly.

The tarry saltiness of the drab and dingy docks was our familiar element. And the docks brought other joys. I recall cycling down to the big dock where bulk carriers unloaded iron ore for smelting at Shotton, on the Dee. The sound of the goods trains leaving that dock, loaded up and trying to get traction for their short run down the Wirral was the music of sleepless nights for me - the slow, pulsing exhalation of steam from the underpowered locomotives as they set out, followed by the staccato over-run of their engines as their wheels lost traction and spun. It could take half an hour for them laboriously to ease their loads out of earshot. So the dock was familiar enough, by ear at any rate. But to cycle in at its front gate, in uniform, with an appointment to see the dockmaster, Captain Sanders, was an experience of a different order. We clambered up clanging iron stairs to a kind of land-bound bridge where the good Captain would be overseeing the huge cranes, sliding back and forth on their massive rails, as they unloaded ore. And while he watched, he taught us - to tie knots! I can still whip a bowline around my waist faster than it takes to tell: sailor skills, even when archaic to the point of self-parody, are to be proud of.

Wherever we went - on a choir outing to Southport (yes, I was a choirboy, too), on a scout camp on Windermere or the Isle of Man or Marlowe on the Thames - we sought out boats and ... messed about in them, I guess. Not the worst way to spend time when you are a boy.

We learned to swim, too, at the Guinea Gap Baths, taught, like all our generation, by one or other of two brothers. Dick and Tony, long-suffering and effective denizens of the pool, must between them have coached the whole Borough. I was a late pupil of Tony: not until I was twelve did I master breast-stroke.

Guinea Gap was a state of the art pool when it was constructed, some time in the 1920’s - it was all of 25M long, and surrounded closely by narrow changing cubicles from which one emerged almost straight into the chlorine-rich water. On three sides, I think, ornate cast-iron pillars supported a balustraded balcony, where spectators crowded for school swimming galas. Over it all, a glazed roof gave the whole the appearance of some exotic conservatory - and a deafening echo!

And the baths sat, of course, on the banks of the Mersey. Back to that river. A busy - but now half deserted waterway. At high tide a ferry boat might have to cruise up, or down stream for many hundreds of yards to find a gap in the procession of sea-bound freighters and liners, before diving busily across to the Pier Head in Liverpool. And on New Year’s Eve the concerto of massed ships’ sirens woke the night with its many-toned welcome to the year.

School

Biographical notes - like these - are free to roam wherever they wish: or at least, that’s what I think. Expect some major omissions and forgive me if I loiter self-indulgently down memory’s less significant cul-de-sacs. However, school is such a major part of anyone’s early life that it would be quite impossible to miss it out completely. Here are some memories.

Like my sister before me, and my brother a year later, I went to St George’s Road School. It was - still is, I gather, a particularly grandiose example of the Victorian rush to build Elementary Schools in the wake of the 1870 Education Act. Towering red iron-brick gables fronted directly onto the street, which skirted the foot of the densely built-up sandstone bluff on which stood St Hilary’s Church; and to get there we had to walk up the long hill of Vyner Road, along the crest of the bluff on Claremount Road, then rapidly down the aptly named sweep of Broadway, directly under St Hilary’s. If we were late we would arrived panting just as whichever teacher was on duty rang the big handbell. Hastily shuffled into militarily straight lines, we were then marched in, class by class.

We wore, my brother and I, the uniform of our caste - short, grey worsted trousers that finished at the knee (the back of which they tickled); white or grey shirt with, in winter, a grey v-necked pullover; a curious straight-ended tie in wasp-like navy and gold stripes that could be stretched to near double its length; a navy blazer, and cap, each adorned with a fanciful woven badge depicting the Saint slaying a rococo sort of dragon; and, almost all year round, a navy gaberdine raincoat belted tightly at the waist. And these things comprised our only wardrobe, in or out of school.

Of our education there I recall little. Our classes, in those boom years after the war, were stuffed to bursting. Wedged in behind oak-topped desks on an iron frame, we were almost sixty to a room, and if - like me - you were minded to conform to the rules and keep your head down, you could pass your entire day un-noticed. Playtime was boisterous and perilous: the school had one narrow, paved yard that rose gently to a brick wall at the far end, and any game that did not involve standing still was a sure recipe for collision and tumble. Knees in those days always had scabs on.

