Bridges Over Untroubled Waters?

York alum, Stephen McClarence (1970-73), returns to campus to reminisce about his time at the University of York.

Bridges Over Untroubled Waters?

Deep down in one of the yellowing heaps of newspapers composting in my office is a 1973 cutting from The Northern Echo of me (left), looking about 12, and fellow student Tom Lodge, looking about student age. The two of us, pictured reading the news on the student TV channel, were about to launch a magazine called Nouslit – which, as we portentously wrote in our first editorial, ‘hopes to provide the university with a medium through which it can express its more long-term thoughts’. 

The university already had (and still has) its own student newspaper – Nouse, its name an artful multi-pun that took a bit of explaining: News, Nous (as in ‘we’), Ouse (York’s river, of course) and, some people occasionally joked, ‘No Use’. 

Nouslit (cover price: 3p) was trying to play a more literary game, a more egalitarian, effortlessly laid-back game. In that first issue, one member of the editorial team casually berated a new book of poetry by a fellow member. The reviewer claimed that the poet had already had ‘limited success’  with a couple of anthologies. On the strength of those, he wrote, ‘I would not have thought that his poetry was sufficient either in variety of tone or in quality to stand the rigours of solitary confinement.’

After York, I became a journalist and for the past 20 years have written travel articles and book reviews for The Times and the Daily Telegraph and feature articles and reviews for the Yorkshire Post. Which is why I was back at York University (or, if you insist, the University of York, as almost no-one called it) eight years ago. 

The Telegraph had commissioned an article about a scheme called ‘University Rooms’, which lets out student accommodation to paying guests, mostly during vacations, when they would otherwise be empty.

Just a fortnight later, the Yorkshire Post commissioned a different piece – based on a new novel by Linda Grant, a former York student. Upstairs at the Party is clearly centred on her time at the university a couple of years after me. I never met her, even though we were both doing English Literature – English and Related Literature, to give it its best-bib-and-tucker title. 

Despite a few ‘mature students’, most of the 1970 York intake were young, though not as young as the university itself.  Combining brutalist architecture and relentlessly honking geese, the campus was just seven years old and centred, then as now, on its artificial lake and flying saucer-like Central Hall. There were just five colleges: Goodricke (which I joined), Derwent, Langwith, Alcuin and Vanbrugh. It was manageable, modern and, on a sunny day, strangely cosy. In a concrete-y way.

Forty-four years later, the geese were still there, still honking and strutting round as though they owned the place, when my wife Clare and I spent a weekend in one of the University Rooms – actually in Franklin House, a purpose-built guest block up near Alcuin. “This is going to be a real trip down Memory Lane,” I said to Clare. “Not Memory Lane,” she said. “Nostalgia cul-de-sac.”

She was right. I drifted like a ghost, bumping into my lank-haired past round every other corner. I wandered through the glades of willow and sycamore that had grown where bare lawns used to be. I passed the room where I shared tutorials with the daughter of an Italian diplomat. She sometimes flew home to Florence at weekends; I took the stopping train back home to Sheffield via Pontefract. 

The university seemed a predominantly middle-class place then – an eye-opener for working-class kids like me, possibly the first in our families to go to ‘uni’ and with almost-full grants. 

Some us were so unworldly, so unsophisticated, that we – well, I – took a bottle of sherry to a party. Cream sherry at that. One of the English lecturers addressed students as, “Honeychild” – not an endearment much heard in urban Sheffield. Another detailed the finer points of Melville’s Moby Dick while squirming whale-like on top of a seminar table.

It was all determinedly liberal. As Adele, the narrator in Upstairs at the Party, says: ‘The government paid us to spend three years being students, which meant, in those days, a way of life suited to Renaissance philosopher-kings.’ You soon learned to take bottles of wine not sherry to  parties. “Another glass of Hirondelle?” “No, thanks, I’ll stick to the Piat d’Or.”

To anchor me inescapably in the past on my return visit, the campus was now curiously dotted with photographs from my era: hairy students in flared Seventies loons striking gawky poses; perfectly groomed parents sitting round tables under Cinzano sunshades, bringing a hint of Yorkshire Riviera to the sun-baked campus; geese.

There was a shot of the first Breakfast Show on YSTV (York Student Television) in 1986, a decade after another would-be journalist and I were presenters on the station’s lunchtime bulletin. I pretended to be Reginald Bosanquet, the most famous newsreader of the day; my female oppo played Anna Ford (though Ms Ford actually hadn’t quite been invented by that time).

