Off to uni

November 12, 2022

I’m reminded that it’s now half a century since I applied to university. That is scary. And how different it all was way back then. You could make five choices from the 40 or so universities there were in the UK at the time, and support your application with a personal statement, much as students do today; your school wrote a reference and you waited. No change there then.

Universities rejected you if they didn’t want you; if they were interested, they usually interviewed you. Then you received offers or not. And you could accept a firm offer, as it was called, and retain a reserve offer if you didn’t get the grades for the firm offer. I applied to read Latin and French; I also applied to take a year out (it wasn’t called a gap year then; I was too young and also I wanted to earn a bit of money to keep myself once I got to uni). I had an offer from Leeds, and interviews and offers from Manchester and Liverpool. I fell in love with Liverpool as soon as I arrived at Lime Street Station, and they made me a ridiculous offer which I couldn’t not accept.

I remember very little about the actual business of A level exams; revision went smoothly as did the exams; I still haven’t forgotten the 36 sides of foolscap I covered in one day, having 3 hours of English Lit in the morning and another 3 hours of French Lit in the afternoon (or maybe it was the other way round?). Results day was a postcard from the headmaster with the comment ‘That should be good enough for Liverpool!’. It was, but having done well at English I was minded to write and ask if I could change to joint French and English. They said I could.

I managed all this at age 17 with no help from my parents, who had no idea what any of this might mean, and little advice but plenty of encouragement from my school. It felt a million miles away from the help, advice and support students needed and received when I was a sixth form tutor, and later, a head of sixth form.

The university experience was an eye-opener, with the expected helpings of sex, drugs and rock ’n roll. The first big shock was on the first day in the French department: jaws hit the desks when the Prof said casually, ‘of course, all our lectures and tutorials are in French…’ I don’t remember any greats in that department, but do remember from my studies of English Literature the wonderful lectures of Kenneth Muir, who could walk about the auditorium talking about any and all of Shakespeare’s plays as needed and the required quotations would trip effortlessly off his tongue. And the lectures of Hermione Lee, now well-known in academic and literary spheres, then in her first academic lecturing post (I think), introducing me to the hidden joys of Jane Austen.

My father, with the benefit of his meagre four winters’ schooling and the refusal of his father to let him take his education beyond primary level, had always encouraged me in learning, and told me that I should go to university one day: I did, although I was never sure he approved of what it did to me. It was a revelation, the beginning of a lifetime of study and teaching and commitment to literature. I’ve loved it and I’d do it all over again…

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4 Responses to “Off to uni”


  1. A few years ahead of you, my experience was much the same. French department lectures in Manchester were mostly delivered in English, though, which was a blessing to students from the days when grammar and translation were paramount and aural/oral skills almost optional extras. I’ve written about this in ‘Foreshadowing’, the short prequel to my novel ‘Shadows of the Past’. It’s an almost word for word memoir of my experiences in the Leeds Sixth form, where I studied for ‘A’ levels in French, German and Latin.

    Liked by 1 person

    • litgaz Says:

      What I found just a little alarming was that my French was actually better than that of one or two of the lecturers…

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      • As the year abroad was optional, some students’ spoken French was no better by the end of the course than when they arrived post-‘A’ level. I took the opportunity to work in a lycée in Rouen (and spend some very wild weekends in Paris). That helped a lot, although still I wish I’d been taught by the direct method from the beginning. Not available in my school then, unfortunately.

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  2. Interesting post! I majored in French too and enjoyed my university days which fostered a life long love of learning and like you I would do it all over again!

    Like


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