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40 years ago the HE journey began

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Sunday, 13 Dec 2020, 14:06

A collage of photographs of Balliol College, the Sheldonian and Bodliean from December 1980

40 years ago, on the 11th and 12th of December 1980, I attended interviews at Balliol College, Oxford to study modern history. The photographs above are the ones I took and later stuck into a scrapbook. 

My mother drove me down from Newcastle to Chipping Camden to stay with her long term boyfriend; my parents had separated and then divorced ten years eariler. According to my diary my material grandparents were with us too. The cottage in the Cotswalds was tiny.

The next day my Mum drove me into Oxford and dropped me at the entrance to Balliol. I had a rucksack, an acoustic guiitar and a pair of skis. I felt like a traveller who had got lost.

I must have gone to the porter's lodge, must have been given a key to a room. I can't recall where it was - staircase 11 to 15, one they set aside for the conference season.

I had two interiews and may also have met my 'pastoral tutor'. The first interview was on the subject I was hoping to study. We discussed Henry VII and then the Reformation. We'd not talked much at the RGS during class - it had been more a case of take notes, write the essay, learn stuff and make sure its in your head by the time of the written exam.

I had plenty of time between interviews; I do not recall coming across any other students at all.

I wandered over to the Sheldonian and Bodliean and took photographs with my Minolta. I must have eaten in hall. The next morning I want to the Ashmolean Museum opposite. Then I had a second interview. Once again there were two tutors. This was a general interview. I spoke about acting at schools and the People's Theatre: the Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Dracula Spectacula! 

I took myself down to the Station for the train into London. I made my way out to Brentford Docks where my father had his London flat then. This may have been my third time ever to London and the first time travelling alone. I stayed with Dad. Did we eat out in town? Did he introduce me to his girlfriend of that moment? His view of my song writing efforts were that there were 'too many words'. I take it he didn't like my singing, my voice, my playing ... that's Dad for you.

The next afternoon I took the train from Victoria to Folkestone and got the ferry across to Calais. I made friends with a girl my age and a young couple. The crossing was rough and this girl, Paula and I loved every moment of it, even when a vending machine broke loose and slid across the deck. I had her name, but no number. We were just young people pasing through.

Across Paris with my clobber by bus; skis and guitar. And the night train from Gar du Nord. Onwards to Bourg St Maurice, to Val d'Isere, the Hotel Sofitel and a job immersed amongst French 'seasoniere' where, in a Marks &  Spencer grey suit I was the 'day porter, English speaking, snow shovelling, breakfast delivering errand boy'. 

University life at Balliol eventually began in October 1981. A close friend from those days died a month ago. Life's short - embrace it. 

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Design Museum

Oxbridge History Exam 1980

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Edited by Jonathan Vernon, Monday, 5 May 2014, 07:03

The journey I set out on to get to Oxford or Cambridge took two years.

Not getting along with Economics I switched to History after a term in the Lower Sixth. (Not getting on with Sedbergh School, Cumbria, I left smile !)

My essays, though long (always, my habit, then, as now - why say something in six words when eighteen will do?) Tell Proust to write in sentences of less than six words, in paragraphs that don't flow from one page to the next (ditto Henry Miller).

Where was I?

See how a stream of consciousness turns into a cascade?

I digress.

My essays (I still have them. Sad. Very sad). Were on the whole terrible. A 'C' grade is typical, a 'D' not unknown. So what happened to get me to straight As, an Oxbridge exam and a place to study Modern History at Balliol College, Oxford?

Composting

I was bedding down. Putting things in a stack. And working my pile. Perhaps my history tutors detailed notes and bullet points fed on my poor essays? Perhaps the seeds that took root were carefully tendered?

Repeated testing (my self) and learning how to retain then regurgitate great long lists of pertinent facts helped.

Having an essay style I could visualise courtesy of my Geography Teacher helped. (Think of a flower with six or so petals. Each petal is a theme. The stamen is the essay title, the step the introduction and conclusion).

Writing essays over and over again helped. Eventually I got the idea.

Try doing this for an Assignment. You can't. Yet this process, that took 24+ months to complete can be achieved over a few weeks. Perhaps a blank sheet of paper and exam conditions would be one way of treating it, instead I've coming to think of these as an 'open book' assessment. There is a deadline, and a time limit, though you're going to get far longer than the 45 minutes per essay (or was it 23 minutes) while sitting an exam.

Personally, I have to get my head to the stage where I've done the e, d, c, and b grade stuff. When I've had a chance to sieve and grade and filter and shake ... until, perhaps, I reach the stage where if called to do so I could sit this as an exam - or at least take it as a viva.

Not a convert to online learning as an exclusive platform though.

Passion for your tutor, your fellow students ... as well as the subject, is better catered for in the flesh.

The way ahead is for 'traditional' universities to buy big time into blended learning, double their intake and have a single year group rotating in and out during a SIX term year (three on campus, three on holiday or working online.)

P.S. Did I mention teachers?

Have a very good teacher, it helps. The Royal Grammar School, Newcastle where I transferred to take A' Levels delivers.

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