It seemed important to be broadcasting live, to bring an informed global perspective to student lunchtimes. We would march proudly out of the studios after the show, clutching our scripts in cardboard folders, braced for autograph-hunters. We invariably found, however, that the volume control on campus TV sets had been turned down so the programmes didn’t distract from games of bar football. We shook our heads. Pearls before swine.

Back on my University Rooms trip, nostalgia peaked when Clare and I had a guided tour of the Goodricke block where I had lived for three years (no scruffy-cum-squalid student bedsits in big Victorian houses for me). Shoebox-shaped and utilitarian, the block suggested concrete Lego. Going back was surreal. Here was the kitchen where I made my baked beans on toast on a Baby Belling. Occasionally, in more exotic moods, I rose to spaghetti hoops on toast. But mostly it was beans.

Day in, day out, and long into the night, I used to make coffee in psychedelically patterned mugs: instant coffee and powdered milk that congealed into floating lumps, like small, sweet icebergs.  Just down the corridor was my old room: sadly the student occupying it wasn’t there, so I couldn’t see inside. But I could almost hear Bridge Over Troubled Water and see an Easy Rider poster pinned to the wall and smell the patchouli oil.

Looking back on her own York experience, Adele describes feeling that on campus she felt like ‘a lab rat in a giant social experiment’. She reflects: ‘A few weeks after I arrived it sank in with queasy despair that there was nowhere to go but where we already were… The university was so new that the ancient city with its hulking cathedral had no student bars or student quarter; it turned its back on us, we were not wanted…’

This is a pretty accurate assessment of the way some Seventies students felt. They found this isolated, insulated ‘playpen of student ideas’ all too claustrophobic and grasped every opportunity to get away at weekends. A damp Sunday afternoon swirling with winter fog could lend the concrete campus a lonely bleakness. 

English Lit students at least had an advantage over others. Medieval English tutorials were often held at King’s Manor in the city centre. We sat chuntering about The Canterbury Tales in a beautiful courtyarded building which Chaucer himself could conceivably have visited (if he’d lived to be about 150). Late on snowy winter afternoons I generally walked back to the campus from King’s Manor. The streets were often almost deserted, the city morphing back from a tourist destination to a place where people actually lived.

As for the teaching, the ethos was so liberal that you were left pretty much to your own devices. In the English department, lectures were optional: astonishing in today’s fees-justifying academic world.

Upstairs at the Party brings it all back – including our student fetish for chocolate digestives and Bourbon creams – as vividly as actually revisiting the campus, now so vastly expanded. In my day, the university seemed like a garden village or a modern estate in a landscaped park. A friend once said it would make “a good holiday campus”. Eight years ago, though, it had marched inexorably across the surrounding fields and seemed almost a satellite town of York, glittering with glass, criss-crossed by curving roads and footpaths. 

Back in the Seventies there were no roads called ‘Innovation Way’, no ‘hubs’ (‘Department of Chemistry Hub’). Now, there were two supermarkets, lots of cafes and the odd bit of rebranding. Porters’ Lodges had become Reception. There was a Dissertation Convenor and an International Student  Co-ordinator. 

The world of 1970 was incalculably remote. Back then, there were no computers with students still hunched over their screens at 2am. No instant communication. ‘Mobile phones on silent or vibrate,’ a sign in the library now said. The library itself had three zones: Silent, Quiet and Studious Buzz. I spotted the occasional Lenin poster in a student bedroom: either iconic or ironic.

At the end of our stay, Clare and I took a bus into the centre of York. As we walked past St Helen’s church, the sound of a choir drifted out. They were singing Bridge Over Troubled Water. We had reached the end of Nostalgia cul-de-sac.

Eight years ago, incidentally, Nouse looked a much slicker, more professional job than it did in my day. I worked on it for a while and recall rewriting an article by a confident mature student. I reckoned he had no future in the media. His name was Greg Dyke.

This article draws on pieces originally written for the Telegraph and the Yorkshire Post.

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  1. I was there a little later, but ‘Upstairs At The Party’ was a strange read!

  2. I arrived in ’74 so a little later but loved the article – so true and brought back so many memories! My first scoop for Nouse was about the Vanbrugh Pickle Pilferer – perp of a notorious spate of food-related thefts from those communal kitchens. We had a Belling too but had to buy our own fridge through the small ads – second hand from somewhere in Acomb, as I recall.

  3. Very identifiable and recognisable vignettes from time at York. Tom Lodge and Steve McClarence presenting YSTV news is a memory I have. I used to be asked to type the scripts, as I had a typewriter and had taught myself to touch type in the summer before coming to University

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