Days of beans and sherry

York University students coming out of Heslington Hall back in the 60s
York University students coming out of Heslington Hall back in the 60s
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Universities have changed greatly over the years. Stephen McClarence takes a trip down memory lane and revisits his old stomping grounds in York.

SO this was the kitchen where, on a Baby Belling, I made my baked beans on toast. Occasionally, in more exotic moods, I rose to spaghetti hoops on toast. But mostly it was beans.

It was where – day in, day out, and long into the night – I made coffee in psychedelically-patterned mugs: instant coffee and powdered milk that congealed into floating lumps before it half-dissolved. Just down the corridor on the left is my old room. And everywhere, in every corner, lurks a seething morass of nostalgia.

Lenore Klassen is taking me on a guided tour of my student days at York University more than 30 years ago. I can almost hear Bridge Over Troubled Water, see the Easy Rider posters and smell the patchouli oil as we stalk the hall of residence where I lived for three years (I’d seen the potential squalor of bedsits in big Victorian houses and wasn’t having any of it).

The residence block is shoebox-shaped, utilitarian, like concrete Lego, and it’s showing its age so badly that it’s likely to be demolished. “But students get to love it,” says Lenore, a university administrator. “It’s a very social space.”

I’m back on York’s out-of-town campus, with its plastic-bottomed lake, covered walkways and relentlessly honking Canada geese. Returning to the campus after so many years is a surreal experience – all the more so when, a fortnight later, Linda Grant’s new novel Upstairs at the Party is published and I discover that it covers some of the same ground: former student revisits university almost half-a-lifetime on.

Grant was a York undergraduate a couple of years behind me, and though we were both doing English Literature, I never met her, any more than I met Harriet Harman, who was also there at the time.

We were young, but not as young as the university – a “new” institution founded on liberal principles in the mid-Sixties. Grant doesn’t mention it by name but it’s clearly the setting for the first half of the novel, which zips along with an energy not always sustained in the more diffuse second half, which explores the long-term consequences of a student’s death at a bedsit party.

Grant takes a sceptical look at student life in the 1970s, with its Afghan coats and cheesecloth shirts, its change-the-world idealism and its radical politics. Radical? We protested if there was nothing to protest about.

Some people, I remember, found this isolated, insulated “playpen of student ideas” all too claustrophobic and grasped every opportunity to get away at weekends. A damp Sunday afternoon swirling with winter fog could lend the concrete campus a lonely bleakness.

The ethos was so liberal that you were left pretty much to your own devices. In the English department, lectures were optional: astonishing in today’s busily timetabled, fees-justifying academic world.

It was all very middle class, an eye-opener for working class kids like me, with almost-full-grants, the first in the family to go to “uni” (as no one called it then).

Some of us were so unworldly, so unsophisticated, that we – well, I – took a bottle of sherry to a party; cream sherry at that. One of our lecturers called everyone “Honeychild”: not an endearment much heard back home in urban Sheffield.

As Adele, the narrator in Grant’s book, says: “The government paid us to spend three years being students, which meant, in those days, a way of life suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings.” You soon learned to take bottles of Hirondelle and Blue Nun to parties, not Harvey’s Bristol Cream.

And if you did opt to go to lectures, you might be surprised. One of York’s biggest coups in my day was to recruit the legendary FR Leavis as a visiting professor. As perhaps the 20th century’s most celebrated, most controversial literary critic, he was a big draw to new students.

He duly puts in a guest appearance in the novel, wearing (very accurate, this) “an open-necked shirt revealing far too much of a brown, wrinkled chest”. He was by this time, however, an old man, past his best, rambling on about “Tom” (TS Eliot) and books he’d last read in 1916. Audiences at his lectures dwindled week by week, and by the end of term a postcard was pinned to the departmental notice board saying he was available for private consultation.

Upstairs at the Party brings all this back – along with our student fetish for chocolate digestives and Bourbon creams – as vividly as actually revisiting the campus, now vastly expanded. It has marched inexorably across the surrounding fields, so what all those years ago seemed like a modern estate in a landscaped park now seems like a satellite town, glittering with glass, criss-crossed by curving roads and footpaths.

There were no roads called Innovation Way back then, no “hubs” (“Department of Chemistry Hub”); the English Department didn’t have a Dissertation Convenor or an International Student Co-ordinator. There were no computer screens with students still hunched obsessively over them at 2am. No instant communication.

“Mobile phones on silent or vibrate,” says a sign in the library, which has three zones: Silent Zone, Quiet Zone and Studious Buzz Zone.

I drift round like a ghost, bumping into my own past round every other corner. I wander through the glades of willow and sycamore that have grown where bare lawns used to be. I see the room where I shared tutorials with the daughter of an Italian diplomat.

She sometimes flew home to Florence at the weekends; I took the stopping train back to Sheffield via Pontefract. I spot the occasional Lenin poster in a student bedroom; maybe ironic, I suppose.

And, to fix me unescapably in the past, the campus is dotted with photographs of my era and before – straggly-haired students striking gawky political poses, cosier people sitting round tables under Cinzano sunshades, bringing a touch of the Riviera to the sun-baked concrete.

There’s a shot of the first Breakfast Show on YSTV (York Student Television) in 1986 – a decade after another would-be journalist and I were presenters on the station’s daily lunchtime bulletin. I played Reginald Bosanquet; she played Anna Ford (though she hadn’t quite been invented).

It seemed important to be broadcasting live, to bring a global perspective to student lunchtimes. But we’d come out of the studios with our scripts in cardboard folders and find all the campus’s TV volume controls turned down so they didn’t distract from games of bar football.

The university newspaper, I’m glad to see, is still called Nouse. It was a multi-punning name that took some explaining: News, Nous (French for “we”), Ouse (York’s river) and, some said, No Use.

It looks a much slicker, more professional job than it did in my day. I worked on it for a while and recall rewriting parts of an article by an assertive mature student. I reckoned he had no future in the media. His name was Greg Dyke.

• Upstairs at the Party by Linda Grant (Virago, £14.99).