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Date: 25/06/05

Back In The Day...

(Have you noticed that phrase being used more often nowadays? I blame the Internet myself...)

I'm a bit pensive today. I think I know why.

It's twenty years to the day that I left University College of Wales, Aberystwyth (as it was called at that time). Not 'graduated' as such: I didn't consider myself to have graduated until I'd received my final results a week or two later. But Saturday 25 June 1985 was the day that I finally left the academic life and had to face the realities of a real world which I had very little notion what to do with, in, to, through or about.

I still have a clear memory of the day. It was cool and damp, with rain about - quite unlike the very pleasant weather we'd enjoyed for a couple of weeks beforehand.

My final exams had finished some three weeks before, which had left me to enjoy what little time there was left before I was ejected from the cocoon. Not that I was that reluctant to go: I had been inside the educational system for nearly nineteen years by that point, and had long since tired of it. This could be demonstrated by my academic performance from the age of about sixteen onwards, and especially at University. I had actually been thrown out of the place after my first year, so disastrously underachieving had I been. Somehow (desperation, possibly) I had managed to get back in, but had come close on at least one occasion to being banished for good - only the forebearance (and I'd tested that to the limit) of a couple of professors had kept me there.

Those last twenty days or so were little short of idyllic in a sense. It was a true freedom: there was nothing more which was left to be done, and nothing more could be done as far as the future was concerned. So, enjoy!

And I did. In this, I was fortunate in having some very amenable company. In my first two years of University, I'd lived in a Hall of Residence which is famous within my country's academic and cultural circles. When it came down to fixing my abode for my final year, though, the cost of eating in Hall had become a serious obstacle, so I had to choose elsewhere - somewhere where I'd arrange my own meals.

John Williams Hall was at the southern end of the promenade at Aberystwyth. My room on the first floor was not so much a room as a slightly extended cupboard; this the inevitable result of subdividing larger rooms from the Hall's previous incarnation as (I think) an hotel. It was about long enough and wide enough to fit in a single bed, an armchair, a small desk and chair and a wardrobe; but, goodness knows, only just long and wide enough. Indeed, I suspect remand prisoners would sue nowadays if they were put in anything as pokey as that.

Nevertheless, it enabled me to continue to live my rather sad, self-contained existence, enlivened only by watching people walking along the Prom. And, of course, watching the tide coming in and going out. One particular night saw a combination of high tide and onshore gale which cast huge plumes of spray over the top of the street lights at the northern end, sent small waves racing across the lowest part of the sea wall halfway along, and turned the kiddies' paddling pool not twenty yards from my window into a gravel pit.

One evening, late in the Autumn term, I was jolted out of my isolation by the racket being kicked up on the staircase outside. On investigating, I found most of the denizens of the ground- and first-floor rooms engaging in the extreme sport of trying to jump from the U-bend of the stairs onto the floor at ground level without breaking their ankles.

I don't think I was immediately observed leaning over the banister, but I was spotted soon enough, and invited to try my luck. I pleaded the weakness of my Achilles tendons (in other words, I wimped out). This event marked a turning point, however: a couple of nights later, back in my room with the light off, watching the waves with my customary melancholy, a knock came on the door. There stood the residents of the only room on the ground floor, inviting me down for a game of Risk™.

I tried to decline, but they were too strong for me and so, not even knowing what Risk™ was, I went downstairs to the kitchen. Alan Hines and Martin Rookyard, you have no idea what a change you made to my life that evening!

I soon came to know some of the other stair-jumpers: Danny O'Dare, whose room was next to mine; and Greg Coombs and Tim Cappelli, who had rooms on the top floor.

Come the next term, I had discovered something of a social existence. Danny's room-mate had left, so leaving a double room with only one occupant. We turned this into a sort of lounge for the five of us (Martin also having departed), and it was here that we spent most of our evenings. We rented a TV and VCR (quite a radical thing for us to do), and sat around talking politics (Danny was on the wilder shores of the Conservative Party at that time; Greg was a left-wing environmentalist; and I was a rather faint-hearted nationalist - this made for conversations which could kindly be called 'interesting'); or playing Risk™ or Scrabble®; or listening to music or watching videos (Bo Derek in Bolero was an absolute hoot, as I recall). It was a bit like a commune, but without the lentils.

And so it ran for the remainder of my time there, with other people (Alan's girlfriend Lorraine - and her over-affectionate St Bernard dog Gail - staying for a time, as did Ian Jeffrey, young brother of one of Alan's friends (a promising artist - I wonder what happened to him?)).

Thumbnail picture of the residents of John Williams Hall, 1985

(John Williams Hall, 1985. Click for the full-size image)

So the last three weeks of my life as a student were full of good company and pleasant times. This was what made leaving the place such a wrench when 25 June came around. Most of the others had already gone. Greg Coombs was the only one left on the premises, and I remember a great sadness in me as I shook his hand and said my farewell.

Greg is the only one I'm still (sort of) in touch with from those days (although his e-mail address wasn't working last time I tried it), and he's the only one I've met again since, as he visited me one frosty January day about five years ago. I kept up a vigorous and pleasantly disputatious correspondence with Danny until about 1990, by which time he'd moved from the far right to the far left and beyond, out into the universe of Anarcho-Syndicalism. I wonder where he is now, geographically and ideologically, as I haven't heard from him since.

As for Tim, Martin and Alan, I know nothing of what became of them. I hope it has been something good for all of them.

One of the character faults which has caused me the most grief down the years is the strong sense of the passing of time. Blessed (or cursed) with a good memory, bringing back those memories also brings with it a melancholy. I shall never be there again; it is inaccessible by everything except the inexact instrument of the memory. And how does one express that in any meaningful sense to others? This piece is one pathetic attempt to do just that, as I sit here, having fallen irretrievably into that category of people who are described in the obituary columns as having "never fulfilled their early promise".