I recall a red-haired youth called Billy Boyes whose “gang” would terrorise the crowded playground. A favourite - and completely forbidden - practice was for a small group to link arms and start to spin around the centre-pin (Billy, I guess). Others would catch hold of the outer arms, held out invitingly, and of course the longer the line, the faster newcomers had to run. In the end, if not stopped by a teacher, the centrifugal strain would loosen a grip somewhere along the line, and the broken outer group of runners would hurtle violently off into the crowd. Do I really recall one heap of fallen bodies being shaken by the audible crack of a leg-bone underneath it all?

Discipline was arbitrary but not over harsh - though even I who never strayed intentionally outside the frame of rules, can tell what a ruler across the palm, or a tweaked ear feels like. Miss Merrick, top class teacher, would regularly leave the whole class unattended on no better control mechanism than the dreaded question when she returned, “Hands up anyone who talked while I was out!”

And we did, of course. We reported ourselves, in those curious, distant days of the 1950’s when all society, it seemed, longed for order and peace, we policed ourselves.

Not that I often offended. My memory is of a disproportionate amount of time being spent with your reading book, and given a good book I was oblivious to anything outside its magical world. I remember, once, becoming aware of a more than usually quiet class, and looking up to find that everyone else had left the classroom for the dinner hour. No-one, it seemed, had noticed that I had not joined them.

It was assumed, at home, that my siblings and I would as a matter of course pass the 11+ exam and progress into grammar school without effort: so I did. I don’t recall ever doubting my progression through the upper echelons of the education system, until I reached GCE A level - but more of that later. In 1956 I went to Oldershaw Grammar school, distinctly the less prestigious of the town’s two grammar schools for boys, but chosen by my parents (children had no say in those days) as being more convenient for us to walk to and from. Indeed, the buildings - a 1920’s sprawl with a girls’ high school downstairs and a boys’ grammar on the first floor - were (if one hurried) a mere 7 minutes from home. So we came home for our dinner, thus missing out on at least half the possible social advantages of attendance.

What do I recall? Surprisingly little, given that I was a pupil there for seven years. Secondary education coincided, for me, with a period of my life when I withdrew wholly from the business of life and became instead a spectator. Some pretty heavy parental moral disapproval, not tempered with either love or understanding, persuaded me that I was not, in essence, a worthwhile person - and that if I wished to regain my place in society I would have to keep my head down, identify the codes of behaviour expected of me, and adhere to them. My sins were theft (things like other people’s sweets) and lying (glibly but obviously unsuccessfully!) to cover my tracks. Also, I strongly suspect, a certain insecure cockiness had to be knocked out of me. Which it was so effectively that I put living on hold for the duration and did not get round to it again until I left home. Not a good time.

Some memories, though. I discovered, thanks to a great little irish games master called Connors, that I was not the physical duffer I had been led to believe. Encouraged by him I became, at 11 or 12, both a good gymnast (owing more to the military than the Olympian!) a nifty sprinter, and a solid, ever-present member of the school rugby team. Oh, how I secretly basked in the reluctant male approval those activities brought me! I trained like a demon, I grabbed hasty food at home so I could rush back to the gym, and for a short while was happy with at least one part of myself. Sadly, all that was undone in the end by genetics. I was called out of class some time in my thirteenth year, my eyes tested, and told I needed glasses - “Tell your mother,” was the terse instruction. Also, I stopped growing, and soon I was no longer a meaty wing-forward, but a rather flimsy, myopic and peripheral figure. We were fast-tracked into the sixth form, my form and I, where I arrived at age 15 to be told that I was surplus to requirements in the school-team rugby department. Which taught me at least one valuable lesson: all the nonsense preached by team-games afficionados about team values and loyalty, is a lie. Loyalty goes one way only: don’t expect the team to care for you.

What else? Music, of course - but I covered that.  It was good, but extracurricular. Socially, school was a desert for me: I was (by choice, now) an isolate and spectator. And the classroom was generally simply a place for caged mice to turn their treadmills. I recall with some affection two fine language teachers, “Dicky” Sareen, who accepted that his adolescent male charges would never really grow fond of German so settled for rounding out our understanding of the way Europe was in those post-war years. And “Oscar” Astley, whose own love of French was - for me at any rate - irresistible. Inevitably (partly in any case because our fast-track curriculum obliged me to choose German over History at age 12) I became a sixth form linguist. My distaste for hard, systematic work, combined with a talent for language, meant that, in German particularly, I winged it. My modern languages were very good - except that I had no vocabulary and guessed at all the rules. In the end this had the great benefit of preventing my taking up a place at Birmingham University at age 17 (far too young) and obliging me to stick at school for a third year in the VIth.

