A call from “Alma Mater”

Lat night I got a call from a bright young woman in the Alumni department, clearly a student volunteer. They ring from time to time to see if you can donate to their charity in aid of  disadvantaged students from overseas. this is from their website https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/ :

Birmingham is a truly global university producing world-leading research. We benefit from mutual partnerships with a wide range of international institutions and host a large international community of researchers and students. With over 8,700 international students from approximately 150 countries, and 31% of our academic staff from overseas, our campus is truly a diverse and global place which attracts the brightest and best international students and staff.

She asked me about my studies there. My degree was BA Honours in French & Italian Class II (Division II—in other words, I’d just scraped through. “So how did you use those subjects? Did you work overseas? Did you benefit from subsequent UK membership of the EU?” My short answer was no, despite it helping me get a contract with Eurotunnel in the two years prior to its official opening. “So what did you end up doing?” I joined a computer company now called Fujitsu, and four years later went freelance as a systems designer and testing consultant, not retiring till three years ago at the age of 77.

I went into more detail, in answer to her many questions along the lines of “What made you…?” Having effectively hogged the conversation till now, I mentioned the undoubted purpose of her call, and she asked me if I’d like to give money helping others getting the same benefit. So I said the only thing it did for me was in meeting my first wife, now sadly deceased but leaving our four children and three grandchildren, each doing well in their chosen paths and happy in their lives.

“But were you happy there? Would you recommend it to prospective students?” Yes, I’ve seen recently that it’s changed so much but my own experience there was mostly unhappy. I didn’t care about my studies, hadn’t a clue as to where I wanted to go in my life, just wanted to meet girls. As it turned out this was an irresistible bait to this young female student of today.

I explained that I’d been sent to Newport Grammar School on the Isle of Wight, founded in 1610 and still in the same building. It was founded for the benefit of yeoman farmers, prosperous craftsmen, widows and the like, the rich subsidizing the poor. It had recently been renamed King James I School. My new stepfather followed my mother’s insistence that I have the benefit of a private education. I’d been at a small boys’ prep school fr 6 years as a boarder. Add to this the fact that I was moved between six addresses during that time, while my mother was divorcing my first stepfather. Then on the Island it was a further six  addresses, three of which were as a boarder at King Jimmy’s. The upshot was I’d never met any girls apart from daughters of my mother’s school friends. There were three, but our paths crossed once only since I never stayed more than a year in the same place.

The Headmaster gave me a scholarship to pay my boarding fees. Thus he had bought me, and expected a return on his investment. From the age of 15 I’d worked fiendishly hard on my set books in English and French literature. In those days I was able to retain a photographic memory of each page, so I was easily able to answer every exam questions quoting short passages and asking you who said it to whom, why is this a turning-point in the plot, how does it reveal the character of the participants, etc.

I was always able to write a good essay especially under time pressure, so I won a State Scholarship, and after an interview by Professor Spencer at the Arts Faculty, was accepted for the course in English and French. At the end of the first year, I dropped the English in favour of Italian.

The dear headmaster had booked me into a mens’ hall of residence, Chancellor’s Hall. It was run like an Oxford or Cambridge college, with a High Table in the dining room, at which the Warden presided with academic or other dignitaries on either side. Each new student was “invited” to sit there, at least once “so that I can get to know you”. All of us had been to fee-paying schools, mostly  minor “public schools” which were run with all the paraphernalia of high table and so forth. I hated it, couldn’t fit in.


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