Simon Armitage’s wry observational memoir of life in the north of England, All Points North, contains a lovely piece based on his return to Portsmouth, where he had been to college fifteen years earlier, to receive an honorary degree.
Degrees of Separation is a blend of reminiscence and quotidian detail which I found myself thinking about, when, in September 2010, I unexpectedly found myself in a similar situation.
Sadly I wasn’t being awarded an honorary degree.
A showery Saturday, September 2010. I’m on a bus, travelling through the suburbs of Coventry and turning the clock back more than twenty years. The last time I did this the world was different.
In September 1985 I went to college. To Warwick, a ‘new’ university based on a campus to the south of Coventry which, as a friend from home once said, was like ‘an East German housing estate’. In those days ‘East German’ still meant something. And it wasn’t usually used as a compliment.
I came from a suburb of London. I can’t remember precisely how I ended up in Coventry, but, in those days, going to university was usually equated with leaving home in a way that it isn’t now. You didn’t have to worry about taking out loans which would lead to years of debt. Your local authority would simply give you money.
In my first year, when I didn’t own a car, I used to take this bus into Coventry on a regular basis. The buses then were painted a deeply unpleasant combination of beige and blue. Like most buses of the time they had a grimy feel to them; they rattled and wheezed, as did many of their inhabitants, and, like them, they had seen better days. People smoked on them. They may even have had conductors.
In this they matched their surroundings, for, to my soft southern eyes, mid-1980s Coventry was a grim, confusing, unpleasant place. Early Thatcherism had reared its ugly head, the car industry was in decline and the city’s infrastructure and population seemed to have gone with it.
All I can ever remember doing in Coventry is getting lost in the city’s brutalist shopping precinct, an edifice which had been erected in a hurry after the city had been bombed by the Germans forty years earlier and which nobody had ever got round to demolishing.
This time things seemed different. I arrived in the city centre on a bus from the northern suburbs and noticed that in the strong sunshine that preceded the rain it looked warmer and less etiolated and simply more interesting than before, with sculptures, trees, flowers and a statue of Sir Frank Whittle. The precinct was still there but it looked as though it had been cheaply renovated and deliberately hidden away, like an embarrassing elderly relative at a family wedding. I walked the short distance to a bus station that hadn’t been erected the last time I was there. And then onto a bus back to another time.
Out of the city centre, past the station where, in my third year, I used to catch the train to London on Saturday mornings to go to football matches at Highbury and Upton Park, and on other days to Birmingham, to St.Andrews and to Villa Park at a time when educated people would give you a strange look if you told them you’d been to a football match, especially if it had taken place in Small Heath.
Then past King Henry VIII School, where the flag of St.George flew at half mast on a grey Monday in December 1985 to mark the passing of Philip Larkin, a gesture which the lugubrious Old Boy may or may not have appreciated.
By the time I arrive at the campus the sun has gone in and rain is imminent. As I make my way towards the hall of residence where I lived in my first year, isolated raindrops colour the sky, briefly disturbing my mood but failing to staunch the flow of memories. The time someone in the hall opposite draped their towel over a lamp and the local fire brigade turned up in the middle of the night; the day one of my friends’ cars burst into flames and we had to break the news to him while he was rehearsing for a play; the fact that the only payphone in the block – although mobiles existed, nobody could afford or wanted one – was situated outside our living room, meaning that we would spend each evening hunting through the hall for people we didn’t know whose mothers were desperate to speak to them (Dorcas Fiddian-Green, wherever you are, I missed Gordon Strachan’s goal against West Germany because of you).
At times events from the outside world punctured our carapace of adjustment. Within the first couple of weeks Neil Kinnock had laid down the law to the militants in Bournemouth, and the Broadwater Farm estate, in north London, had gone up in flames. Later, as winter settled, Michael Heseltine walked out of the cabinet and the space shuttle exploded.
As the rain gets heavier I walk back towards the centre of the campus and down to the lake which used to mark the boundary between the main campus and the mysterious place on the hill where the maths students used to dwell. It’s larger than I remember, but if the amount of return visits I’ve paid in recent times (to New York, to Paris, to Edinburgh, to Norwich) have taught me one thing it is that things are never quite as you remember them. This is either because they have changed, or because you have.
With my umbrella up I walk across to the redbrick flats where I spent my third year. Past the sports centre and the new maths department and up between the library and that anonymous building where I used to watch films and sometimes sit exams. Under the lavish trellis that divides the Social Studies building and which had barely been planted the last time I was here, past the Arts Centre and into the Rootes Social Building, where I used to watch television, eat in the refectory and drink in the Airport Lounge. It is still the summer holidays but there are conferences on, so the place is teeming with bodies.
I dislike this, and don’t stay long, but I am there long enough to see that, like Coventry itself, everything is smarter and newer and shinier than it was before. It is a monument to lavish investment. Similarly, the Students’ Union building next door used to be a slightly shabby, sweaty, smoky place, dedicated to music and drinking. Recollections from the many days and nights I spent here include the time the two pints of lager I was holding departed from their glasses as The Stranglers struck up the opening chords of No More Heroes, the time I was applauded to the rafters by a crowd of inebriated fellow students for answering a series of sports questions like the Anorak I was, or the time Wendy James took her clothes off on stage and things looked like getting out of hand. Now, though, it is blander and more sanitized, and represents a different kind of student and their experiences. I wonder whether anyone ever gets drunk in here any more or whether it just acts as a staging post between one Business Management lecture and another. If people do drink to excess here, they do so without spilling a drop. It is implausibly clean.
I speak to an American student who is making sure that no unauthorized people gain entry to what he describes as a ‘private function’. I tell him what I am doing and guardedly exchange reminiscences with him. I later reflect on the fact that he probably wasn’t born the last time I was here.
It is time for me to return to the city. I find my bus and wait to be transported back to the world I inhabit now.
Days like this force you to reflect on the nature of experience and memory. When, after a long interval, you return to an environment which you once knew intimately – or even superficially – it’s inevitable that a diverse range of recollections will rush to the surface of your mind. But when you think a little harder you become aware that they’re not always as vivid as they seem. For a start, you recall them through the eyes of the person you are now, not the person that you were then, and, when you return anywhere after more than twenty years away, you quickly become aware of how much your surroundings have changed. No matter how much you might relish your memories, there’s no way in which you can satisfactorily relive them, both because they’re unique events and experiences but also because you and your environment are different.
This is not to say, though, that experiences such as this are not both enjoyable and valuable. For a long time I harboured a strong sense of regret about my time at university, but going back reminded me that my three years there contained many good times.
The regrets stem from looking at the past through the distended prism of maturity. What I did at the time was a result of who I was then, not the person I am now.
The world was different then.