The fateful day in August when I went up to the High School to receive my A level results remains one of the most significant in my life. It opened up opportunities and experiences that I would never otherwise have accessed.
There is always a little excitement when the A level results come out in August and a new generation, for the most part, have all their hard work rewarded with a place at their chosen institution. In homage to this year’s crop, and all the parents, family and friends that have helped to deliver them to this point, an extract from Resolution…
So this was it: University life. I’d made it. Apparently I was now a Fresher.
Fresher was not a term with which I had previously been familiar. It had a distinctly American feel to it. It seemed to be plastered all over the Goodricke notice boards now though. Exhortations to attend a formidable range of events and social gatherings arranged to meet and greet the new first years, ‘the Freshers’.
It had been placed over the ‘official’ notice boards with their dark blue letterheads with University of York embossed on them in that classily distinctive flowing font. Eric the porter would no doubt be having an official conversation with the member of the Junior Common Room who had made so bold with his, or her, fly posting.
At that moment a thin, reed-like boy in flared black jeans, worn baseball boots, red polo-neck jumper and plain black glasses burst past me carrying ‘Fresher Ball’ posters, a pair of scissors and a box of drawing pins. I resisted the temptation to shout after him, “Don’t you know not to run when you are carrying scissors?” in the manner of my primary school teachers.
The Fresher Ball posters were also in the correct place on the ‘Ents’ Noticeboard, obscuring the Captain Beefheart poster donated by some musically progressive student and next to the elaborate floral poster for that Friday’s upcoming concert at Central Hall, the spaceship-like edifice which rose out of the lake opposite Goodricke College.
The concert featured Steeleye Span, the folk / electric combo who had recently been in the charts with ‘Gaudete’, a song that had the style of a Gregorian chant. It seemed a long way from the only chart band that had deigned to make a stopover in Rhyl in recent years, the Sweet.
I’d deliberately avoided going to see the Sweet as, along with bands like the Rubettes, Mud and the Bay City Rollers, they encompassed all I hated in popular music and could be linked directly to the nadir of bad taste in music, Middle of the Road’s 1971 minor hit, ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep’.
I must have had toothache at the time because I can’t recall its pointless tune and lyrics without a feeling of deep and hollow neuralgia. It was the summer of standing in the High Street at the front of a shop selling rock in the shape of false teeth, and cheap plastic crap imported in horrendous bulk from Hong Kong for tourists to amuse their friends and family with on their return home.
What did these presents say about their purchasers and the people who would receive them as valued friends and family?
“I’ve been on holiday to the Welsh seaside, was wandering aimlessly along the High Street when I came across a massive set of false teeth fashioned out of reconstituted coloured sugar, and thought immediately of you. Without contemplating the irony of the tooth decay eating such a confection would promote, I bought them for you anyway, such is the esteem in which I hold our friendship.”
And every day ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep, Cheep’ would be played incessantly through the odious patter of Tony Blackburn on ‘wonderful’ Radio One. It was the one time that I didn’t mind him jabbering through the introduction and end of the record – that truly was how much I despised Middle of the Road. Five weeks it spent at number one, five long, miserable weeks. Again and again it was played until on the Thursday of the fourth week of the holidays I’d had enough. I waited until being paid my week’s wages (having learned from previous experience to take the pay before walking away) threw down the blue nylon jacket with the Barney’s insignia on the breast and buggered off home without a word of explanation.
“You walk away from my shop and you won’t work in this town again!” shouted Barney after me. I couldn’t think of a time when I was less perturbed.
It was a blessed relief to be away from that tune and that job. I enjoyed a leisurely rest of the holiday and was ecstatic when Mark Bolan replaced the record at number one with ‘Get It On!’
Pity, I thought not for the first time, not to have been a decade older, when the Beatles, and a whole string of the Merseybeat bands had included Rhyl in the places they could play and get back to Liverpool in their battered Austin and Morris vans in time for work in the morning.
