Thursday, April 2, 2009

A Fresher


On the Sunday before orientation week, with only a scattering of people about, shyly resplendent in my new maroon blazer, I walked through Canterbury University's old clock tower with its well-worn geometrical tiles. It felt splendidly baronial. The quad with its vertical stone walls, high, steep slate-tiled roofs, cloisters, small stone-clad library in the middle, the one extensive copper beech and several green-leaved ginkgo trees appeared Old World befitting the education I was about to receive. The scene conveyed a message - observe, have faith in the institution and obey. A stranger to such higher halls of learning, and equally an amateur at architecture, I sensed history, a impression reinforced when exploring the quad I discovered in a corner a plaque stating Sir Ernest Rutherford worked in the nearby underground room.
I was the first of my family to go to university so it was real unknown territory. I count myself favoured in that its location meant town and gown were merged and meshed together. The distinction has been made between a uni-varsity, a community united in a common enterprise for a common purpose, and a multi-varsity, a loose confederation of distinct groups pursuing special interests or agendas. During the 1950s the Arts faculty at Canterbury stressed the first approach with missionary zeal. Graduates, no matter what occupation they would enter, should drink from the well of Oxbridge wisdom, a self-confident, cultural enclosure. One would graduate with certain intellectual approaches and a storehouse of knowledge. The proponents of this viewpoint saw the more vocational oriented courses, law, engineering, education and commerce as second-rate disciplines.
Its leading advocate, Professor Neville Phillips next day gravely enrolled me for stage 1 History, the subject in which I intended to major. During orientation week I joined a group of other `freshers' for an evening at the Phillips' home. The meal was bacon and egg pie, mashed potatoes and peas. The Professor gave us wine. I had had the odd beer, hot toddies for colds, brandy on the pudding at Christmas time, and sherry in the odd trifle, but never wine. Inexperienced, I drank too much of the pleasantly sour stuff. We stood around to eat with only a fork, another new occurrence. Foolishly I ate the pie and spud first, which left me with a pile of peas which rolled round the plate as floundering I tried to spear them. Worse was to come. The Prof produced a bottle of Benedictine and poured us each a tiny glass. My first liqueur. He toasted “Good Study".I knocked mine back in a gulp - dim memory of movie characters doing so and certainly a few glasses of unaccustomed wine dulls judgement. The liqueur burnt down leaving me with an inflamed gullet and eyes that refused to function properly. In agony I coughed and spluttered for the rest of the evening - indeed for the rest of the week. The shame still lingers - not a good beginning to four years' work with the Professor.

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