Let’s get the clichés out the way first – your college or university days are meant to be the best of your life.
But for me, the three years I spent as an undergraduate were marked by the onset of what I now know to be depression which haunted me then and continues to do so.
I studied sociology at a provincial university in northern England and while the town itself was lovely, the rest of the experience I would never willingly repeat.
The campus on which I studied was and probably still is, a typical product of ’60s sprawl consisting of of concrete, breeze-blocks dotted around a malodorous artificial lake.
I believe one of its concrete monstrosities won some sort of award for architecture when first unveiled in the 1970s but there’s no accounting for taste.
As for the lake, I’m sure it looked charming when it first opened. No doubt it was all crystal clear waters and bucolic birds as students cycled to lectures, striped scarves blowing in the wind as they went, but by the time I got there it was a rather different story.
It was murky, smelly and on cold November days resembled the Stymphalian Marsh before Heracles got at it, complete with ill-tempered birds.
The powers that be often warned students never to swim in the lake – and despite seeing some very drunken people wobbling about campus I never saw anyone brave, foolish, or inebriated enough to do so.
The weather in the north is predictably rainy for much of the year and there were umpteen days on campus marooned in lecture halls while the steady rain turned the grassy areas into a quagmire.
Lectures and seminars were the same as anywhere else – largely dull and of no practical value.
Some lecturers were decent, but for the most part you’d sit there in groups for an hour or so surrounded by half a dozen of your fellows who looked:
a) Like they’d rather be in the pub
b) Had just come back from the pub
c) Were so pissed they thought they still were in the pub and were trying to figure out where the bar had gone.
The worst thing though was Sundays. You’d wander about the place looking in vain for something to do while a dwindling band of your fellow students paraded around looking like extras from Night of the Living Dead.
What can you do on a gloomy Sunday? Get a bite to eat? Depressingly, catering facilities were closed all day. Unless you were decent at cooking (I wasn’t), and you were willing to enter a student kitchen – or demilitarised zone as they were also called, your best bet was to head for the nearest Burger King.
What about studying? The library was fine, in a rather clinical tower-block sort of way but there’s only so much time you can spend sitting in a drafty place trying without success to track down unintelligible articles to help with your assignments. Had the library resembled that of my imagination – a cross between Hogwarts and Discworld, I suspect I’d have spent far more of my valuable time there.
The ideal solution to surviving Sundays would probably have been to have just stayed in bed, having first imbibed enough amber restorative to stun a small elephant. In true Withnail and I fashion, you would miss the whole of Sunday – and perhaps some of Monday too, and come up smiling on the Tuesday. Come to think of it, that’s probably what many students did.
The social life, if I may term it such, consisted mostly of drinking and trips to nightclubs, of which there were four in my day and only one of which I ever visited. It was enough to put me off the others.
There were of course the common rooms and there was one of which I was quite fond which boasted a coin-op console with the first Fatal Fury game on it (yes, it was that long ago). I remember whiling away a happy hour or so following the last lecture on a particularly dreary Friday afternoon in front of said console grinning inanely while losing badly. Sadly, that common room disappeared after my first year, as did the best canteen on campus. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.
University, in short, was disappointing. I have no idea what my 18-year-old self thought it would be like, although in hindsight it may have been some sort of fuzzy mash-up of cosy English public school, Woodstock with a dose of Happy Days thrown in for good measure.
Admittedly, I found some intelligent students there and I met some good friends despite my chronic lack of self-esteem and antipathy to parties. But when the time came to sling my hook, I couldn’t get out fast enough, despite having no realistic goals for what I’d like to do with the rest of my life.
As for graduation, I went purely to keep my mother happy and was duly suited and booted along with all the others having paid a small fortune to hire a gown and hat which I would wear for a grand total of just over an hour. Even at the time, I regarded this as a swizz, but of course they never let you off that easily.
A magazine plopped through my parents’ letter box weeks before my final bid for freedom, filled with an impressive array of useless tat. You know the stuff. Scarves with college colours on them, teddy bears, clocks, engraved pens – as if the bit of paper wasn’t enough to tell others you’ve been through the sausage grinder and lived to tell the tale.
My father still has his college scarf from his days at Liverpool University in the heady days of the early 70s – and kindly offered to buy me one.
Even if it hadn’t been an insipid mixture of yellow (which I’ve never liked) and blue, I would have declined. It was a thoughtful gesture, but no – I needed no silly bit of fabric wound about my neck to remind me of the whole ghastly experience.
I’m not enough of a psychologist to know whether the university experience made me depressed or whether I always had it in me and it was simply the catalyst needed to bring it out.
I offer my thoughts in the spirit of helpfulness and in a future post I plan to do a survival guide to university. In the meantime, to anyone going away for the first time finding the experience is not quite the land of milk and honey it was cracked up to be – you are not alone.