Just before the Great Lockdown began last year, I was rooting around my Dad’s loft. I was looking for something specific, which in the end I didn’t find(1). What I did find, however, was an interesting little surprise; well, it was interesting to me at least. There were some old photos of course, including some particularly horrific ones of me in primary school, as is the way with the school pictures you used to get back in the 1970s. You’re not getting to see them here, I can promise you. For my sake as well as yours.
I came across an old leather writing case, inside which was a small stash of letters: over a dozen or so of them. They were letters that I had written home in the first half of my time at University. I probably did write more, but these were the ones my mother must have kept, for one reason or another. They start within in a few days of me arriving in Durham, and finish around the middle of my second year. At that point I suspect the volume of second year work, and the fact I was venturing home every so often anyway meant they came to a natural kind of end. Or maybe she just didn’t bother to keep the rest of them anywhere. Who can say? I honestly don’t remember when my letter writing tailed off.
What is fantastic to me about them is the often sheer, grinding mundanity of what I’ve written. I have pretty much recorded a diary, but I chose not to keep them to myself, instead sending them home to my mother. Obviously, I didn’t send everything back: I did keep some things to myself. I didn’t keep her responses either, which now feels just a little sad, because what I’ve got here is just one side of an ongoing conversation, and it would be wonderful to able to recall the other half. Then again, there are lots of letters from my time at University I haven’t kept, including some in retrospect I really wish I had. Such is life, though. That said, there is enough cross-talk in here to remind me of things that were going on at home at the time.
First Year Letters
The very first letter is dated Wednesday, 12 October, which is a mere ten days after my parents waved me goodbye as they set off back for Teesside, and left me at the college entrance. It mostly talks about getting my living space arranged, but also about my first (three-legged) bar crawl, in which I drank way too much vodka while being tied by the ankle to someone who didn’t, got very, very pissed, and ended with me being very, very sick. Still, better out than in. There’s not that much else about Freshers’ Week generally, which is a bit surprising when I think about it, because most of it was all fairly wholesome, and a source of novelty. What is noticeable is that the cast of characters mostly features the people living on my floor (Bamburgh first floor, for completeness. I was lucky enough to be able live in College for the whole three years of my degree, so I never got to sample the dubious delights of living out in a communal house). Already there are a couple of early mentions of a couple of people who figure rather larger in my little world as time goes on. For example, it’s where the first mention of the eventually memorable Javed Khan [Jav] (of whom more later) occurs.
The next letter is dated very soon after, on 15 October, which was a Saturday. This was actually the first weekend I’d been properly away and fully in college, as I’d had to go back the previous weekend, en route elsewhere(2). There was I, watching Neighbours in the college TV room, though I didn’t share in this great communal experience for very long at all. Unlike most of the student population of the late 80s, I wasn’t really a Neighbours fan (3). Actually, the 15th is where the first major mention of Kieron is (who fairly soon turned out to be one of my best mates), but the initial impression of lots of people I knew wasn’t too flattering to the poor lad! I was also book buying: 69 quid’s worth. Still, I was lucky. I had grant money to spend, whereas a several of my early friends hadn’t had theirs show up by this point.
On 24 October the first majorly noticeable thing to happen was the notepaper changed colour. This stuff was no longer ripped out of a jotter, but yellow. I’d found a new paper supply! My parents had just a bit of a set-to with a neighbour and her husband (who later turned out to be a bit of an arsehole, so she and mam ended up quite friendly eventually), so that was mentioned, and so was the first rag mag purchase, complete with a selection of jokes that would immediately have you flayed alive today. There’s a fleeting appearance in despatches by Mitzi, an American girl who later ended up going back home to the US under a bit of a cloud, when it came to light she’d been banging the Bursar. It didn’t end too well for the Bursar either: he left soon after it all came to light as well. She lived upstairs in the same block and there had just been an extremely fractious party. I’d also been watching a few movies down in Elvet Riverside too: this time it was Steve Martin’s Roxanne.
November arrived, and with it what must have been a voluminous missive from mam, as I mention it specifically as I start the letter of 2 November. My first excursions into looking like a bit of studenty twat start here too, as I acquired a waistcoat, via someone who it didn’t fit, namely Eddy, who was one of the lads in my college doing physics too. Jav had had chicken pox, but was coming out of the infectious stage. I had to wait until spring 1992 for that little gift to drop on me, but for the time being, all was clear.