Finally, the appalling threat of a job in the bank with my father produced an English pass just good enough for me to take up a place at York University in its first year, 1963 - and life, at last, began.

Preparing for Flight

So why York?

Like most key decisions in life, a mixture of determination and serendipity led me across the Pennines in 1963. Determination to escape the dead proto-existence my own perverse nature had imposed on me was a huge factor. I understood that I needed a completely fresh start in life, if I was ever to live at all. An adolescence spent watching others getting on with their lives as a spectator from the sidelines was not very constructive – but at least it motivated me hugely to make the leap. I was the Miller on the Dee in those day, determined to show no need for anyone else lest – I suspect – they should penetrate my carapace of ironic indifference. Nole me tangere, my motto – which people read clearly, and went on their way, leaving me strictly alone.

Nominally I was a full participant – at school at least. As I became a senior member of the community I played in the orchestra, sang in the choir, and also in the chorus of Martins Bank Amateur Operatic Society, the outlet for my father’s Gilbert and Sullivan fanaticism – a lone adolescent in a dressing room of adults who shed their workaday inhibitions, and (it seemed to me) their clothes in the changing rooms at Cranes Theatre in Liverpool – a fascinating insight into adult life! I recall training The House Choir to sing four-part harmony settings of musical standards (imagine trying to get 20 boys aged 11-17 to do that nowadays!) and I wrote a play for production by the school’s experimental puppet-theatre. Oh, and the music for it!

Oh yes, I participated. But I took care to hold my co-participants at arm’s length. As time went on, I began to realise that I was not living, but waiting. Waiting for an opportunity to fire the starting pistol. Parental expectation assumed that I would go to university, and I looked forward to that epiphany with a mixture of naked terror and surging hope.

So, why York?

Well, if life had organised itself differently, it would have been Birmingham. I had a place there, for 1962, needing only three A levels at fairly attainable grades. But Birmingham, on my one sighting of it, was a daunting place – a huge, grubby, populous place full of people who knew who they were. Perhaps that was why I failed to gain the grades required, scraping a pass in German and French, and doing little better in English. Or perhaps I was an intrinsically lazy student (a personality trait that hasn’t changed much over the years) unaccustomed to actually buckling down and learning stuff. Anyway, my dismal first shot at A level meant not Birmingham.

“Have you thought of York?” said Maurice Mullett, on one of the rare occasions I actually spoke to our distinguished (looking) headmaster. He was holding a prospectus, which interested him primarily because the school’s one and only distinguished old boy, Philip Brockbank, was to be first holder of the chair of English Literature at York. “It wouldn’t hurt, and might help,” he said. York was to receive its first batch of undergraduates in 1963, and I must say that I was immediately attracted to the idea of starting my own new life in a place with no traditions, no history, only a future. It also attracted that instead of joining a community of several thousand, I’d have the luxury of just a select few.

If, of course, I could get in – and avoid the soul-deadening thought of “The Bank” with my father! And there, of course, the possibility of at least being looked at twice by the “distinguished old boy” was one I immediately pinned hopes on. I was well aware that my academic background alone would not suffice. Tuition in Literature so far at Oldershaw Grammar had consisted of being dragooned into the library (from where our teacher, a little, fat Yorkshireman called Smoky Haddock whose fantasy other-life was as a star off-spin bowler for his native county, could conveniently watch cricket on the school field) and being told to “make notes” under a list of headings we had been supplied with for each set text. Making notes meant, collect short quotations from the text, and learn them. The idea of reading around, or enjoying, or making any original response to those texts was, under him, alien. Texts were simply repositories for quotations to be trotted out for examiners.

So when, to my astonishment, I was called to York for interview (at the wonderful, historic King’s Manor in the city centre, there being no premises ready at Heslington Hall, where the university was to start its functioning life) I had what you might call a purely analytical understanding of a handful of set texts, and virtually no reading outside that small canon.

