Bristol University

Ah! Most of us probably remember our undergraduate student days with a bit more pleasure than secondary school. I certainly do. But I existed rather in a parallel univese of my own even then.

I went to Bristol University, where I ended up with a BSc degree in mathematics; but for my degree I also studied particle physics with the honours physicists for my first year, during which I was officially a physics major — so supposedly going to be an academic or research physicist; and for my third year along with the maths I also studied ancient Greek with the honours classicists (who had all passed Greek A level about 5 months earlier, whereas I had merely passed Greek O level about 5 years earlier, which gives you a clue).

I got the equivalent of a 2-1 score in the Honours Classics Greek exam taken the same summer term as my maths finals. The fact that I did not, as it happens, get a brilliant maths degree can be put down to distractions throughout my undergraduate years more than to particular ineptitude in the subject. I was never going to be the sort of person who would spend 3 or 4 years of his life on a doctorate, or even just one year doing a master’s in mathematics. At that time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, and indeed I spent the year after getting my degree on a PGCE (postgrad secondary school teaching course) before realizing after only two terms actually teaching kids that being school teacher was definitely not what I wanted to spend my life doing. To get onto that Greek course at Bristol, I wrote some Euripidean hexameters (that you can see under Verse).

On completing my BSc, I stayed on at Bristol and did the Postgraduate Certificate in Education (PGCE), to be a secondary school maths teacher and specializing in gifted children as an education topic. In retrospect, it is interesting that I chose this specialization because a few years later a manager for whom I worked told me about British Mensa, the society for people with a high IQ, and said he thought that I had an IQ high enough to join, and that I would enjoy it because he was a member and he enjoyed it. See how I came to join Mensa).

On this course, we spent the autumn term and the summer term in the University education department doing our postgraduate studies; we each spent the spring term working as a teacher in a school, getting real life experience of the life of a schoolteacher.

While at the University of Bristol, I was (like all students) a member of the students’ union, and as a hobby I joined the Opera Society. I sang in the men’s chorus, with the basses, and took part in two operas: Ivan IV by Georges Bizet and in Straszny Dwór by Stanislaw Moniuszko in the world première of the English language version with title The Haunted Manor. (By the way, I created that Wikipedia page many years later when I became a Wikipedian; and it was I who suggested it as a show to be put on by Opera South (Haslemere, February 2001).

I originally went to the university to do physics. The head physics teacher at Wimbledon — a very tall bespectacled man who was very methodical and who meant well by those of us keen on the subject already, but not at all inspiring, compared to whom indeed Mr Ruddy was for me positively charismatic — had persuaded me that science was a better subject for getting jobs (apart from teaching which at that time I did not want to do). I applied to Bristol because it was considered academically best outside of Oxford and Cambridge; and, although Wimbledon College had quite a strong track record of sending boys to Oxbridge (as those two were, and are still, collectively called), particularly (I remember) to Caius College, Cambridge, Oxbridge required students to sit an entrance exam the winter after leaving school and thus to “kill time’ for a the best part of a year before beginning their studies. Some of the other universities to which I applied were new ones built in the Harold Wilson Labour government higher education boom of the mid 1960s, so they were only two or three years old in some cases. I visited most of them: Warwick, East Anglia, Essex, and Nottingham. But I got into, and began as an undergraduate at, the University of Bristol in October 1968. The Physics department lived (and still does) in the H.H. Wills memorial building almost next to the university Senate House. The labs sat in their own grounds up the hill and behind the other Wills memorial building that house arts and humanities faculties, which has its cathedral-like stone gothic main door at thetop of Park Street just across the road from the main university bookshop, called George’s, which was on the left as you climbed the hill on a corner just at the top of Park Street, which rises straight and steeply from in front of the Cathedral, which is south west of the circulatory traffic system next to the old Bristol docks key. Bristol was probably the nearest city with a university to Oxford in terms of its general look, with the golden stone; and I was pretty happy there a lot of the time.

When I arrived in Bristol, it was my first time living away from home — as it is for most British college students who do move away, resisting the temptation to postpone that part of growing up, and pick a college where they can live with their parents while studying. Once I was there, I hardly went back home except to visit. I never actually lived in Leatherhead again; I only stayed with them on very temporary visits. Still, my first year began in “digs’, lodgings in a private house, an end terrace place with an elderly lady (well I think she was just 64 but she was an old-fashioned countrywoman, with a broad local accent, and she had owned a farm which (now that she was a widow) her son ran with her help.