Yes, I thought, I’d follow the instruction to beat a path to the university shop and purchase a ticket for Steeleye Span. Fleetingly, I wondered if I could afford the £1.50 for the ticket and then remembered the thought of the night before which, by an incredible feat of synchronicity, Pol Pot was having at about the same time,
“Today was day one of a completely new start.”
So how was my new life going to pan out?
The Fresher reception was to be held in a room numbered G101. In wandering around the gloom of the campus to get my bearings, I’d worked out this code. It was hardly rocket science, but I’d grown up in schools where the room was always associated with a particular teacher. This was a first floor room in Goodricke College and I made my way up the stairs opposite the porters’ lodge to find it.
One thing I had not got used to yet was the peculiar sprung floors in the college. Being of CLASP design, all the superstructure of the building hung off an internal steel structure and this meant that the floors all had a distinctive spring to them, exacerbated by the thick lino used to cushion the effect. This meant that negotiating your way along any corridor in the college felt like walking across a trampoline and the staircases vibrated as excessively as you ascended them. This was very much an acquired taste.
There was no mistaking G101 judging by the buzz of earnest conversation and the shining faces of the reception committee drawn up outside to meet and greet. I didn’t feel particularly confident in such situations but fell back for a few seconds on something I’d read in the summer to strengthen my resolve.
I finally knew I was coming to university at York when a thick envelope arrived about a week after the ‘A’ level results came out. In it was the confirmation letter, a sheet about Goodricke, the College to which I’d been assigned, and a chunky reading list running to several pages from the Faculty of Social Sciences.
I perused the reading list with studious intent, then read the total of books included on it. I would have to read at a rate of more than a book a day to complete the reading list before starting at college. Not wishing to fall at the first hurdle, I’d resolved to keep to this frantic reading schedule.
The resolve lasted less than an hour.
I decided to trim the list to what seemed the more interesting books, but on that basis I’d probably not touch any of the statistics and economics tomes, so I deliberately ringed one from each of those sections. By far the most interesting books appeared to be in the Sociology section and one in particular caught my eye, Erving Goffman’s ‘The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life’. It seemed an enticing title, and appeared next to ‘The Naked Ape’ by Desmond Morris, who I knew from his zoology programmes on the television. Desmond’s was the only tome on the list that I had read, so I thought I’d give Goffman a go.
The next day I was at Rhyl library, beneath the clock tower of the Town Hall. As luck would have it, it was undergoing another episode of underpinning caused by general concern that the clock tower was leaning and would eventually topple forwards, demolishing either the Midland Bank, the Police Station or the little pub between them. As was becoming habitual, I had to negotiate a hastily erected structure of dusty scaffolding to enter this repository of free learning in Rhyl.
I was becoming something of a celebrity reader at the library. The librarians had heartily approved of my reading in support of my ‘A’ level English studies in the previous year when I’d gobbled up Vladimir Nabukov, Anton Chekov and Alexandr Solzhenitsyn. In fact, having hoovered up most of Nabokov, the head librarian suggested to me that I might like to sample the delights of ‘Lolita’ and reached underneath the counter for a pristine copy. That saved me having to request it like a teenager asking for contraceptives in the chemist. I think they considered that I was a cut above the usual requests for westerns and romances by Barbara Cartland and could appreciate ‘Lolita’ at a cerebral level, which I’m ashamed to say, I didn’t.
I handed my reading list over and the head librarian who caressed the embossed University of York letterhead with reverence, in much the way that I had, before consulting the pages of recommended reading. She was now a long way from the day her reading list for university had arrived, but realised that this represented a significant rite of passage.
Her eyebrows knitted in frustration as she realised that she would be unable to supply most of the list, even after consulting her micro-fiche machine to pull on the additional resources in the newly created Clwyd archive. She was personally mortified not to be able to service the list but she booked Erving Goffman’s tome for me as she was familiar with it and thought reading it would repay the investment. I went to pay the charge for ordering a book from the central catalogue, but she brushed my hand aside magnanimously. Any child of Rhyl requiring such books for university would most certainly not be charged on her watch.
copyright: Ambrose Conway / David Hughes 2011