John Dearing: Pioneers! O Pioneers!

To celebrate the 60th Anniversary of the opening of the university, Alumni Voices shares some special memories from John Dearing who attended the university in its opening years.

We take up the task eternal, and the burden and the lesson,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

All the past we leave behind…

Fresh and strong the world we seize, world of labor and the march,

Pioneers! O pioneers!

Thus wrote Walt Whitman in 1865 and for me 100 years later the pioneering spirit was doubtless still on fire. Certainly when the university came to celebrate its Golden Jubilee in 2013, it was as ‘Pioneers’ that those of us who represented the first three years’ intake were saluted!

There had been talk of establishing a university in York back in the reign of King James I but it was not until the 1950s that things began to happen. J B Morrell, after whom the main library was named, was one of the visionaries behind its foundation and he gave practical help by acquiring the decaying Victorian mansion, Heslington Hall, and the park land around it, then outside the city boundary. The first students were received in 1963 but in the first two years teaching took place either in Heslington Hall or the 16th century Kings Manor in the city of York. In the meantime construction work began on the Heslington campus and the opening of the first two colleges and other facilities coincided with my arrival in the third year of the university’s existence.”

What year did you start at the University of York?

“I started in 1965 but it could have been a year earlier. Sometime in 1963 I read a piece in one of the Sunday papers entitled ‘Newbridge’ about the new universities that were just starting up. I was particularly attracted by York and decided that was where I wanted to go. I had my interview in December 1963 – a week or two after the assassination of JFK – but to my disappointment was only put on the waiting list. Unfortunately I also placed my other eggs in the Newbridge basket and interviews at Sussex and East Anglia were equally unrewarding. So I had an enforced ‘gap year’ (of course, that expression was not yet in vogue), in which after spectacularly failing an Open Scholarship to Cambridge, I spent six months teaching in what must have been one of the worst private schools on the planet. In the meantime York offered me a place on the basis of my good A Levels. This delay was probably all to the good as I was 19 by the time I ‘went up’ and a little bit more mature (as I like to think) than a year earlier.”

What did you study?

“My course was English and Related Literature. The department was headed by Philip Brockbank and one of my earliest memories is of a seminar in which we were studying a poem by W B Yeats with the line: ‘And Juno’s Paycock [peacock] screamed’. Brockers asked us whether we knew what a peacock’s scream sounded like and when he met a sea of blank faces stood and proceeded to give a loud wailing imitation of it. The related bit was Latin, the module being called Horace and the English Horatians with Brian, later Professor, later Lord Morris as tutor – one of the great York characters!”

What was it like being at a university with just over 200 students?

“It was a bit more than 200 by the time I arrived but it did mean that at least for those in College (and I spent my first year as an inmate of Langwith) almost everybody knew everybody else. I shared a double room with a chubby student from Manchester who was studying Social Sciences. At first we didn’t get on too well (chalk and cheese) but later ‘grew on each other’ and shared a flat in our second year. Pete distinguished himself as social secretary of the SRC by booking the up and coming Jimi Hendrix for a St Valentine’s-tide dance but was less distinguished academically, failing his Part Ones and migrating to Essex University, where he was more successful.”

Can you describe the atmosphere?

“I remember arriving on the campus in October 1965. It still looked like a building site and the representatives of the JCR detailed to show the newcomers where to go seemed to be equally lost. There was a lot of talk about CLASP, the prefabricated building system used for the first colleges and then there was the iconic water tower on the then eastern extremes of the campus on the other side of Heslington Lane.”

How many colleges existed when you were a student?

“At first just the two, Langwith and Derwent but in 1967 the second pair, Vanbrugh and Alcuin, opened and I was one of several who responded to an appeal to transfer to (in my case) Vanbrugh in order to give them a bit of maturity and solid wisdom (some hope!).”

Were you there when the Queen and Prince Philip came to open Langwith and Derwent officially in 1966?

“1965, in fact. My diary entry for October 22nd only states that I saw the Queen and ‘Phil’ – I assume I must have been in Langwith at the time. I also wrote an extremely bad poem on the occasion which refers to The Queen in a turquoise coat Pulling down cords and acknowledging cheers.”

