Several of my new friends come from westwards, starting at the eastern end of the Chilterns, making an arc through the Cotswolds to Bristol, Bath, and down into Devon. We are in Hampshire, after all. Far more striking to me is how many of them come from public schools. I had never expected to meet anyone from a public school, ever, to the extent that I’d realised that public schools actually existed, with real people in them, outside the pages of How to be Topp or Jennings Follows a Clue, both of which I inhaled once and can’t quite exhale.
I am also mildly surprised that people who go to public schools are not hee-hawing nincompoops, but actually quite pleasant, amenable and ordinary, or as ordinary as you can be when only the most grammared, groomed and squeezed get to be at university in the first place. Thankfully one of my new chums is reassuringly ruddy faced, with a district commissioner air about him. One day, while I am in mid-rant about the parasitical upper classes, he rounds on me and calls me an ‘armchair pinko’. He’s absolutely right, but just Blimpish enough for me to dance out from under.
I walk along the corridor and from some distance I can hear and feel ‘Next‘ by the Sensational Alex Harvey Band playing on the reel to reel tape player in my new friend’s room. I walk in and several stoned people regard me. Being stoned doesn’t seem to improve anyone, but I join in on principle. When the joint gets to me I am as likely to wave it around while expounding as smoke it, while the others watch its movements, mesmerised, until it goes out and someone bangs on the door and shouts out ‘turn that down, will you?’
I have arrived, I think, with the arbitrary intention to do Modern History and Politics, but I soon switch just as whimsically to Philosophy and Politics, which several of my new friends are doing. I soon realise that I am not especially philosophical, if that means endless circular discussions of the ‘What is is?’ conundrum or whether, if you were in the French Resistance and were tortured by the Nazis, it would be ethical to lie to them. ‘I’d probably just betray everyone as soon as I saw the Anton Diffring lookalike with the duelling scar’ I think to myself.
Sociology is more particular. Perched on the edge of his desk, the tutor has his feet on his chair while laying a proletarian amount of Old Holborn along a blue Rizla. He licks along the paper and rolls it it up : a strand of tobacco lingers in his wispy Pete Townshend beard. “Ok, let’s get started,” he says, ” THE AFFLUENT WORKER AND THE THESIS OF EMBOURGEOISEMENT. I assume you’ve all read it. Who’s got something to say?” There is a silence so long and so deep that the world seems to stop turning completely. His roll up goes out. “Anybody?”
I don’t spend much time in the shared kitchen. At some point a pencil sketch of a carrot appears on the door of my room with ‘Bugs Veggie’s rabbit warren’ written above it. I ignore it, but one of my new friends sees it when she comes to visit. I’m out, but she tells me later that she burst into the kitchen, and ‘told them what a bunch of pathetic wankers they were. You should have seen their faces!’ In this room she tells me a great secret and I keep it. Then I move rooms, to a friendlier floor.
We get the bus into the town, or ‘the city’, except that there doesn’t seem to be one. The bus goes through a huge park, alongside another, and seems to end up nowhere. There’s a medieval gate in splendid isolation and some bits of wall behind railings, and a lot of postwar stuff. It’s like the new housing estate in Molesey, expanded to make a universe, with the same long history made invisible, obliterated by the Luftwaffe, or preserved by the council. There’s quite a good record shop tucked away behind some stuff, opposite a carpark. That’ll probably do.
I don’t write dad any more letters. I just take my washing home, drink tea, chat about not much and don’t tell him anything about what I get up to in Southampton. When I am home Ann comes to sleep over, and dad, as ever, is fine with that and leaves cups of tea outside my bedroom door, announced with a subtle cough. Years later he tells he didn’t approve at all really, but didn’t want to spoil it for me as he was just happy that I had found someone, (like he found mum, he didn’t need to say).
I have read in NME that people who are social secretaries at uni go on to manage bands or record labels. I ingratiate myself, fantasising out loud about my rockist career to come, with the bloke who organises the bands at our halls: but after shifting a lot of heavy furniture from the dining hall so that The Vibrators, a minor first wave punk band, can play, I evaporate. A little later I walk past him and some of his cronies, and I hear someone say ‘Oh look, there goes the new social secretary’. I walk on, shoulder blades touching.
We seem to have just missed out on a decade’s worth of excitement, and to be looking back beyond it, Ray Davies style. AC/DC play in the student union, to four dozen apathetic students, some of whom unwisely throw the odd bottle, and a few local lads. Deafening, bludgeoning and pure vaudeville. Two weeks afterwards we are helpless before Max Wall – the cadaverous soul of variety. Later still we sit frowning seriously through Krapp’s Last Tape.
Then Bill Grundy interviews the Pistols. We don’t even see it, but now we have a circus to revel in: spit and sawdust gratis.