Miners, Rugby Clubs and “Privilege”

It’s all kicking off in Durham…

Van Mildert College, Durham. It’s nothing to do with the story, but it’s a pretty view.


I am a Durham almunus. I’m also a current member of staff. These comments are made in the context of me being an alumnus, and do not represent the views or position of the University.

This morning’s Observer contained an opinion piece by Meg Kneafsey, who says she is a recent Durham graduate. I thought what she wrote was worth talking about, even though I don’t necessaarily agree with everything she had to say.

I arrived in Durham in 1988, an Oxford reject from a working class comprehensive background in nearby Teesside. Today, I might even be identified as one of the target group of “white working class males” who don’t go into HE and are such a concern to those engaged in fiddling on the margins of social mobility. Given what Alan Milburn had to say on the subject this very morning, I think it’s as good a time as any to throw my perspective into the mix.

The Durham I arrived at had far fewer students (only around 5000 or so), but the balance of the intake was largely then what it is now, though perhaps even more pronounced. The feeling was that most of the independent school intake was more drawn by the Bailey Colleges, particularly Castle. Now, this must feel a bit like living in Hogwarts for those raaied on Harry Potter, but for us it still held a nicely antique curiosity.

Hatfield was in its first year of admitting female students, and both Trevs and Marys were still men-free zones. It’s also true to say that there was, then as now, a distinct divide between the Bailey colleges and the Hill, though changes to the admissions processes that used to balance the mix in colleges have not helped particularly.

The fact is, Durham student society was, and is, hugely stratified, with the strata including the state school proles like me, through to the monied public school attendees, with everything in between. The stereotypes abounded: the Hill Spod, complete with steel-rimmed specs and supremely casual wear (anorak or kagoul mandatory), usually an engineering student or chemist (yes, even the women), and The Rah, which at the time meant a floppy-fringed Hugh Grant-style haicut, cricket jumper, stonewash jeans, cowboy boots and tweeds for the men and blazers and Hermès scarves for the women.

I found that the most screaming rahs tended to find their own kind and shy away from the rest of us. Some of those who were labelled as the most privileged turned out to be sensible, self-aware and decent people (I knew several of those, and they probably wouldn’t have dreamed of the kind of crassness of recent reports).

The worst were the aspirant social climbers: the Trainee, Plastic Rahs. They were trying so hard to join a stratum they thought would be a ticket to somewhere else. As an exercise in puffed-up social climbing, it was both amusing and tragic to watch this group. These were the people who seemed to take most joy in snering at those who they could lable as “inferior” in some way. But then, lots of people just floated around somewhere in the middle, just wanting to get their heads down, do some work and have some fun in the process. They didn’t want to belittle or bother anyone.

But it’s easy to be sealed off in a college. Each year the freshers handbooks would warn you off the pubs in town where you’d get a kicking even for walking through the door. But my mates and I never had any trouble in the local pubs we went in (local or at least northern accents were useful, I suppose, but the right attitude certainly helps). Part of the problem is that, though the student corpus is certainly mosre diverse than it was, it is still, in many ways, worryingly homogenous. Two examples that can help illustrate this divide are: first, how Durham voted in 2016’s EU referendum. The county, and most of the surrounding areas chose to leave. But I suspct the remain vored was bolstered by university votes in Durham City itself; second, and perhaps more flippantly, to recall that John Lewis opened a branch of Waitrose in Durham City. It closed because it was only profitable for around half the year. Guess which half.

The fact is, the student intake is mostly very different from the people it lives amongst for the half of the year that many remain there, and those who are not within that group can feel somewhat disorientated by the experience. I was lucky. I chose a college that embraced informailty. Subfusc and the formality of the Castle was not for Collingwood. It helped; I’m not really sure if I would have found it so accommodating elsewhere. And perhaps that gap is wider now than ever. THe university system is now larger, and students from a far wider ability group move around the system. Student experience and exp[ectation in Durham is very different to others in different parts of the sector. The weathier and higher-achieving are concentrated more in the top ends of the system. But there is a city around them that is not like that. THe north-eat of England is one of the nations pooerest in relative terms, and the Brexit referendum result pointed out that, whtever the (many) benefits of EU membership, plenty of people in the rion certainly didn’t see them as having a positive impact on them or their families.

All of this said, this event does point up a terrible lack of awareness. In fairness, many of the students involved weren’t even born until a decade after the Miners’ Strike had ended. In fact, some were only born just as Michael Heseltine was killing off the rump of the mining industry for John Major. But for some to write it off as “banter” just doesn’t cut it. It just doesn’t show any understanding of the place they’re in or the people who surround them. It simply points out and magnifies the divide that exists.

The fact that the Gala still goes on in Durham each year (ironically, when most of the students aren’t even there) can be seen as just another indicator of a culture they do not understand. It worries me that some of the proposed remedies are not going to be effective, and may even be heavy-handedly counter-productive. Durham is a cradle of a particular kind of northern, working-class and independent thinking. It is, inn many ways, the cradle of Engalnd. It’s the home of Bede, and the place where the Vikings first set foot in AD793. It is the home of industry and commerce, na has played a huge part in what this country became, for good or ill. But for too many, today it is seen as a quaint, ignorant backwater. And part of the problem is that many arrive in Durham and don’t really “live” there: they’re effectively tourists.

Perhaps the University may wish to embrace that culture and history more than it currently does. If so, it may find that such events are much less common, and much less embarrassing.