On 10 November I had a half-shaved face (the left side): doin’ it all for charidee, mate. Two days earlier the there had been a “Transvestite Tea” formal. I didn’t go to the first year one, though that was recitfied at the next one at start of year 2. At this stage we’re well into DUCK Week(4) stuff, on 13 November talking about getting flanned, and having to remove garters from “Wicked Lady”-o-grams with my teeth. One of my few contacts with anyone female pretty much the whole time, to be honest. By 22 November I’d been to my college pastoral tutor’s (Wojtek Zakrzewski) house for the first time, and managed to spill punch on myself, though it didn’t matter all that much. There was conversation about the relaitve qualities of Polish heavy metal, and vodka, and it was a pretty pleasant night all round.
This was the last letter before Christmas.
The next letter is 23 January, where I’m getting back into the swing of things, and buying stuff: a cue to play loads of pool, and the cassette of the newly released Traveling Wilburys album. The usual record buying sites of choice were either Our Price in what was the Milburngate centre, or the smaller, but much cooler Volume Records, just around the corner. Buying this and the soon to come Roy Orbison album (see next letter), were possibly coloured by Roy’s death the previous month, the day before we broke for the Christmas holiday, I think.
Just for added local colour, my mother told me a cousin’s old school, King’s Manor in Acklam, burned down!
On 13 February, I was mostly buying music, or trying to. I did manage to get hold of Roy Orbison’s Mystery Girl, but was still waiting for the new The The single, which, though I don’t say explicitly, must have been The Beat(en) Generation(5). My dad had had a bad dental abscess, and had just had a tooth removed, so he was feeling pretty rough. Jav and I had had some sort of falling out, but by 22 February that had resolved itself. More momentously, 17 February was the first Red Telephone Box Night in Collingwood, as the college had bought an old Gilbert-Scott K6 box to put in the college bar. It’s still there in college, 32 years later. I also managed to get one of my first major charity shop purchases: The Coat! I remember finding it on Saturday afternoon in ex-catalogue shop on Forth Street, in Newcastle, just around the corner from the Clayton Street chippy, and across the road from Central Station. Best 21 quid I ever spent: I loved that coat.
What is also noticeable is that my friendship group had definitely begun to evolve and widen a little, and I was now spending more time with some of the people who’d become my best friends through my time there, and drifting away from most of the people I’d first met, as I suppose often happens.
There’s a bit of a pause after the February letters, with nothing until mid-May. I suspect it’s because March had seen the start of the Easter break(6), and April had the last rounds of lectures, so it’s not much of a surprise to me. In my 10 May letter I mention that most lectures had finished, and exam revision was starting in earnest, with some friends even going home to get more quiet time with less distraction. Clearly though there was time for some extra-curricular stuff, with mentions of pool and cricket. At this point, I was also thinking about summer, and had written off applying for a summer placement at Tioxide (later Huntsman). Even though I didn’t drive at this point, my mate Pete worked over there, so I wouldn’t have been short of a lift to work in the mornings.
As it turned out, that summer job didn’t happen either, and I ended up engaged in government-sponsored art: drawing the dole. I was right about the first year exams at least. They all went pretty swimmingly really, so I was feeling fairly comfortable with things generally.
The last letter of my first year (on 11 June) was very brief, only mentioning stuff I was going to start bringing home before the final end-of-year clearout to prevent having to lug too much back right at the end.
Second Year Letters
The first letter comes about two weeks into term, on 18 October, and the first point of conversation is that the workload has certainly ramped up. In the first term there were nine hours of lab time across computing, where we were learning how to program in Fortran 77 in a lab full of BBC Micros; electronics (the hardware part of which I never enjoyed, and that hasn’t much changed), and the usual physics labs. The first two were only until Christmas though.
A new year also meant a room move. I’d managed to bag an decent one in the annual room lottery (Corbridge 13) at the end of first year, and was looking for posters to decorate it. Pink Floyd featured high on the list. I’d also had visitors, with mates from home showing up. You’ll be shocked to know drink was taken.
