Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Where It All Goes Ever So Slightly Political

History fascinates me. It always has. It’s not the kings and the queens and the wars and the reform laws that buzz up my brain so much as it is trying to imagine the impact that these things had on the lives of the ordinary people who were around at the same time. I think, as a child, I took some sort of historic inspiration from my great-nana. Being born in 1900, we always said that Nana Lily was ‘as old as the years.’ It gave me an easy point of reference and helped me to remember interesting details and important dates. I could make sense of the first eighty-seven years of the twentieth century by measuring them against my great-grandmother’s life; she was a one year old baby when Queen Victoria died, twelve when The Titanic sank, a teenager during the war to end all wars - but then, when she was thirty-nine, she had to go through the whole miserable experience all over again…

And even though, my great-nana is no longer with us (to be fair, she’d be 110 now!), my interest in History still is. And what it’s taught me is that, for most of us, life is one great big lucky dip. We may think we are in control of our own affairs but we owe a massive amount to luck and circumstance. Take Shakespeare for example; he wrote fantastic plays. But only because he was born at exactly the right time. A decade or two earlier and he’d have lived in a society that knew virtually nothing about the new world, cared little for Greek and Italian poetry and was mostly occupied in avoiding being burned at the stake. A decade or two later and Oliver Cromwell would have closed all the theatres and put Shakespeare very definitely out of work.

So it’s pretty amazing and lucky then that although that creative window of opportunity was narrow, somebody incredible squeezed through it.

And now, with all that I’ve been seeing and hearing on the news, I can see that history handed me a window of opportunity too. At eighteen, I packed up my suitcase and left my home in Felixstowe to study for a degree in English at Aberystwyth University. (Yes, that’s me in the picture with uncombed hair and the date tippexed out in a failed attempt to forge new numbers so I could continue getting student discounts.) I had a fantastic time. I’m now rather ashamed to say that, without paying a single penny in fees, I did the bare minimum of work. But even so, the entire experience changed my life. It took me to the other side of Britain. It made me meet people from a whole range of geographical and social backgrounds. And it gave me the confidence to believe that I could do things in my own way. I’m absolutely sure that if I hadn’t gone off to Aberystwyth at eighteen years old, I wouldn’t have had the confidence to travel around America when I was nineteen or to work in France when I was twenty-one or Brussels when I was twenty-four, or any of those other places that I found myself in along the way. And I DEFINITELY, ABSOLUTELY wouldn’t have had the CONFIDENCE and SHEER AUDACITY to think that I could actually write a book…

And only now do I realise how kind history has been to me. I do not come from a family which has a tradition of sending its sons and daughters to university. When I was seventeen, I had to convince my parents that this was what I really wanted to do. Had I been born any earlier, there is no way that I’d even have contemplated the idea in my own mind. Girls like me left school at sixteen and got married and had babies and then, as my nana once put it - ‘got a little job to buy the jam to put on the bread which granddad buys.’

And if I were a sixth-former now, I just wouldn’t be able to afford all of those fees. I was brought up to avoid debt and not to pay for things on the ‘never never.’ The prospect of beginning my working life owing tens of thousands of pounds would have terrified me. And if I had gone, there’s no way I’d have dared to accrue such debt over an arts subject so I’d have confined my choices to something practical like Business Studies or Law - and only then at Felixstowe Primark University which has the cheapest fees. And all this would, of course, have bored me to death so I wouldn’t have gone.

Which means that had the same set of circumstances existed back then, I’d now be doing a little job in Felixstowe so that I can buy jam to put on someone else’s bread.

It’s a VERY VERY SCARY thought.

And I feel deeply sorry for the teenagers who are facing these options today. Obtaining a place at university should be based on merit NOT money. I definitely do not agree with mindless violence or the idiotic action of dropping a fire extinguisher from the top of an office block - but I can understand those students who are feeling moved enough to forget their manners. In the words of Clare Solomon, ULU President, ‘A few smashed windows cost nothing compared to a smashed education system and a smashed society.’
The history books may well show that 2010 was the year when higher education in the UK shifted from being an academic enterprise to a commercial one; I hope it doesn’t happen too easily though.

I shall now climb off my soap-box.

A special hello to all those LOVELY GORGEOUS GIGGLY girls at Weatherhead High School in the Wirral who were an ABSOLUTE PLEASURE to meet. And I’ve had LOADS of emails from people in the last month. Thank you to all of you.

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