What did a ‘student night out’ consist of? Going for a beer with the locals?

“Very occasionally we would go for a pub crawl in York. I think it was towards the end of the Autumn term in 1965 we arrived towards the end of the evening at the Lendal Bridge (now the Maltings). A group of about ten city blokes decided to go outside and settle an argument with fisticuffs and I stood by the door and tut-tutted until one of my co-crawlers dragged me back in and probably saved me from my being duffed up myself! Otherwise there were frequent visits to the two village pubs. We tended to prefer the Charles XII as the athletic types used to inhabit the Deramore (originally called the Yarburgh) and talk about rugby all the time. The Charles was then a delightful village pub with a distinct public and lounge bar, a separate snug at the rear and an outside toilet block known as the ‘necessariums’. I revisited it on my first trip back in 1969 and found it had been gutted and ruined – one of the reasons I didn’t go near the university for the best part of 20 years! It wasn’t all boozing, I went to the theatre in York several times, as well as concerts and so on.”

What forms of entertainment were available on campus?

“Well there were occasional dances such as the Jimi Hendrix one mentioned above, although with the exception of the June Ball the entertainment was mainly supplied by local bands such as ‘Dawn and the Dawnbreakers’. Although I was never a great fan of popular music I inevitably got dragged in as Pete’s room/ flat-mate and was one of the ‘bodyguards’ that Hendrix demanded to be placed in front of the stage to prevent him being mobbed. 75 minutes stuck right in front of one of the loud-speakers!

There were also the college bars. The one at Langwith was distinctly lacking in atmosphere and I led an eventually successful campaign to liven it up with the application of sporting prints and brass rubbings to the walls and the installation of a piano for sing-songs. Community singing around the piano was one of my enthusiasms and I am always delighted when I find a pub (such as the Duke of Clarence in Derbyi) where this form of entertainment can still be found. However, I doubt if I converted many of my Contemporaries.”

Did students venture into York City often or keep themselves to the campus?

“I certainly went into York pretty frequently – there was no bookshop in the university and I used to visit Godfreys and Spelmans to enhance my library, also visited all the mediaeval churches and other monuments.”

Did you live on campus for three years or just for your first year (as students do today)?

“As noted above, I spent only the second year ‘out’. Peter arranged a flat (actually a room plus shared facilities) at 77 Nunthorpe Road (which inevitably became known as Sunset Strip) in a house owned by an archetypal mean Scotsman called A F Harrison. It was freezing cold and heated by a one-bar electric fire. When you switched it on, the dial on the electric metre started whizzing round at the speed of light. So Pete decided to import a paraffin heater. When Harrison found out, he nearly hit the roof. ‘It’s not only dangerous but it stinks the whool hoose oot.’ So we were given our marching orders and got a better place at 13 Wenlock Terrace. This was owned by a man called Neville England who I think owned half of York and was also reputed to be involved in abortion rackets. I used to go round to his posh mansion near the river to pay the rent and had to speak into an ‘intercom’ in order to be let in. He would then receive me in his silk dressing gown on the first floor. One night the chimney at No 13 fell down and several bricks landed in the hearth near where I was sleeping. I curled round and went back to sleep, to be wakened up at 8 am by a chap in a tin helmet who told me to evacuate the premises!”

What is your most colourful memory of your time at York?

“I think perhaps the time I was volunteered into sitting in some stocks during the summer charities week which took the place of a Rag Week. The idea was that the students would purchase bags of flour to hurl at the volunteers who spent an hour in the stocks two by two. Unfortunately I was put in with a rather unpopular character called Chris (the same guy who recently was reported as receiving an ASBO) and got rock cakes and heaven knows what hurled at me in consequence. Then a ‘friend’ came behind me and broke an egg on top of the rest of the mess. It took some cleaning up afterwards!”

What part of your student life had the most enduring influence?

“That’s hard to say. I started off teaching English but didn’t stick at it. I think just enjoying the company of other people – I’d probably lived a fairly sheltered life up to this point. As well as students of all types of background, academics and the university staff – cleaners and porters – all helped to mature me as a human being. Additionally I have a strong conviction that a university education – at least in the arts and humanities – is not essentially a vocational thing – you learn to be and also to think rationally and assemble arguments. This is something that has certainly been of value in my working life.