Unlike first year, this time I wandered around the three-legged bar crawl in Freshers’ Week from a position of non-drinking (well, less drinking) safety. At the time we were seemingly unimpressed with the new crop of first years, though things improved. I also joined the Gamesoc, and hung around playing RPGs for a little while at the start of the year. In my next letter, of 25 October, I found myself trying to explain the rules of Paranoia to my mother.
Jav was also back, as he’d ended the summer having to do first year resits. though he’d moved courses from Maths to Natural Sciences (7). He hadn’t been able to get a room in college though, so he’d found somewhere down near Dunelm House, and had also bought himself a moped. At least at first, we saw a bit less of him, so there were fewer late sessions on the pool table in the bar. Presumably he’d have been there on the evening following my letter, on the first Megaformal of the term (Thursday 26 October). Collingwood Megaformals worked differently from most of the Durham colleges at the time. Many had (and still do have) compulsory, formal, gowned meals, for which fines were (are) liable for non-attendance. Collingwood did have “formals”, though they weren’t gowned, and not hugely formal either to be entirely truthful. However, a couple of times a term we’d push the boat out and have something a bit more special, which was either suited, or more often fancy dress or themed. Anyway, the table wine had already been purchased for this little one.
The task of looking for Christmas jobs was also underway. I was trying to get hold of an application form for Our Price in Middlesbrough (which ended up being unsuccessful). I was thinking the money would be useful, especially because yet another training scheme dad was on(8) had dangled the promise of a full-time job at him, then conventiently yanked it away last minute. It became an all too regular pattern for him, sadly, through no fault of his own.
Unusually I was also describing what I was doing in labs, in this case photographing electron diffraction patterns in aluminium and graphite to infer what crystal structures there were in them. I was also pretty pleased that electronics wasn’t going to be the tooth-pulling exercise I’d imagined, mostly because I wasn’t going to have to write up lab reports afterwards. Slightly unusually, as a physicist, I also had an essay to write. This one I very much remember, as I typed it on an old manual typewriter, and added hand-drawn diagrams. It was about the recent Voyager fly-bys, though I was concentrating mostly on new findings about Uranus and Neptune, I seem to recall(9). It was several more years before I managed to buy an electric typewriter that I used for the futile flood of job applications I eventually ended up writing after graduation.
It was seemingly nearly a month before I wrote home again, clearly because the workload was increasing, though I’d been home the weekend before. I was the proud possessor of brand new pair of 501s too, bought in the student union at Dunelm for the princely sum of £29. It was a busy few days. I’d just been on a rag raid to Edinburgh, and was just about to go off on a student loan demo to Glasgow (November 28). The latter was really memorable, and was my first time in Glasgow. The march route started in the Gorbals, and ended up with us going into Kelvingrove Park for the final rally down Sauciehall Street. We were expecting a hostile repsonse for the “fuckin’ students” from the locals, but boy were we ever wrong. We should’ve guessed of course, given how much they hated Thatcher too. It’s another reason I love the place.
That was the last letter of 1989. The next, which also turned out to be the final one in this collection, wasn’t until February 1990. By this point, I was working pretty hard, and the grim post-Christmas reality of the winter had kicked in good and proper. Collections (the short burst of post Christmas mini-exams that dropped as soon as term started) had been mixed, but I had been under the weather with a dose of flu, and I was still optimistic the year end was going to be better(10). My dad was laid low with it as well, though thankfully mam hadn’t been by that point, and she was usually first. The main impression from this last letter was simply the workload. In this middle term both Thursday and Friday were full of teaching and labs from 9–5.15, and even an additional 5.15 lecture on the Thursday evening, so it was pretty gruelling. I’m pretty sure that Tuesday also had the weird day of one lecture at 9am, and another at 5.15, with nothing between them, so you couldn’t block the day out to do anything else really. Worse yet, this was where some of the drier bits of the syllabus were (yes, Messrs Laguerre, Legendre, and Bessel, I’m giving you a very hard stare. But they were not alone).
Middlesbrough had also just got to their first ever Wembley cup final, the ZDS Cup Final , which they went on to lose the following month (typical Boro)(11). At the same time, another lad I played cricket with had just lost his father very suddenly, and my parents were passing on the news. The year before, someone else from the club I played at had been found dead in Durham under much murkier circumstances. It turned out that he’d been murdered by this wife and then lover, then driven and dumped near his workplace in Durham to try and make it look like a robbery. Tragic, as he was a really lovely bloke, was John. I suppose that wasn’t mentioned here partly because it was all over the local news, and also because we’d have spoken about it in person at home, so there’d have been little point going over it again in letters.
