Our youngest is applying to universities at the moment so we’ve been helping him look at websites, and going to open days – wandering round campuses with crowds of other teens and parents, all of us looking bewildered, and herding our aimless kids about as if they were cats.
After we’d finished looking round the student union at Manchester the other week, I said to him, “So, is there anything else you’d like to see while we’re here?” To which he replied, “Can we go and find that bridge where Joy Division were photographed?”
I blame the parents.
Although, I’ll be honest, in the process of chivvying him along, and trying to get him to focus on his future, I’ve done so much of a hard sell on the notion of going to university that I’ve gone and sold it to myself. The conclusion I’ve come to is that all the places we’ve visited and all the courses we’ve looked at sound absolutely wonderful, and I wish it was me going.
I say this on Twitter and am met with a flood of replies in agreement. Like me, it seems that many people fantasise about going to uni in their fifties to do, say, film studies. And not just fantasise in many cases. I hear from various people who tell me how they’ve done exactly this – enrolling as a mature student, doing an art foundation course, studying via the Open University, or simply attending public lectures at their local university.
I’ve been back once already, nearly 30 years ago now, when I studied for an MA at Birkbeck College in London, a part-time evening-based course, designed for those in full-time work, or trying to study on a tour bus, as I was much of the time. Since then I’ve toyed with the notion of doing a PhD, but am stopped in my tracks by the feeling that it would essentially mean writing a book that no one would ever read.
I could study at home, of course, through the Open University, but the thing is, what I’m fantasising about really is going away to university. Packing up my stuff, all my records and posters, those shoes that make me look cool, that sensible coat I’ll never wear, and heading off to a campus with a lake in the middle of it, surrounded by 1960s modernist buildings, and mooching about looking intellectual as the days shorten and the leaves turn, and then fall.
It’s all just a romantic dream. I picture myself there and have to admit to certain unwelcome realities. I imagine the HORROR of the other students as I breeze in, being all chatty with the lecturers, taking notes, willingly answering questions. And there might be the slight issue of my semi-VIP status to contend with – an ageing celebrity maybe raising more eyebrows than the usual mature student. I’d have to style it out. Yes, it is me, from that John Grant record you like, and that old Massive Attack video your parents used to watch – yes, hello.
And where would I live? I know some halls of residence are luxurious now, with en-suite bathrooms and so on. One of my daughters had a tiny but perfect room that reminded me of a Japanese capsule hotel – a pod with mood lighting and a miniature wardrobe and built-in everything. But the kitchen was still disgusting, and sitting there while she made me a cup of tea (oh God, how old is that milk?), I fought back the urge to wipe the counter, pop a couple of bits in the bin, then empty the bin, and the fridge, and hose myself down. No. I’m too old and frankly, I’ve lived too well too long.
But imagine if it were possible, to be a student again, but with the head I have now, all full of wisdom and perspective. The things I’d do differently. I’d talk to more people, even if I didn’t like their haircuts or their record collections. I’d find out what we had in common, rather than judging their albums. I’d learn to cook, instead of surviving on boil-in-the-bag cod and Smash. I’d read around the subject, and exercise at weekends, and drink less, and not fall in love with the first boy I met.
Ah, who am I kidding? I’d do it all the same, and end up right here, right now.
At least I hope so.
This article appears in the 21 Nov 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The real Brexit crisis