Col­lege daze

As par­ents up and down the land pre­pare to drop their loved ones off at univer­sity, Michael Odell re­calls his own ex­pe­ri­ence as a 1980s fresher-ex­cite­ment, ap­pre­hen­sion, dodgy trousers and all

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page - On page 12: Eleanor Doughty’s prac­ti­cal guide to what to pack for Uni On page 13: Michael Odell’s Mod­ern Fam­ily col­umn

Oc­to­ber 1983. My first day as a fresher at War­wick Univer­sity. I’m stand­ing on the French depart­ment’s high-re­sis­tance poly­mer car­pet shar­ing gauche ban­ter with new friends. I have an es­pe­cially com­mis­sioned new hair­cut which might be termed “edgy”. I am wear­ing baggy pleated trousers sim­i­lar to those worn by mem­bers of Du­ran Du­ran, the pop group du jour.

For me, univer­sity is a time to rein­vent my­self, project new con­fi­dence and es­cape the sub­ur­ban con­straints of my home­town, Croy­don. As we chat, I po­si­tion my­self near Ali­son whose kaf­tan/head­band en­sem­ble is loosely in­formed by Cul­ture Club. Per­haps, I won­der, there might be some common ground there? Out of the cor­ner of my eye I see the depart­ment sec­re­tary and a mem­ber of cam­pus se­cu­rity ap­proach.

“Are you Michael Odell? Would you ac­com­pany us to the of­fice, please.”

The depart­ment has re­ceived a sus­pect pack­age. It is ad­dressed to me and they want

me to open it in their pres­ence. I see that it’s torn and damp; just vis­i­ble inside is some sort of resinous lump. My heart races. How­ever, I also recog­nise my mother’s hand­writ­ing. The en­ve­lope is ad­dressed to me at “War­wick Univer­sity, ranked in the top 10 UK univer­si­ties”.

“If you wouldn’t mind, young man,” the cam­pus se­cu­rity guard prompts me. I scrab­ble through the wrap­ping. Inside the pack­age is a piece of camem­bert. Squashed and over­ripe, but still: a harm­less piece of cheese.

In one way, it is a re­lief. The sus­pi­cions of the se­cu­rity team have clearly been aroused: a fresh­man re­ceiv­ing drugs, per­haps with in­tent to sup­ply. Even now, they clearly aren’t happy. “Why can’t your mother just send you money to buy food?” the sec­re­tary asks me.

This is one of the ques­tions I ask later in a stran­gled voice down my hall-of-res­i­den­tial pay­phone. “Mum, why are you post­ing me cheese? Yes, yes I know I am study­ing French but it’s not on the syl­labus.

“Also, when you write to me there’s no need to point out that War­wick is ranked in the top 10 univer­si­ties.”

I used to re­call that fresher’s week hu­mil­i­a­tion with despair. (When word got out, I was teased by stu­dents plac­ing car­rots, Dairylea tri­an­gles and tins of beans in my pi­geon­hole.) But over the years I have come to see what lay be­hind the Camem­bert: I was the first child in my fam­ily to go to univer­sity. My mother is from Bo­livia. She grew up ad­mir­ing English ed­u­ca­tion from afar. She was very proud but also heartbroken that I was leav­ing home.

Thirty years later, I am watch­ing a new gen­er­a­tion de­part for fresher’s week. They have achieved their A-level grades. They have got drunk and cov­ered them­selves with glitter at a fes­ti­val; and they have bought a set of new saucepans from Ikea.

This is it. Mid-Septem­ber marks the start of the fresher ex­o­dus – and it can be a harder process than you might imag­ine.

“I found it heart­break­ing,” says Ruth Far­rell, whose daugh­ter Maddy left for Manch­ester Univer­sity last Septem­ber. “We took her up. I held it to­gether in Sains­bury’s and while my hus­band set up the Wi-Fi in her Hall, but then I ab­so­lutely lost it in the car on the way home. The hard­est thing is not show­ing them the pain. They need to know you are OK and happy for them.”

I can re­mem­ber look­ing on with envy at another fam­ily dur­ing my first evening in halls of res­i­dence. They took over the com­mu­nal kitchen to cook an elab­o­rate farewell meal for their son.

“You should join Drama Soc,” ad­vised the fa­ther, read­ing from a leaflet. “And the sports fa­cil­i­ties look very good.”

They were up­beat, pos­i­tive and ex­cited for him. Ear­lier that day my fa­ther had dropped me off. As he slammed the car boot shut I re­alised I had left the card­board box full of plates, food and uten­sils on the kerb out­side the house at home.

“I’ll bring them up in cou­ple of weeks,” he said. “If you stick it that long. I mean, French? What can you do with French?”

With French, I thought to my­self, I can no longer be in Croy­don. Nev­er­the­less, I found this new world daunt­ing. I was cal­low and un­cer­tain. There was a re­verse cos­mopoli­tanism in play: my school was full of boys from In­dia, Pak­istan, China and Malaysia; but un­til I went to War­wick I had never met any­one from Scot­land, Corn­wall or York­shire be­fore. Mis­takes were made.

One of the first peo­ple I met was Ali­son, the daugh­ter of a Cor­nish farmer. We bonded be­cause univer­sity was, for both of us, an ex­otic new world. I lis­tened rapt as she told me how she’d spent the late sum­mer help­ing her fa­ther bring in the har­vest. She showed me a photo of him graft­ing, bent-backed, in the Cor­nish soil.

“Crikey, is he re­ally pick­ing… ba­nanas? ” I asked.

“No. Those are his hands,” she said. I swear I have still never seen a man with such mas­sive hands in all my life.

“That’s partly why I don’t want to be a farmer,” she said. For Ali­son, for me and for many oth­ers, univer­sity is a lifeal­ter­ing ex­pe­ri­ence which means you don’t have to do what your par­ents did.

‘Get in­volved. Try new things. Put your­self out­side your com­fort zone.” This was the ad­vice of my favourite teacher, Mr Bent, prior to my ar­rival at War­wick.

I tried. Along with a girl called Har­riet Peel I stood as joint-pres­i­dent of “French Soc”. I had no pre­vi­ous ex­pe­ri­ence of high of­fice but we thought an in­ter-gen­der pact would break the mould, and met to cob­ble to­gether a man­i­festo. Har­riet came up with the idea of a weekly “French lunch” where we would dis­cuss French af­fairs and speak the lan­guage.

We met in the li­brary cof­fee bar to dis­cuss a menu. What fol­lowed def­i­nitely counts as “try­ing new things” and “putting my­self out­side my com­fort zone” but it is also per­haps an ex­am­ple of the ter­ri­ble fresher er­ror of try­ing too hard.

Har­riet had made some French-style nib­bles and wanted to know, if we sold them, how many I thought con­sti­tuted “a lunch”.

“Th­ese are hors d’oeu­vres,” I said. “It’s not a proper lunch.”

“They’re not hors d’oeu­vres. They’re big­ger than hors d’oeu­vres.” I looked at the plate. “If I can swal­low one whole it’s an hors d’oeu­vre.”

I know, I know. Only a bum­bling arts stu­dent with un­cer­tain knowl­edge of the work­ings of the oe­sophageal tract gam­bles an elec­tion, even his life, on a snack in a busy café. But I wanted to show I knew what an hors d’oeu­vre was. I wanted to show French Soc pres­i­den­tial qual­i­ties.

I re­mem­ber Har­riet fold­ing her arms and look­ing at me with cu­ri­ous de­tach­ment as the boat-shaped mini-quiche turned side­ways and jammed at the back of my throat, but lit­tle else of the en­su­ing 15 min­utes.

There was gasp­ing, there was as­phyx­i­a­tion and there was the clat­ter of crock­ery swept off the ta­ble amid shouts of “Heim­lich! Try Heim­lich!” from cus­tomers. Clutch­ing my throat I re­mem­ber think­ing, “Heim­lich! Yes, Heim­lich! A Ger­man med­i­cal stu­dent! Get him here now!”

A bru­tal jolt to my chest cav­ity saved me. And just as cru­cial was the so­cial les­son: if you

'It's pretty dry and in­tel­lec­tual here,' I said, as peo­ple ran past spray­ing each other with fire ex­tin­guish­ers

ar­rive at uni from a sub­ur­ban back­wa­ter, don’t make any sud­den changes to your be­hav­iour. Do not ac­cept bets or chal­lenges. Tread care­fully. And chew. Chew care­fully, too.

Th­ese days mak­ing friends at uni is eas­ier. With the ad­vent of so­cial me­dia a lot of ini­tial con­tact is made even be­fore stu­dents meet each other in the flesh.

“So­cial me­dia re­ally helps,” says Maddy Ewing, 20, go­ing into her sec­ond year at Manch­ester.

“As soon as I got a place I met ev­ery­one in my halls on­line. You can sort out a lot of the lo­gis­ti­cal stuff to­gether, like who’s in which room and how to get laun­dry done. It makes the first meet­ing much less daunt­ing.”

I find that slightly eerie, that you can see your en­tire fu­ture co­hort on­line. If I was con­tact­ing my new uni chums on so­cial me­dia I might well be ask­ing: who wants to bulk-buy tinned toma­toes with me?

But know­ing what I do now about uni life, I might also silently be ask­ing: which one of you am I go­ing to have chil­dren and spend the rest of my life with? For univer­sity is where many peo­ple have their first se­ri­ous re­la­tion­ship and even find a life­long part­ner.

In fact, a new survey of more than 6,000 UK stu­dents by the youth brand company Stu­dent­ has found that around 38 per cent of un­der­grad­u­ates lose their vir­gin­ity at univer­sity (22 per cent in the first year), while 39 per cent of women ex­pect to find their life part­ner there (it’s 35 per cent for men).

