Hello, thank you for calling in, I'm delighted to see you here. I am counting my blessings and I hope you are all safe, wherever you are. I am certainly not going to gripe about the weather when there are hurricanes and earthquakes on the other side of the Atlantic.
Thirty-four years ago this month I packed up my suitcase and went off to college in Essex, beginning an adventure which would last for three years. The Hall of Residence was over-subscribed but all first year students who wanted it were guaranteed accommodation, so I was allocated a place in a shared house which was earmarked for demolition to make way for a new road. There were eight of us altogether, all girls, and my bed was in the room at the front of the house which would have originally been the lounge. I had to share this room with another girl who, unfortunately for me, had never had to share a bedroom before and frankly, there was a good deal of tension because she had absolutely no idea of the give and take necessary to make it work. She was selfish. There, I have called a spade a spade. All of the rooms in the house were full of girls except the kitchen and the bathroom - oh yes, there was only one bathroom between eight of us, no shower, and the loo was in the bathroom so if you needed a wee and someone was in the bath you just had to cross your legs and hang on. There was a table and chairs in the kitchen and another in the large hall, but we had no sitting room. We had no 'phone, no television, no washing machine, obviously we had no computers and none of us had a car, so how on earth did we cope?? Fabulously well.
I think that this year's crop of Freshers would be absolutely horrified. A condemned house? Sharing a room? No ensuite shower room? Trips to the laundrette? No telecoms? No cars? How on earth did we survive??
There was another difference, too: Freshers' Week was the first week of term. We had to contend with a full programme of lectures and tutorials as well as finding our way around, both the college and the town, making new friendships and a full programme of social activities. We got up at 8am every day and went to bed at 3am every night and the excitement, the nerves and the adrenaline got us through. The evening activities took place in the Student Union bar and I have been trying to remember what I would have been drinking - certainly not spirits, firstly because they were too expensive and secondly, because they were too middle-aged! I don't think I was drinking beer then so if it was alcohol it was probably cider, or possibly a glass of the ghastly wine which was served in pubs then. I don't remember any of the girls getting drunk to the point of incapacitation, although I do remember being scared by the behaviour of some of the boys who drank eight or nine pints of beer and couldn't control themselves. The point of our evenings was, I think, to meet each other, to have fun together and to celebrate our freedom.
Me in October 1983 in Cedar Avenue, Chelmsford, writing a letter!
In many British universities Freshers' Week now lasts for a fortnight. The teaching doesn't begin until the second week, or possibly the third, so for at least a week, the activities are purely social and appear to revolve around alcohol - The Mathematician told me that during her Freshers' Week, three years ago, more than £1,000-worth of alcohol was laid out in her Hall every evening for a week. I was shocked. She pointed out to me that this was for more than one hundred students so it worked out at less than £10 per student and I pointed out to her that you can buy a bottle of gin for less than £10 in a supermarket. I certainly wouldn't drink a whole bottle of gin every evening for a week or two.
I am trying to work out why this bothers me so much. Well, for a start, the extra week or two at the beginning of term means that an extra week or two's rent has to be paid, and you have to pay extra for the Freshers' Week activities. What bothers me more than that is the total reliance on alcohol, the assumption that you can't make new friends or have a good time without it. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy a drink as much as anyone does, certainly as much as any fifty-two year old woman with a penchant for Sauvignon Blanc or a gin and tonic does, but I can meet new people without being drunk, even though I am naturally quite shy. I suppose the point of the alcohol is to remove the initial reserve which may hold people back and prevent them mixing with each other, but I think it may be more useful in the long run for students to learn how to do that while they are sober. After all, being a student is all about learning, isn't it? It has also been reported this year that at some universities, students are being issued with wristbands which bear the name and address of their hall so that if they get very drunk while they are out and can't remember where they live, a friendly soul/ taxi driver / police officer can ensure they get safely home. Really?? Shouldn't they be learning some personal safety strategies, for example, that you don't get so drunk that you can't get yourself home safely, and that when you go out, you stay with your friends so that you can look after each other? Two years ago a young man went out clubbing in Shrewsbury and got so drunk that he rang his mother in the early hours of the morning to tell her that he didn't know where he was and ask her to help him. She drove to Shrewsbury and spent a couple of hours driving around, looking for him, but couldn't find him. A search was mounted and a few weeks later, his body was found in the River Severn. Every time this happens, and it happened again a couple of weeks ago, there are calls for the river to be fenced off, but I don't hear any calls for people not to drink so much that they place themselves in danger.
When I was a Fresher, we were all issued with a friendly little booklet, produced by the Students' Union, which gave us advice about all of this, and other personal safety tips... including what to do if you were arrested by the Police!
See you soon.
Love, Mrs Tiggywinkle x