The impressive frontage of Chelsea College along Manresa Road, London SW3.
An open book
I joined the other freshers for our introductory talk in the wood-panelled lecture theatre which dated back to the 1890s. The lecturer must have been in his thirties and, due to his low status in the academic hierarchy, he was given the job of introducing the college to us oiks. We would not be introduced to the senior lecturers for some time.
This lecturer was dressed in the academics’ relaxed garb of tweed jacket, knitted tie and slacks. No academic gown but the college had only just become a university. He was as bemused as we were; he commented on the fact that two or three of us men were wearing pink shirts which should not have been surprising since we were just one hundred feet from the boutique-laden King’s Road, Chelsea.
No register, no class timetable, no uniform, no compulsory sports, time off to read. We could even smoke in lectures although no-one did. It wasn’t much like school after all. I reckoned I could deal with this. I had a good education, passed my exams to get there, there was enough money to get by, and I had somewhere to live.
I tried to make friends but it was not long before I discovered how different I was from my fellow students. They, mainly men but a few women, appeared to have all grown up in the suburbs of London or Surrey. The first person I tried to strike up a conversation with had grown up in Surbiton which already had a reputation as the archetypal suburbia with social pretensions. Several were the children of pharmacists or doctors; I decided to keep quiet about my origins.
They all had middle class accents; no sign of Cockney, not even the odd ‘gie us a butchers’. I was looking forward to meeting my first real Londoners but it would not be at Chelsea College. There weren’t many regional accents either. My Birmingham lilt confused some who asked if I came from Liverpool and did I know the Beatles? I admit to trying to change my accent, not because I was ashamed of it but because I was fed up with explaining that that I was not Liverpudlian. I did notice a distinct drop in interest when I revealed from whence I hailed so I just said I was from Acton.
I didn’t make any friends at college. They all went back to Surbiton or Wimbledon at the end of the day whereas I was on a voyage of discovery. No-one was interested in poking around the pubs of Soho, or the bookshops of Charing Cross Road, or slumming it in Covent Garden (still, at that time, a fruit and veg market, not the tourist trap it is today). I wanted to explore not just places and events but culture and ideas.
The public library, Manresa Road, outside and inside, where I discovered much.
I had not read much as a teenager; science exams and spending evenings at a youth club left little time for inspirational or enjoyable reading. At school the fiction I read off-curriculum was a couple of Hardy’s Wessex novels, a bit of Tolkien and I quite liked Dylan Thomas. Whilst growing up, however, we had a small library at home; an alcove bookshelf next to the fireplace and behind the television. These had been bought by Dad either in bulk round about the time I was born or through a book club. Most were published by a company called Odhams whose books you rarely saw in shops.
My father will never know how grateful I was for this library. There were encyclopedias, history books, photograph albums, novels, popular science texts, how to make and do things. I must have read them all, several times. Then I would go to the public library in Bournville to find more books. When I had read everything of interest in the children’s section, by the age of ten or eleven, I was in the adult section absorbing anything that appealed at the time including Scottish history, steam engines, electronics, radio comedy scripts, Punch magazine, philately. Not much imaginative writing however; no novels, just a little poetry.
I devoured these brilliant books. And more, including Turgenev, Camus, Kafka, Anouilh etc.
In Chelsea, the public library and the college next door were symbiotic; I could borrow books using my college library card. It became my haven where I discovered French and Russian novels; German, British and American poetry, existentialist literature, absurd theatre, modern English and American writers and so much more.
I was on the road to ruin; I would never be the same again. In the evening I would go back to Acton, to Mrs Haggar, Jeffrey and Rusty. With no television or even a radio I would carry on reading.
 The building was sold off to property developers and by 2015 Manresa Road was considered to be the third most expensive street in England with average property prices approaching £7.5 million. As I write, a seven-bedroom flat is for sale at £25.5 million. Just a few years ago it was the home for students, artists, writers. Now it is an expensive sterile desert. I also think this is a photoshopped picture – the building was never this long!
 The college was built in 1895 as a high level academic institution devoted to science and technology, as opposed to the humanitarian objectives of established universities. Other advanced institutes were established as ‘polytechnics’ at the time, taking their inspiration from the Ecole Polytechnic set up by Napoleon in Paris. The college awarded degrees endorsed by the University of London until it was given university status in 1966.
 A popular British sitcom of the 1970s, The Good Life, was set in Surbiton. It contrasted the lives of neighbours, one couple attempting to be self-sufficient by turning their suburban home into a small holding and their upwardly mobile, snobbish neighbours.