Posts Tagged ‘University of Liverpool’

Forty years on

February 13, 2023

I realised recently that it is now 40 years since I finally stopped being a student, and was awarded my M.Phil, for a thesis entitled Feminism and Science Fiction, which I had researched using the resources of the Science Fiction Foundation. At the time, that establishment was based at North East London Polytechnic (now the University of East London); now it’s based at my alma mater, the University of Liverpool, in the Sydney Jones Library, where I spent a good number of hours as an undergraduate. My researches were supervised in part by Patrick Parrinder, who was the ‘soft man’ at my viva examination; the ‘hard man’ was Professor Tom Shippey. I acquitted myself satisfactorily; a copy of the thesis may be found at the SFF library, the others I have.

All those years ago I was introduced to feminism through a combination of circumstances and found it a necessary and challenging perspective on the world; it remains so. And at the time, many women had turned to science fiction as an imaginative way to explore the possibilities of different worlds, without patriarchy or male domination, worlds where equality between the sexes was actual rather than technical or merely legal. I tried to explore the interface between the theory or the philosophy, and the creative, the literature. It was fascinating.

My thesis has gathered dust on the shelf. I did continue to review novels for Foundation, the academic journal of the SFF for a while, but eventually career, family and other interests meant that I moved on from those days. I haven’t re-read my thesis; I don’t know whether it would speak to today’s conditions, today’s world, today’s readers, and I don’t know whether I would come to the same conclusions today as I did all those years ago. I have no idea, either, whether any readers have found my work of any use subsequently.

I enjoyed the reading, the thinking, the planning, the writing and the revising and correcting; two years of work. In total, I enjoyed eight years of being a student, and, as I used to remind sixth-formers in my care during my teaching career, those years were funded – tuition and living allowance – by the state. I didn’t think twice about that; it was part of a country investing in the future. It gained a teacher who worked for nearly thirty years, and repaid many times over the meagre grants I’d received. Times are so different now. And I think I’d do it all again.

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…

Heroes and icons

January 25, 2019

Something got me thinking about heroes recently, and I found myself wondering if I had any. A hero: someone whose life and work I greatly admire; is that a good enough definition? Or am I thinking of an icon?

One will have to be Shakespeare. I realise I had a very good first encounter with the man and his work, through an inspirational English teacher (who was ultimately responsible for my pursuing such a career myself) who chose a demanding and challenging play for study at O Level: The Merchant of Venice. Difficult to classify, though many critics call it a tragicomedy, which will do, I suppose. The point is, it raised so many issues for teenage minds to wrestle with: what is justice? What is racism? Who are we meant to sympathise with? In other words, I had an early introduction to the idea that there are no easy answers, and that one should beware of anyone who claimed to have one… And this same teacher went on to teach us Othello and King Lear at A Level, two astonishingly powerful tragedies which move me to tears whenever I watch them.

At university we had a course on ‘The Drama’ in our first year, and were fortunate enough to have the lectures on Shakespeare delivered by Kenneth Muir, the head of the Department of English at the University of Liverpool and eminent Shakespearean scholar, then on the verge of retirement. He was amazing: clear and perceptive in his analysis, what stunned us all most was that whatever play he was discussing, he could immediately recall whatever lines he wanted, from memory, as he paced the lecture theatre.

Obviously as an English teacher myself, I had to teach many of the plays. I tried only to teach plays I really liked, especially after having made the early mistake of trying to interest year 8 students in A Midsummer Night’s Dream because that was one of the plays designated for year 8… I had to teach Macbeth – a play I liked but never really completely warmed to – more times than I care to think; I loved teaching Julius Caesar and Romeo and Juliet, and when it came to sixth form, went for the tragedies whenever I could, though only ever once managed to get to teach King Lear. Othello and Antony and Cleopatra were my great favourites.

