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 8, 2015 at 9:30 AM||comments (3)|
Before there were supermarkets there were corner shops and counter-service grocery chains.
When I was a kid we lived just across the road from Mrs Scott's corner shop that sold all manner of tinned and packeted foods and household items, as well as butter, cheese and ham, fresh vegetables, a little fruit, sacks of firewood and Coalite ( a kind of smokeless coal I think, but it wouldn't meet today's definition of "smokeless"). The shop was a converted terraced house, and the fruit and veg was kept outside the shop on a market stall in what would have been the front garden. To get the coal and firewood you had to go round the back to the shed. The shop kept three people employed six and a half days a week; from dawn to dusk every day except Sunday when she shut the shop at 1pm. Mrs Scott was a woman in her sixties or perhaps her seventies when I was a teenager. She did not have a first name as far as I know. She was just Mrs Scott, a respected figure to the whole neighbourhood.
Working alongside here were her forty-something daughter and son-in-law, Annie and Ronnie. As late as 1980 Annie still had the most enormous beehive hairstyle that was fashionable in the early sixties. She hadn't noticed that fashion had moved on, probably because she worked such long hours in the shop that she never had time to observe. Ronnie's hairstyle was a Bobby Charlton style comb-over.
Lots of people who lived near us in Upper Edmonton would do all their shopping at Mrs Scott's, probably on tick. She would get anything anyone wanted; I've seen people carrying out TVs and Radios from that little shop. Mrs Scott didn't sell booze though, because the kind of affluent working class people who had a padded vinyl cocktail cabinet in their front room got it the Off-licence counter at the Rising Sun; and she didn't sell milk because everyone got it from the milkman.
We only used Mrs Scott's shop for top-ups. My Mum would have been appalled at the idea of buying food on tick, the shop was a little expensive, but most of all it wasn't accessible to my Mum's hand-propelled invalid chair. She needed to shop somewhere where she could see what she was buying, and on the main street, Fore Street Edmonton, there were the counter-service chains - The Home and Colonial Stores, The Maypole Dairy and Caters. Edmonton wasn't posh enough for Sainsbury's.
In the early sixties The Maypole didn't even have a fridge, When I used to walk past it on the way to school when I was eleven, there was a huge lorry outside delivering great big blocks of ice. They must have weighed tons. I will always remember the ice company's name on the side of the truck, which was:
The United Carlo Gatti, Stevenson, Slaters & Co. Ice Merchants
Yes, it was a very long truck, and apparently the London Canal Museum is now housed in what was Carlo Gatti's ice house in Islington.
Caters was the biggest grocery shop on Fore Street, and I worked there as a Saturday boy for about three years until I left school in 1966. I earned twenty five shillings a week. Cater Brothers was an old established family -run chain of stores with its roots in the East End that had, by the 1960s expanded northwards towards Enfield and beyond. The branch where I worked in Fore Street had seven counters. There were three wooden ones for tinned and packeted groceries, another wooden one for biscuits, which were sold loose and weighed out for each purchase. On the other side of the shop were three marble counters; one each for bacon and sausages (Caters were very proud of their bacon that they used to cure and smoke themselves), one for ham and cooked meats, and finally, by the back door, one for eggs butter and cheese.
Each new Saturday boy or Saturday girl started by filling the shelves behind the dry goods counter. If you were any good you got promoted to the biscuit counter where you would handle a till and scales for the first time, then to the dry goods tills, and then to one of the other counters where you would learn how to cut cheese, ham, and if you were a boy and if you mastered all those skills you would be taught how to operate a bacon slicer. Girls weren't allowed to do that, of course, as they couldn't be expected to lift a whole side of bacon. At least, that's what the firm said. I did learn how to operate this machine, and I'm actually quite proud that I acquired that manual skill - and it really is a skill - when I was about fifteen or sixteen.
To my disgust, when I was seventeen, health and safety legislation was passed. You had to be eighteen or older to operate the slicer. I had to go and work on the cheese counter for my final year at Caters.
The range of food we sold was, by today's standards very restricted. Before the UK joined what was then called the European Common Market, most fresh food was imported from the Commonwealth. We sold five types of cheddar; Australian (tasted like soap), New Zealand (mild), English (strong), Scottish (stronger still) and Canadian ( strong enough to clear your sinuses); as well as just three "continental" cheeses, Edam, Gorgonzola and Danish Blue. New Zealand cheddar was our biggest seller by a mile; I seem to remember that it cost three shillings and four pence (about 17p) per pound but I could be wrong. People used to shop little and often, the biggest selling items were a quarter pound block of cheddar and a quarter of gammon ham. Half a pound was a rarity, a whole pound was unheard of.
My cheese counter working day started half an hour before the shop opened, when I would get a fifty pound bock of Scottish cheddar out of a walk-in fridge at the back of the shop, put it on a marble bench and cut it into 20 half pound blocks and the remainder into quarters. I can still cut exactly one quarter pound of cheese by eye today. The day ended with putting the unsold food back into the fridges, spreading sawdust on the floor and sweeping it, before queuing up at the cash office for a brown envelope containing twenty-five shillings less a deduction of a few pennies for National Insurance. As I walked the few hundred yards home I must have reeked of cheese. The smell was so strong that I couldn't eat anything, let alone go out for a Saturday night without having a bath beforehand.
I worked at Caters full-time in many of my school holidays; I would get over Five pounds a week for that. If I was working in the week then one of my jobs would be to answer the doorbell at the goods entrance. Every Monday at about 11am John Knight & Sons would ring the bell to collect a week's supply of discarded bacon bones, skin and gristle that had been thrown into a huge metal bin at the far end of the warehouse. In summer time, the vat was hot and fermenting by the time it was collected.
So, who were John Knight & Sons and why did they want our bacon bones?
John Knight's were the makers of Knight's Castille soap. And a traditional soap making recipe just needs animal fats, wood-ash and something else that smells a lot nicer than wood ash and animal fats.
This is Caters branch on Edmonton Green. I haven't been able to find a picture of the Fore Street branch