It’s exactly 20 years ago today that I began my four-year adventure as a fresh-faced student at Stirling University. During the next four years, life-long friendships were forged, a future spouse was acquired and I even came away with a degree.
The passing of 20 years seems like a good moment for a wee trip down memory lane and some reflections on where we are now.
Financially, these were challenging times. While we would often go without food and even electricity, somehow we could always scrape together a couple of quid for a night out (at £1.69 for a bottle of cheap cider, I mean a couple of quid).
We were lucky though. In my first two years I got a grant cheque (remember them?). I was also well supported by my parents and was lucky enough to secure a (relatively) lucrative dj-ing job at (ahem) one of the university’s premier nightspots.
At the student’s union we sang along to Oasis Live Forever – and we really did believe we would.
Even Renton was cleaning up and moving on, starting a new life for himself to the strains of Underworld’s anthemic Born Slippy.
Politically too, these were times of great optimism.
The beginning of a new dawn. Or so we were told.
The previous summer (it must have been around May 1994) an exciting young reformer (“just call me Tony”) had become the leader of the Labour Party and in May 1997, towards the end of my second year at university, New Labour won a landslide election victory, ending 18 long years of Conservative government.
It was a night I will never forget. A number of us had essay deadlines for the next day and were planning to stay up all night anyway. With increasing excitement we watched the election results come in, our essays deferred till morning.
When it became obvious by the scale of the landslide that Michael Forsyth, the Secretary of State for Scotland, was going to loose his seat, a couple of my inebriated flatmates hot-footed it to the Albert Hall to yell abuse at him. If you listen carefully you can hear them in the background as a clearly emotional Anne McGuire is announced the winner.
The next morning Tony Blair swept into Downing Street on the crest of a wave of hope and optimism.
Devolution was promised. The windfall tax on the excess profits of the privatised utilities would fund the New Deal, end long term unemployment and provide much needed investment in schools and education.
Of course such optimism couldn’t last.
These were the times of easy credit and it was all too easy to quickly amass massive debts on credit and debit cards, perhaps a forewarning of the financial crisis that was to come.
In September 1998, David Blunkett, the Labour Education Secretary, announced the introduction of £1,000 tuition fees to be paid by every student in each year of study. The student grant was abolished and replaced by means-tested student loans. I took out a student loan in each of my final two years of study. Although modest by today’s standards, the debt was source of some anxiety for a few years to come.
Political leaders invariably disappoint. They become tarnished by power, compromised by office. Blair was no different.
A politician who placed greater importance on making newspaper headlines than affecting real policy change. A socialist with an insatiable appetite for wealth and the wealthy. A leader of the Labour Party who embraced one of the most morally and intellectually bankrupt governments America has ever seen.
But Blair alone shouldn’t carry the can. Too many Labour politicians (with some commendable exceptions) were too quick to abandon their principles. Scottish Labour in particular, is now feeling the backlash of the vacuousness of the New Labour project.
The current refugee crisis, is only the latest manifestation of our disastrous intervention in Iraq.
Which brings us to the present day and the new leader of the Labour Party.
Now I know Corbyn is far from the perfect politician (this is clearly part of his appeal).
And I'm not sure that he is a Prime Minister in waiting - would you want him calling the shots at moments of political or economic crisis?
But what I do know is that he is a socialist. He has moral integrity and compassion (note his first act as leader was to to attend a protest in support of refugees). And he is perhaps just the person that the Labour Party needs to rediscover itself.
I might not be 18 years old anymore, but I’m still optimistic. And I still drink cheap cider!
As a diligent six-year-old, my son Leo is rightly proud of his rapidly expanding collection of quaderni.
For those of you more familiar with the Anglo-Saxon education, quaderni = jotters.
Only in his first year at primary school, he has already amassed quite a collection.
Not only that, but the range of subjects that he is tackling seems well beyond his modest years.
Maths, Science, Italian, English, Geography, History and Religion. He’s already on his fourth maths jotter, his third for Italian and his second for English.
I don’t remember ever being quite so productive. And I have a two degrees!
Leo is always keen to benchmark his own performance against that of his father so, when I happened to mention that I might still have a few relics from my own school days, his curiosity was piqued.
Finally succumbing to his relentless pleadings, I had a good rummage around my attic office and eventually found what I was looking for. My 300 page, 5 subject, spiral bound, tabbed notebook. In the summer of 1994, when I was doing my Highers, this was my bible. Even today when I handle it, I do so with some reverence and solemnity!
Worried that he might be disappointed, I took a few moments to peruse its contents.
What I found was both surprising and reassuring.