Philip Brockbank terrified me then, and remained a figure of nameless, obscure threat throughout my time at York. His features were, I suppose, aquiline, and there was something about his body posture that always suggested a desire to take you off guard. He would lean forward slowly, head down, no eye contact, as he formulated a thought, and then, sweeping his long, black hair out of his eyes, bring his head up at the last moment to thrust his elegantly designed, surgically precise question at you. What he thought of the callow, under-prepared, poorly-read alumnus of his old school, at that interview, I can only surmise.

I suspect, with hindsight that – assuming his own schooling to have been perhaps no better than mine – he thought I deserved, like him, a chance to show what I could do. Certainly the place I was offered, in the company of a positively stellar intake, was down to no prior achievement on my part; and the very modest grades I was asked for suggested some generosity of spirit on his part.

And perhaps, having let me in, he then regretted that generosity! Or maybe it was just very good psychology that led him to say, at my first appointment with him as my Supervisor, “You do realise, don’t you Alan, that you are very fortunate to be here?”

That was, as I recall the sum of our first interview – and subsequent annual appointments were no more forthcoming. I cannot believe it was an accident that I was placed under his special care – or that that care was so remotely, almost hostilely administered. That very first, daunting comment, was either a voice of regret for a moment of uncharacteristic weakness in letting so obviously inadequate a student in, or it was a skilfully applied motivator. Whichever it was intended to be, it worked exclusively in the latter way. From that moment I felt like a condemned man on reprieve. From base zero, I determined somehow or other to stay the course. I watched how the super-articulate fellow students from ‘Good Schools’ in the ‘Home Counties’ comported themselves. I slavishly internalised a new vocabulary of critically accaeptable words. I even started to read books – not, generally, the whole of them, of course – but enough to be able, with a wing and a prayer, to get by. Application remained my weak point!

And I determined to be noticed. Not too much, you understand. But in every Seminar (or at least, every Seminar for which I had read any of the text(s) for discussion!) I would brace myself to make at least one pithy contribution. And then sink gracefully back into the undergrowth, satisfied to have made a mark, to have vindicated my place. After all, with luck and a following wind I had arrived at university, at a time – the early sixties – and in a place – the finest of the New Universities – that could hardly have been more auspicious. I was not intending to allow my quite evidently fraudulent claim to such a place to be discovered. I would work hard at one thing only – imitating those who surrounded me well enough to be taken for a bona fide student.

Some Memories of York 1963

The utter strangeness of arriving at Heslington Hall to register, among fellow undergraduates who all seemed frightfully confident and sophisticated (but, who, of course, were as nervous as I!)

The amazing quality of the catering in Heslington Hall canteen. Trout in almonds – Fillet steak – for Students?

The inebriating energy of everything. If you stood still for a moment in any Common Room you would find yourself recruited on the spot for any one of the dozens of student activities that had to be invented from scratch – in my case I found myself co-opted (with no dramatic experience or talent) into the casts successively of The Clouded Star, then The Devil’s Law Case, Mother Courage, and finally (much later of course) the flamboyant open-air Richard II. The first was, of course, part of the New Universities Festival at Keele, from which we all returned more than ever aware of our good fortune in being at York, rather than any of our sister institutions. (Ah, but I should recall also that it was at keel I learned to smoke, an evil addiction it took me two decades to escape!)

Playing my cello in a deserted room in one of the cottages in Heslington Village, and realising that I had an audience – a large rat in the opposite corner.

An Orange and Brown University scarf, democratically voted for by us all, but inexplicably now obsolete. Still got mine, though!

And speaking of democracy, a huge debate in the entrance hall of Heslington Hall, at which we voted (passionately) to have no truck with any Student Union at York – ‘60’s anarchism at its most naïve. And we got a Union anyway, of course – so no harm done.

Profesor Philip Brockbank sweeping his long, black hair from his eyes with one hand, while preparing to devastate your woolly thoughts – and the lovely Bernard Harris, gently restoring your confidence by finding substance in everything you said or wrote. Hard cop, soft cop – and it worked!

Hearing of Kennedy’s assassination while drinking in the Charles XII, and staying on incredulous into the evening as the story unfolded. And drinking far too much beer. And thinking how strange it was that the world that had only just begun that October should have come to an end already by November.