I wasn’t expecting to pass my A’ levels and so when I did, I had to make a quick decision. Do I go to university in Manchester, Bristol or Essex? I was thinking about walking up to my brother’s house to ask his opinion but when I looked out of the window of my parents’ house and realised that I would have to walk up the huge hill to his house through driving rain, my decision was made. Manchester is wet. Bristol is hilly. Essex had the lowest rainfall in the country and the nearest hill is in Sussex. Essex it is.
I lived in Colchester for four years and absolutely loved it. I did a fascinating degree and studied with people I really liked. I met the love of my life there and made some wonderful friends. For the first time in my life, I was surrounded by people who valued learning and wanted to study. In my home town there was a small library that allowed me to borrow two books at a time and where I had read everything anyway. Some people thought I was mad, others were suspicious or thought I was pretentious. Not many people liked reading as much as me and no one at all was reading Gogol, Pushkin and Lermontov. At Essex there was more Lermontov than you could shake a stick at, it was in Russian, and I was going to be taught how to read it. It was not only OK to read, but there was a HUGE library full of books that I was encouraged to use – it was like I’d died and gone to heaven.
Andy was one of the first people I met at Essex. I was introduced to him by a friend and pretty much the first thing he said to me was “would you like to come up in my plane?” I went flying with him several times, including one magical session where he was learning aerobatics. We climbed and dropped through intermittent cloud and I watched one of the best sunsets I’ve ever seen while Andy practised looping the loop. Later on, he became a regular visitor to our house in Colchester and we to his house in Wivenhoe. There were countless nights in numerous bars and restaurants and he was one of the two witnesses at my wedding.
Terry worked with Bob in an electronics research group called the Wolfson Centre for the Electronic Cancellation of Noise and Vibration. Bob had (and still has) a tremendous respect for Terry’s work and knowledge so I was a bit in awe of him at first, especially when we went to visit him at home and saw the beautiful house and garden he and his wife had created. As it turned out, Terry wasn’t at all frightening, quite the opposite, he was kind and patient and somehow put up with me and all the other snotty, arrogant, ignorant undergraduates with good humour and patience.
Essex is a campus university, and is situated half way between a large town and a small village. It’s a good walk to either and so undergraduate life tends to be centred on campus. It’s a nice campus as all the buildings are arranged around five squares, so it’s possible to go from the Electronics department, (where Bob worked) through Maths, Sociology and English, and end up in Languages and Linguistics (where I studied) without actually leaving the building. You could also go to the bar, shop or a restaurant, all without going outside.
It has changed a lot in the 26 years since we left. There were 3000 students when I was an undergraduate, there are 10,000 now and they all need somewhere to stay, eat and drink. The centre of campus hasn’t changed however, so we were able to find our way around quite easily.
We chose to eat in the top bar because when we were students it tended to be quieter and the food, always pretty dreadful on campus, was at least tolerable. It was also always more popular with staff than students which seemed appropriate for us oldies.
19 June 2015
The Top Bar, Essex University Campus
It was wonderful to see Terry and Andy, neither of whom have changed a bit. We talked about the old days and shared gossip on who had ended up where and why.
The food was no more than adequate. The bar has been extended and the catering now consists of a noodle bar as well as the usual pub food. The food was OK but barely worthy of comment except to say that portion control seemed not to figure at all. Bob’s tortilla was about half what he should have had, Terry s chicken was intimidatingly huge. I had too much sauce with my rice and Andy had enough noodles to sustain all of us.
The whole lunch and the walk we took around campus later was dominated by a strong sense of dislocation. As undergraduates my generation were, unlike students these days, solvent and likely to find a decent job when we graduated, as a degree was still relatively uncommon. Bob and I were also fit, healthy, in love and just so unbelievably bloody young. We were happy, and as happy young people are likely to do, we took it all very much for granted.
Walking around campus and talking with our old friends, we kept coming back to the fact that to the current undergrads we look like parents or maybe the senior members of staff that Terry and Andy actually are. But we don’t feel like that at all. We were looking at buildings that hadn’t changed in thirty years and felt that we were also unchanged, yet when we caught glimpses of ourselves in windows as we walked along, we saw strangers who looked nothing like our youthful selves.
I’m happy with the way things have turned out and so this was not regret, just an odd mixture of recognition and incomprehension. The past really is another country, but did we do things differently there? I don’t think so. To me it’s remarkable that 30 years have made so little difference.