Everyone will have their own take on Shakespeare’s greatness. For me there were two things in particular: the astonishing power and beauty of his language in so many different situations and through so many different characters, and his ability to raise so many questions through his plots, to make his audiences think, to make them uncomfortable, in short to make them see that there was no one easy response to anything.

I said ‘one’ before I mentioned Shakespeare, so logically there will be another, and there is.

​_Whereas I can claim a certain measure of expertise in the field of literature, in the field of music I am a zero. Tone deaf, unable to play any instrument, bribed at school not to sing in music lessons because I put others off. But my other hero, or icon, is J S Bach. And I will find it much harder to explain why. A long while ago I mentioned how a teacher at school had initially fired my curiosity by refusing to play Bach to us ‘peasants’; another teacher played us the fifth Brandenburg Concerto, and I could not believe my ears, transported by the speed and virtuosity of the harpsichordist.

My encyclopaedic knowledge of 1970s rock music gradually began to fade as I explored the world of jazz and classical music, and one fateful day I spent a whole pound on a whim, on a secondhand LP of two Bach cantatas from a stall on Lancaster market. Many years later, having worn it out, I managed to find a replacement.

Bach’s music transports me onto a more spiritual plane: that’s the only way I can put it, really. The cello suites, for example, some of the shorter and less fiery organ pieces, but above all the church cantatas take me away from myself, my ordinary little world and its worries and preoccupations and lead me somewhere completely other with my mind – my being, thoughts, consciousness — to another place entirely. It’s beyond me and much more powerful than me; I don’t understand it and I feel unutterably grateful for the experience.

Bach was a Lutheran, a very religious and God-fearing man: I am not. As a Quaker, I explore a spiritual path, true, but worship in silence; I don’t know whether God exists or is a creation of the human mind. But Bach’s music speaks to me so profoundly, from nearly three centuries ago, in a way which complements everything I believe in, and manages to restore my faith in humanity.

So yes, perhaps there are heroes, and I have a couple of them.

My travels: L for Liverpool

March 2, 2017

I think I fell in love with Liverpool as soon as I arrived on my first visit, for a university interview: there was cheerful music playing over the loudspeaker system at Lime Street Station, and I never looked back. The interview was a breeze and the offer a doddle and so that’s where I ended up, doing my first degree and also my PGCE, before moving away.

I lived in various different parts of the city: halls of residence (now demolished, I recently learned) on the Greenbank site, then a house about a mile away from which we did a midnight flit after the immersion heater had exploded in the sitting room; just off Edge Lane, and then a couple of years above a florist’s in Anfield, which I loved.

Things about the city: all the Beatles associations – Penny Lane opposite the halls of residence, the glass onion in Sefton Park; the parks themselves, the amazing eateries in various different places, the pubs… the gents’ in the Philharmonic, and Ye Cracke on Rice Street, where we used to hang out in the War Office… the pub-crawl we did on results day. The ferry over the Mersey and forays into darkest Birkenhead where a friend and I would each buy bin-bags full of cheap science fiction to read.

Culturally Liverpool was wonderful: there was the Everyman Theatre, in its old guise and then done up, where I saw so many amazing plays, and ate so many wonderful lunches, and the Bluecoat Gallery where there was a cinema club in which I spent many happy hours getting to know the films of many countries and directors, and eventually there was the marvellous, the surreal Liverpool School of Music Dream and Pun (or something like that!) set up by Ken Campbell, where I enjoyed many bizarre theatrical experiences, including the world premiere of the Illuminatus Trilogy (I still have my handwritten ticket issued by Ken himself). And lots of great concerts in the Mountford Hall at the university.

I’m sure my memories are largely happy ones because my time there coincided with those years of freedom when I was a student, without many cares in the world and in receipt of a grant which paid me to lie on my bed and read books and think about them. And Liverpool did have its grim sides: being burgled, the acquaintance who woke up one morning to find a corpse on the doorstep, the awful poverty in some areas of the city… But I remember the city and its cheerful inhabitants with affection; it will be time to go back soon: there’s an Otto Dix exhibition in the autumn…

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