Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.
Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.
In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?
In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.
In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.
The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would!
|Posted on October 22, 2014 at 6:10 PM||comments (37)|
I'd always thought that none of my relatives served in World War 1. But that's because I was thinking about young men, and the sacrifices they made. But I've started to read "Daughters of Mars" by Thomas Kenneally, which tells the story of two sisters - Naomi and Sally Durrance - who were brought up on a remote dairy farm in New South Wales and, when they were in their early twenties, joined the war effort as nurses; first of all at Gallipoli and then at the Battle of the Somme.
Reading this book made me remember that I had a relative who played some role in the health services during the war. I'll tell you Great Aunt Ethel's story a bit later.
Now, I'm less than half way through Kenneally's long, epic and gripping book. It's 1915, and so far Naomi and Sally have sailed on a hospital ship -the Archimedes - from Melbourne to Alexandria. The early days of their war are easy. All they have to do is to treat young Australian men who've caught venereal diseases in the brothels of Cairo, and their leisure time is taken up with tea dances and visits to Greek, Roman and Egyptian remains, in the company of Australian and British Officers, many of whom have studied classical civilizations at Oxford or Cambridge, and wanted impress these naive young women with their knowledge. The girls' experience of the world is already far broader than it would have been had they stayed on the farm.
Then the Archimedes makes its first voyage to Gallipoli. They've taken what was thought to be three months worth of morphine and bandages with them but supplies begin to run out after twenty four hours. Aboard the ship, country doctors are asked to perform major surgery of the kind they've only read about in journals in inadequate conditions. Kenneally's highly detailed and sometimes quite technical description of some of the injuries turns the stomach.
On the Archimedes' second voyage to Gallipoli the ship is torpedoed and the main protagonists have to take to the lifeboats - if there is room - or cling alongside while treading water if there isn't. This scene is depicted over forty highly turbulent, descriptive and emotional pages. The main characters are eventually rescued by the French navy and taken to a British Hospital on the Island of Lemnos to recuperate.
And that's as far as I've got - 167 out of 519 pages. But I know from the reviews and the cover blurb that the two sisters will eventually serve at the Battle of Somme, and they may or may not find love, and that some relationships will probably be terminated by sudden death. This book has prompted me to find out more about my mother's aunt Ethel - her mother's sister. So I googled "Ethel Bridgeman World War 1" and immediately got the result I was looking for.
Ethel was sixty-two in the year of my birth and she died when I was thirteen. A Londoner by birth, she lived in Edinburgh with her husband Sandy Stevenson and they had no children. I've always known that they had met during the Great War, and I think that Sandy may have been quite a lot younger than Ethel, who was twenty-nine when she became a Red Cross Volunteer. Family folklore says that they met when she was nursing him, and that she had continued to nurse him - whether he needed it or not - throughout their long marriage. I recall my Mother telling me that she had visited them at home in Edinburgh when she was a young woman, and had seen Ethel waiting hand and foot on her husband. "She used to blow on his soup to cool it" she said.
There's nobody around to ask any more, but could it be that Sandy's experiences in France had damaged him to such an extent that he couldn't function without this sort of attention? He came to our house only once after Ethel died, and was clearly totally disorientated and incapable of looking after himself without her. He died only a few months after Ethel.
Ethel and Sandy always made an annual trip by train to London, and they would stay with Ethel's sister-in-law Ada in Clapham. And during that trip the three of them would always come to afternoon tea with our family in North London. Ada was very old and very deaf and used an ear trumpet which both fascinated and horrified me as a small boy. It didn't seem to do very much for her hearing, as when she was in the house everybody had to shout very loudly to make her understand. She was , by far, the dominant personality of the three of them.
Ada was also very wealthy, unlike most members of my extended family. My Dad knew Ada years before he met my Mum because in the 1930s she used to knock on doors on the street where he lived to collect debts. She was a Great War widow who had, after her husband was killed, taken over the running of his family's business, which was that of a "Tally Man" - a firm that sold cheap clothes and household goods on credit to working class people on the 'never never', or hire purchase; and visited each household at the same time each week to collect the payments of just a few pennies or shillings. At some time after World War 2 she'd sold the business to Freemans of London, a public company that operated a mail-order catalogue business, and she was a substantial shareholder in Freemans. My mother bought from the Freemans Catalogue and so did many of our neighbours. Ada had no children , and when she died she left my parents a small legacy - £250. When they received this cheque they opened their first bank account. They were by then in their sixties.
But back to Ethel. I only dimly remember her from these childhood visits because of Ada's dominant personality - when Ada was in the room it was difficult for anybody else to get a word in edgeways and everything had to be repeated loudly several times before Ada got the gist. Ethel was one of over 90,000 people who volunteered for the British Red Cross during the conflict. She joined one of the Voluntary Aid Detachments (VADs), which were attached either to the Red Cross, the St Johns' or the Territorial Forces. The Detachments were intended to be used for home defence only, but in the event they served in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and Mesopotamia. Each women's detachment consisted of a Commandant (either male or female), a Lady Superintendent (preferably a trained nurse) and 20 women (four of whom had to be trained cooks).
Twenty-nine year old Ethel joined her VAD in May 1916, and her first position was that of a lift attendant at the King George Military Hospital in Stamford Street, Waterloo. Reputedly the largest hospital in the United Kingdom, the King George Hospital was a converted warehouse that had 1650 beds. The convoys of wounded men were brought by boat train to Waterloo Station, and then taken to the hospital through tunnels which were built as an integral part of the warehouse. The tunnels enabled badly wounded men to be conveyed to the Hospital out of sight of the public, so as not to damage civilian morale. Perhaps that's when Ethel and Sandy first saw each other; maybe she brought this wounded man up from the tunnels in her lift?
The Red Cross and the St Johns' equipped the wards, operating theatres, dispensaries, the chapel, day rooms for the patients and sleeping quarters for the staff, all paid for by public donation. The British Farmers' Red Cross Fund donated £4,000 to purchase equipment for the operating theatres and the X-ray Department. There were 149 doctors, a Matron, 3 Principal Sisters, 10 Senior Sisters, 37 Sisters, 228 Staff Nurses and 80 female orderlies, including of course my Aunt Ethel.
On the 29th August 1919, just over eight months after the War had technically ended, Ethel was transferred to a "Casualty Clearing Station" in France. Her service record doesn't say where in France this was. There were over thirty such stations, which were generally located on or near railway lines, to facilitate movement of casualties from the battlefield and on to the hospitals. The job of the station was to treat a man sufficiently for his return to duty or to enable him to be evacuated to another hospital. The Wikipedia entry for this topic says that the station "was not a place for a long-term stay", but this cannot actually have been the case if Ethel was still working at such a centre so long after the end of hostilities.
Ethel was finally discharged on 16th March 1920, Her role was then a storekeeper. She married Sandy in her home town of Wandsworth in 1924 when she was thirty eight and went to live with him in Edinburgh. She died in 1962. This is her service record.
What a pity that the young boy she took afternoon tea with every summer holiday never asked her or Sandy more about their experiences. But those who served in the Great war became taciturn, they probably wouldn't have wanted to tell me even if I'd had the forethought to ask.
Finally, here's an image of Thomas Kenneally's great book that stated me on the on the quest to discover Ethel and Sandy: