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
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 Studentbeans.com 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 of
foam is a tradition for first years on ‘Raisin Monday’ at
St 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 of
an ‘edgy’ Michael Odell