The stages of my student life at Sussex University seem to be marked by memories of favourite clothes. Horribly superficial, I know. Looking back over many decades, I think I was far too busy enjoying the parties, the red-hot revolutionary fervour of student politics, and the inevitable love affairs, to take my academic work very seriously.
Now I berate that empty-headed 19-year-old for all that she missed. Not least the value to be gained from some of the outstanding teachers at Sussex at the time – Stephen Medcalf, Laurence Lerner, and the wonderful Quentin Bell, who would casually drop mentions of ‘Henry’ or ‘Virginia’ into tutorial discussions, leaving his students to work out that he was referring to Henry James and Virginia Woolf. People entirely familiar to him; remote deities to us.
Army surplus trousers
I vividly remember the outfit that I wore when I came up from Cornwall for my interview at Sussex: navy blue serge army surplus trousers with a red stripe down the side and a bright yellow oilskin raincoat – which I considered, coming from the West Country, to be the height of fashion. It wasn’t until I left the train at Falmer station that I had the uncomfortable impression that everyone else on campus looked infinitely more sophisticated and ‘trendy’ than I did – this was, after all, the late 1960s and the era of the Jay twins.
They were also the days of free university tuition, holiday grants, and unconditional offers. Possibly impressed by my naming a young British author (whose star burnt bright but briefly) as my favourite writer, Prof Reg Mutter wrote to me a week after my interview with an unconditional offer to read English. I was the first to go from Camborne Technical College to one of the new universities just then opening, and it created quite a stir amongst my contemporaries.
My long leather coat
Brighton was awash with second-hand and military surplus clothes shops, and at the start of my second year I splashed out much of my term’s grant on a long leather coat with a fur collar bought from a dark and Dickensian shop in the North Laine. The coat became my proudest possession, worn even on the hottest of days. I suspect the attraction was the air of a Russian revolutionary I thought it gave me.
Revolution was certainly in the air. I spent many happy evenings with friends in the flat that I rented in Queens Square discussing what we would do ‘come the revolution’, and earnestly reading our poems to one another. I’m still waiting for the revolution, and the poems were certainly not good enough to be memorable.
Flowery muslin dress
A full-length flower-embroidered muslin dress hung in my wardrobe for many years as a reminder of the next great event in my life at Sussex: towards the end of my second year I fell in love with a fellow student, in the School of European Studies. He was studying French and was due to go to France for his year abroad the following year. I asked if I could have time out from my studies. A firm ‘No’, came the stern response. ‘We would only consider it if you were married’.
So we were. At Brighton registry office with two fellow students as witnesses, one of whom had to lend us half-a-crown to pay the fees as we’d forgotten to bring any money with us. The ceremony was followed by a very riotous picnic in the Sussex countryside with a large group of friends. For many years my muslin dress bore a number of grass stains as testimony to the good time that was had by all.
Stumbling and stretching
Of course, eventually life had to get more serious and studying more intense. In my final year, back from France, I finally – and far too late – started to appreciate the luxury of being able to immerse myself in wonderful literature and poetry, of discussing my own stumbling interpretations with wonderfully knowledgeable and patient tutors, and of listening to mind-stretching lectures by eminent European philosophers.
All too soon my time at Sussex drew to a close, and the next great adventure began. Off to Annaba, Algeria, to teach English in a Lycée Technique. But that’s a whole new story.