DIARY 12 October 1967 First days at university

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The impressive frontage of Chelsea College along Manresa Road[1], 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[2]. 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[3]. 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.

Chelsea_College_Library_at_Manresa_Road,_1970s_  manresa-road-ref-copy

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.

Diary 671002 First day at university

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.

[1] 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!

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

DIARY 2 October 1967 Going to London

 

Manresa Road   

Destination: Chelsea College of Science and Technology, Manresa Road, London SW3.

Going to London

Monday 2 October 1967 was an ordinary day in Birmingham. There were rain showers, interspersed with occasional clear skies, about usual for the season. But for me it was far from ordinary. I was leaving home to go to university in London. It meant saying goodbye to everyone I knew to go to a place where I knew no-one. I was not daunted; my anticipation was high.

I put my few clothes and other personal items into an ex-Navy duffel bag; my wardrobe was still suffering from an excess of school uniform and regulation grey trousers and white shirts which I gladly jettisoned. I said ‘goodbye’ to Mom in the living room. We were not an expressive family but I kissed her on the cheek and felt as if I was abandoning her.

My brother and sister were at school or work; Dad was in hospital. I had already said goodbye to my girlfriend, promising to come back for weekends. I slung my bag over my shoulder and left through the front door. No-one was there to wave goodbye and I didn’t look back. I walked down the road and caught the bus to town.

Getting off the bus, I walked round New Street railway station to Digbeth coach station where I paid just over a pound for my one-way ticket on the Midland Red motorway express. I had twelve pounds in my pocket, saved up from my summer job at Boots, about a week’s wages for some. I had refused financial help from my family. I had opened my first proper bank account at Barclays and I had a grant cheque for £128. It was more cash than I had ever owned at one time although it included my rent and had to last until Christmas.

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Considering my current business venture (as a manufacturer of model buses), I could not miss this opportunity to include a picture of a bus. This is the Midland Red Birmingham to London motorway express 1967.

Although the motorway began and ended short of both cities, I reached Victoria in less than three hours. Compared to the decrepit steam railway, these coaches reached up to 80 miles an hour on the new motorway and seemed to be the future. I relaxed, temporarily, in its fast-moving luxury. Then, suddenly, I was pitched into the apparent chaos of London, all alone, heaving a duffel bag that seemed to be getting heavier.

New students were normally expected to live in a hall of residence but Chelsea College of Science and Technology had only just received university status and did not have enough rooms for all its freshers. I was placed in ‘digs’ in Acton. Although I had been on the tube (once) before it was perplexing to find my way to Turnham Green. Once there, I began to use my new A to Z to find my way to Hatfield Road, London W3.

Hatfield Road

Our room was the upstairs front bedroom.

I was introduced to Jeffrey, a third-year student of pharmacology with whom I would be sharing a room. We had little in common except our field of study. He came from Mountain Ash in south Wales and, I believe, returned there after his studies. I was surprised about how two years in London had changed him not at all.

Our landlady, Mrs Haggar, lived downstairs. She was becoming elderly and was not overtly friendly; she would spend her days in a small living room with her dog, a Labrador cross called Rusty. He, on the other hand, was wildly enthusiastic; we were two young men away from home and far from those who might show us affection. We were grateful for Rusty’s attention and I would take him for walks in the local park where we both enjoyed a feeling of freedom.    

Mrs Haggar provided us with breakfast every morning but we hardly ever saw her. She cooked eggs early in the morning and left them for us. By the time we partook of this feast they would have congealed into something unrecognisable as food. Rusty would snap them up but I worried for his health. Feeding them to the dog might have been a mistake because it looked as if we had actually enjoyed them and so they kept coming nearly every morning.

The next day Jeffrey helped me to find my way to the college. Back to Turnham Green station, we took the Piccadilly Line and got off at South Kensington. Finding our way through one of those typical London squares I noted that the houses were very palatial but still in a terraced row like Dawlish Road back home (but completely unlike in all other respects).

After a couple of confusing turns, we were in Manresa Road. To the left was Chelsea College of Art and to the right Chelsea College of Science and Technology. They might have appeared to be a matching pair but I later learned that there was virtually no contact, academically, socially or culturally between the two colleges.

College Manresa Road Door

Chelsea College entrance, Manresa Road.

I presented myself at the college door with the other new students, adjusted my red chiffon scarf, buttoned up my maroon cord jacket and registered.

 

Copyright © Derek Perry according to current law. Not to be reproduced in any medium without permission. Applicable to all pages published here.

 

 

DIARY FIRST ENTRY 1 July 1967

 

Fifty years ago I was 18 years old. I had just left school and expecting to go to university. I was on the threshold of becoming an adult, which was exciting and bewildering enough for this working class youth from Birmingham. But little did I know that Britain was in the process of unprecedented social and cultural change which would sweep me along with it.

This summer, 2017, there are many anniversaries being celebrated. It is fifty years since the Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Fifty years since homosexuality was de-criminalised, Half a century since new laws were introduced promoting equal pay and making racial discrimination unlawful. At about this time, censorship was relaxed, abortion made legal and the contraceptive pill became easily available.

In 1967 we saw massive demonstrations against the war being waged in Vietnam by the USA. In a few months time, in May 1968 there would be a near revolution in Paris with other uprisings across the world including Czechoslovakia. The British Empire continued the decline it had suffered since the 1940s.

This blog will be my real time diary from fifty years ago. I will attempt to re-imagine what I was doing, thinking, feeling, reading, watching, experiencing at that time. I did not keep a diary at the time so I cannot be certain about dates or names in some cases. It will be how I remember it, with some hindsight, but I will try not to make things up. This is a true story. I will only use real names with permission.

This blog will be updated at least once a month. I aim to continue adding entries for about five years, covering the period up to summer 1972. If my memory holds, I may continue it further.