Earlier this month I retired after 13 very fulfilling years as a board member and former Chairperson of
. Here are my thoughts:
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 November 14, 2013 at 12:10 PM|
This week I decided to review a song that I've known and loved for years and years.
Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon (sometimes known as "Deportees" ) is a folk song written in 1948 by Woody Guthrie. I've known it since I was a teenager and I think that it may be the best political song ever written.
It's poetic, with remarkable imagery. It's written from experience and from the heart and the political message is just as relevant today as it was when it was it was written sixty-five years ago.
Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912, and was one of the "dust bowl refugees" described by John Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath" who sought work in the orchards of California in the 1930s. He and Steinbeck knew each other. When he wrote the song Guthrie had just heard that a plane had crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, California its way to Mexico, killing all those onboard. The plane was carrying four American crew members and twenty-eight illegal immigrants who had been working in California's orchards. The plane had been chartered by the Immigration Authorities specifically to deport the twenty-eight and did not have enough seats for them all.
In the first verse Guthrie deals with the pointlessness of it all. Too many crops have been picked and some of them left to rot, and next year the people who've been deported will pay hard earned money to people traffickers to get back to the USA so that the whole process can be repeated:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Guthrie read about the crash in the New York Times, whose report printed the names of the crew members and a security guard, but simply described the passengers as "deportees" and didn't print their names. These people had no worth - this is the point that Guthrie stresses in the chorus which is repeated at the end of each verse:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
The next two verses continue to describe the lives of the illegal immigrants that America depends upon to bring in its harvests:
My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
The next verse reminds me that little has changed in sixty-five years, and that Guthrie's words are just as applicable to Europe now as it is was to America then. It reminds me that this year hundreds of people have died in ill-equipped boats in the Mediterranean trying to enter Europe illegally, and it also reminds me of the fate of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle pickers , all illegal migrant workers who were killed by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, England in 2004:
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
In the next, penultimate verse, Guthrie returns to the fact that the press refuse to name the victims of this disaster and uses the images of "scattered dry leaves" to describe the plight of the deportees. He convinces us that these people are his friends. It is unlikely that he did know any of them personally as he'd been living in New York for a decade by 1948, but of course when he was a migrant worker in the California orchards of the 1930s he would have known many people like them:
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"
In the final verse Woody Guthrie continues the dry leaves imagery to rail against the system that caused the deaths of the thirty two passengers and crew.
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?
It's very clever imagery - just who or what is falling like dry leaves and rotting on whose topsoil? This is what makes this song such a profound criticism of the system that feeds us and these few lines are what makes the song so relevant to today:
The song ends with a final chorus which begins:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria
By giving names to the nameless, Woody Guthrie has empowered them.
You can listen to Joan Baez singing "Plane Crash" here:
English folk singer Kevin Littlewood has written a very powerful song about the Chinese Cockle pickers. If you enjoyed "Deportees" you'll probably like that too.