I had a girl­friend at home when I ar­rived at War­wick. I spent the first term try­ing to have a re­la­tion­ship with her down a pay­phone on a busy cor­ri­dor. “I’m not sure you’d want to visit, it’s pretty dry and in­tel­lec­tual here,” I’d say, cup­ping the re­ceiver in my hand while peo­ple ran up and down the hall re-en­act­ing Frankie Goes To Hol­ly­wood videos or spray­ing each other with fire ex­tin­guish­ers.

The re­la­tion­ship ended be­cause Agnes was scep­ti­cal of what she called my “poncy friends” and, to be hon­est, I didn’t know how to in­te­grate her into my new life. But with­out her my mood plum­meted be­cause I didn’t re­ally feel I prop­erly be­longed ei­ther.

I was lonely that first term. I had friends at home who were work­ing and earn­ing money, and that seemed very at­trac­tive when I couldn’t im­me­di­ately see how a foren­sic tex­tual anal­y­sis of Proust was go­ing to get me a job.

Also, there was an ac­com­mo­da­tion cri­sis and I had no per­ma­nent place to live. I ac­tu­ally thought about leav­ing. What I didn’t know is that first­term blues are very common. “There is some­times a strong pull to­wards home for some stu­dents in the first term. If they haven’t found new friend­ships, if the univer­sity dream doesn’t come true as they’ve imag­ined it, it can be hard. It’s im­por­tant fresh­ers don’t suc­cumb to de­pres­sion and get support,” says Colum McGuire, vi­cepres­i­dent (wel­fare) of the Na­tional Union of Stu­dents.

‘Calm down, have a smoke.” That was the support that Toby on my cor­ri­dor of­fered me. He was read­ing Phi­los­o­phy. I wanted to be friends with Toby but there was one ma­jor ob­sta­cle: I just couldn’t smoke weed the way he did – i.e. all the time, strum­ming a gui­tar. When I tried to join in I just got hun­gry or fell asleep. For quite a while I felt like I just wasn’t very good stu­dent ma­te­rial.

But this, too, ap­pears to be part of stu­dent mythol­ogy. When Stu­dent­beans polled nearly 2,000 stu­dents about drugs, they found that while 90 per cent of stu­dents thought their friends were tak­ing them, a lit­tle more than 50 per cent of them ac­tu­ally were.

“Stu­dents used to have a rep­u­ta­tion for druggy he­do­nism but I think a lot of them are too busy work­ing to pay tu­ition fees or study­ing,” says Rob Miller, who grad­u­ated from Sus­sex this sum­mer. “It’s so ex­pen­sive to be a stu­dent now that there’s more pres­sure to make uni a valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence in terms of job el­i­gi­bil­ity than in pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions.”

I didn’t leave uni after the first term. And Har­riet rang me in the Christ­mas hol­i­days with another brain­wave for the French Soc menu. “Wine. No food. Just wine.” She was right. The French Lunch be­gan to rock. And two other things hap­pened at the start of the sec­ond term which kick-started my uni life. First, the Smiths played at the Arts Cen­tre. My friends at home begged to come, which cheered me up no end.

And then two weeks later another Eight­ies icon made an ap­pear­ance: Mrs Thatcher ar­rived to open the univer­sity’s new Sci­ence Park.

The cam­pus was buzzing. All morn­ing stu­dents were stream­ing out of the cam­pus Spar with boxes and boxes of eggs. I went down to the Sci­ence Park to support Toby as he slurred a few protest songs at the mounted po­lice and I watched Mrs T get out of her limo. She was quite small and her hair looked hard, like it was a meringue.

She stooped slightly, gave a lit­tle wave and in re­turn she got what can only be de­scribed as a lot of un­so­licited stu­dent ad­vice: get out of Ire­land, get rid of Amer­i­can cruise mis­siles, open the mines, free Nel­son Man­dela. And then some­one threw an egg which slid down the wind­screen of her Daim­ler and sud­denly there was an aw­ful lot of run­ning about. And trun­cheons and horses. Yes, I re­mem­ber the in­vig­o­rat­ing warmth of horse breath on my neck and the sound of a hoof on Toby’s gui­tar.

We were on the news. My mother rang the hall’s pay­phone. “What a waste of eggs!” she said. “If that’s what you do with food I send you, then I shan’t bother next time.”

The japes of froth: a splash offoam is a tra­di­tion for first years on ‘Raisin Mon­day’ atSt An­drews Univer­sity

Socs and the city (clock­wise from above): a fresh­ers’ fair at Cam­bridge; high times at Aberys­t­wyth; An­thony An­drews play­ing Se­bas­tian in the 1981 ver­sion ofBrideshead Re­vis­ited;an ‘edgy’ Michael Odell

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