This letter is also the last mention of Jav. Typically, it’s of him being a total space cadet, turning up two days late for term, thinking he was a week early having screwed his dates up: “I wondered why all the people were here”. This sort of thing was not unusual for him(12), like the time he showed up unannounced late one cold, rainy evening at home during the holidays, said he was “just passing”, and ended up staying overnight. He ended up failing his second year exams, and leaving, though he did move and do a maths degree in Liverpool. He apparently did a masters at Cranfield after that, but afterwards I’ve no clue. It’s a pity, as I’d really love to know how things went for him.
Looking back at these later letters there were some early signs of what was to come for me. My second year exams didn’t go well, and while I still just about passed it meant that what I thought a future career path was going to be clearly wasn’t going to happen; it was a bit of a jolt, and it cut me adrift. I had no idea what I was going to do. It also meant that academically the final year became a terrible slog, and I felt like I was marking time more than a bit. The only things I knew were that I didn’t fancy a move to London, nor did I fancy the living hell of a job as an accountant. At least I did manage to achieve those modest aims. What is perhaps more striking is when the letters stop. As the mention of the Glasgow demo suggests, student loans hadn’t quite been introduced yet. The first student loans were available in my final term in Durham in 1991, and I took one for the princely maximum sum of £330, because frankly I needed the cash.
We were still all Thatcher’s children: she was still Prime Minister, though not for too much longer as it turned out. The 501s I managed to buy were purchased only a couple of weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, and yet that incident elicited not one mention from me in my letters. I’m actually quite pleased about that though; I’d hate to think of myself from this remove rather pompously tying to record the events of great moment and trying to convince that I was some great historian or commentator. It’s much more fun to think of myself being more like old Sam Pepys, solipsistically concerned about burying his cheeses in the garden while the city burned around him. Still, I am also glad I didn’t write home about me getting myself a pet rock, and taking it out for drags around college. I really must have been fucking insufferable.
(1) Even then, I knew that the process of sorting stuff out had to begin because Dad wasn’t going to be at home forever. This though was the very first, early toe-dipping excursion into the kingdom of the loft.
(2) This was to pick up a coach from Middlesbrough Bus Station first thing on Saturday morning to go and see my first major gig — Jean Michel Jarre in the Docklands (I was at the Saturday, 8 October show).
(3) Nor Home and Away, just for balance. Please don’t get me started on Kylie and Jason. Please. I was making an effort to be sociable, but some sacrifices are just too great. My only concession to ever watching an Aussie soap was, and remains, The Sullivans.
(4) Durham didn’t do Rag Weeks, but instead had DUCK — Durham University Charities Week, so pretty much the same thing but with a slightly different name. There are apocryphal tales about the reasons why that happened are too long to go into there. But someone really did once dangle a car (or a shell) off the Kingsgate Bridge.
(5) The story of me, Jav and the The The gig at the Royal Albert Hall I didn’t get to can wait for another time.
(6) At the time, Durham’s term system was odd, and quaintly archaic. Durham, like Oxford and Cambridge, had shorter terms. In Durham’s case this meant three terms of nine weeks each, called Michaelmas, Easter, and Summer. The academic week began on a Thursday morning, and ended at lunchtime on a Wednesday, so the free Wednesday afternoon made perfect sense: it was placed at the end of the week. From what I can gather, this was mostly historical practice grounded in the ecclesiastical calendar. It also meant we had fairly long vacation periods, with Christmas and Easter being four or five weeks each normally. But times change, and that is not really the case any more. That makes me faintly sad, because those little quirks are part what makes the time more memorable.
(7) In retrospect, I wish I’d done this myself. I think I may have enjoyed a bit more choice in what I was doing, and would have saved me a bit of grief later.
(8) The one where he’d actually met the (probably) future King.
(9) I still have the actual document, but I’m not digging it out of storage right now.
(10) It really wasn’t. Oh, hindsight!
(11) A lad I’d been at school with, and played cricket with a bit, Owen McGee, played that day. A good lad, was Owen, and presumably still is.
(12) “He’s a a knob! But he’s a nice knob.”