I also in a sense learnt to be an administrator, having two stints on the Langwith JCR Committee, initially as Secretary. This gave me a seat on the SRC and also on the College Committee. On one occasion the question of student morals came up. Said Brockbank, who was also provost: ‘Well, ladies and gentlemen, as you know we don’t have any college rules at Langwith but it has come to my knowledge that some of the girls are spending too much time in some of the men’s rooms, so I am proposing to introduce some conventions…..’ Despite this innovation, evidently some degree of hanky-panky still went on, for on a later occasion a further problem was discussed in committee, that of crockery disappearing from the refectory into student rooms. (The food was so awful at one point that students took to cooking their own meals on the Baby Bellings rather than endure the college meals.) It was decided to institute a crockery search led by the redoubtable Head Porter, Tommy Hinchcliffe (a former all-in wrestler). I accompanied him to ensure fair play! We arrived at one suspect’s room and Tommy rapped on the door. No response apart from sounds of rustling within. After a second knock received a similarly muffled response, Tommy uttered a stentorian cry, ‘Right, Ah’m comin’ in!’ and applied his master key. ‘Aye, aye, what are you studying then? Anatomy??’”

How do you imagine your student experience differs to the experience of a student today? Was 1965 part of the ‘swinging sixties’ or was your time at York rather ‘old-fashioned’. For example do you have memories of sexism (a predominantly male staff), restrictions about where and when you could go out, lack of transport? Did students have cars back then? Were buses, as today, the main mode of student transport? 

“Certainly not sexism. The English department had some outstanding female staff such as Elizabeth Salter and Ruth Ellison. For myself, having gone to an all-male Grammar School I found myself for the first time since primary school enjoying the company of girls. Things were pretty free and easy and there was not a lot of pressure on students, certainly in the English department to attend lectures – just the seminars and tutorials. Probably as well, since there were members of staff who lectured chiefly in order to wake themselves up in the morning! For transport I mainly used buses and Shanks’s pony to get around though Pete, my room-mate, acquired a blue Austin van in which I occasionally got a lift. 

When visiting New Langwith last year I was interested to hear the Provost say that many students went home at the weekend. I don’t think this was true in my day, even of those who lived relatively nearby. I lived in Bournemouth and such was the generosity of local authorities in those days that I got an excess travel allowance on top of my maintenance grant. I generally used to go home for one weekend in mid-term. I also had relatives in Huddersfield and visited them two or three times in the course of my three years at York.

The 60s was of course a period in which student revolt was much talked of. I got a bit drunk at a party in March 1968 and was somehow persuaded to travel down to London for the anti—Vietnam War demonstration which became known as the Battle of Grosvenor Square. I was thrust against a police cordon by the pressure from behind me and struck on the jaw by a member of the Constabulary, who must have suspected [me] of designs on the American Embassy. Thereafter I retired from the fray! It was totally mishandled by the police but it has to be said that it was largely a Trotskyist rally for victory for the Viet Cong [rather] than a peace demo and the numbers were much higher than had been expected.”

Do you think of your York days often now or are they a distant, vague memory?

“Well, as we enter our second childhood, we tend to think back to our earlier days. I have kept a diary for 50 years which helps to jog my memory of what happened during that time.”

Have you been back to York in recent years?

“Yes, more often than in the first 20 years after graduating. Apart from attending university anniversary dos, I am Secretary of something called the Branches Representative Council of the Prayer Book Society which meets in York at 18 month intervals. On a couple of occasions I have stayed in Wentworth College for these and other events, including the Society for the Preservation of Beers from the Wood’s annual weekend when it took place in York in 2011.”

If yes, is it still recognisable to you, an original York student?

“Well, the biggest change is the enormous expansion of the campus, not least the move of Langwith to Heslington East. I visited the new college last year and was very impressed by what I saw. The city is still magic, the cattle market has gone and (speaking as an ale enthusiast) the variety of beer available in the pubs has multiplied a hundred-fold. In our day it was John Smiths, Tetleys and not much else.”

First published in the online version of the York alumni magazine, Grapevine, in 2014.

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