I should explain that up until this point I’ve harboured a rather negative recollection of my educational experience and my own attitude towards study. This has perhaps fed my rather cynical acceptance of the theory that education is sometimes wasted on the young.
It turns out that I was being unfair not only to myself, but also to the educational establishments that I was fortunate enough to attend.
Despite rather rashly opting out of maths and science at the first possible opportunity, the depth and range of my study is astonishing.
From oceanic circulation and the biosphere, to ‘the colonisation of walls’ (a particularly vivid geography lesson that I think about whenever I happen to pass vegetation stubbornly clinging on to a decaying edifice). From migration and urbanisation, to Shakespearean tragedy and Larkin’s poetry of despair. Lexical choice, personification and alliteration, sources of happiness, advantages of the freemarket system (#1 the consumer is king), advantages of the planned economic system (#3 goods are distributed according to need), Ferrel’s circulation model, river basin run-off, glacial formation, reasons for allied success in the first world war (#iv the Battle of Jutland), why Mussolini was able to come to power, why the League of Nations failed, the effects of war, the Beveridge Report, the Labour Victory: 1945 and Indian independence…
Just a few of the topics that I pored over in preparation for sitting my Highers.
Reviewing this jotter acted as a rather remarkable memory stimulant. Not only could I remember making some of these notes, I can remember some particular lessons at which these things were taught, a testament to the power, skill and influence of The Teacher. Moreover, I can even remember the music I listened to on Radio 1 as I studied in that long forgotten summer of 1994 (think Toni Braxton, Ace of Base, Warren G and Nate Dogg).
In another enlightening trip down memory lane, I also unearthed my university papers. In contrast to the rugby playing, binge drinking, workshy student that I sometimes remember (perhaps owing more to the cult of Grant Wankshaft than to reality), I found evidence of a competent, diligent, and well-organised student. In truth, the reality was probably somewhere between the pretentious, lazy, smug and conceited Wankshaft and the model student that my well-preserved files suggest.
As a student of History, my studies were not only wide ranging – from the French and Russian revolutions to the Cold War (and everything in between), but in depth, with a particular focus in my final year on the responses of the British media (including the BBC, the Times, the Daily Mail and the Jewish Chronicle) to the rise of fascism. Moreover, although degrees in the social sciences are often derided, the skills I gained at university (the ability to evaluate sources, to weigh up conflicting arguments and to present, orally and in writing, a reasoned and balanced case) have been invaluable to me throughout my life, not least in my current pre-occupation with researching and writing about Verona’s past.
So, whenever some blowhard starts banging on about declining teaching standards or the ignorance of youth, or the uselessness of an arts degree, I remember the things I learned at school and at university, the important lessons that I remember still, and I hope that in his education, my son will be as fortunate as me.
If his jotters are anything to go by, he's off to a good start!
Visiting Pompeii and the Reggia di Caserta last October, it struck me that, although these unique places make an invaluable contribution to Italy's remarkable cultural and historical landscape, they also place an incredible burden on those charged with their maintenance and preservation. Pompeii in particular has suffered centuries of abuse and neglect. Indeed, it is a ‘regrettable necessity’ that many of Pompeii’s greatest treasures have long been removed to the safety of the Naples' Museo Archeologico Nazionale. Still, walking the streets of Pompeii remains for me, as it is for many of its 2.3 million visitors per year, one of the highlights of my time in Italy.
In terms of its sheer over-indulgent opulence, the Reggia di Caserta is a palace that rivals Versailles. Although it is impressive (it was used as the setting for Queen Amidala's Royal Palace in the Star Wars film the Phantom Menace), like Pompeii it is obvious that it has seen better days (Pompeii obviously so!). That said, a day spent at the Reggia was so captivating and enjoyable that a screaming wasp stung 4-year-old, late in the afternoon in the ‘English Garden’, seemed a reasonable price to pay for a day of such aesthetic pleasure.
To the environmental problems of maintaining such large and complex sites can be added the twin evils of contemporary Italian society: political incompetence (The Latest Threat to Pompeii’s Treasures: Italy’s Red Tape) and mafia corruption (The mafia left Naples in ruins. Can they do the same to Pompeii?). Although both are UNESCO World Heritage Sites (Italy has 49 World Heritage Sites), they are located in the Camorra heartland surrounding Naples and, for Pompeii in particular, suspected Mafia involvement in restoration works follows decades of “neglect and mismanagement” at the site.
But, imagine trying to preserve these treasures, and all the rest of Italy’s incredible artistic and architectural riches (from the ancient relics of the Roman Empire, to the priceless treasures of the Vatican, and the masterpieces of the Renaissance) during the period of Nazi occupation, when a brutal civil war was being waged and a determined allied invasion had just begun.
In 1943, this was the task that fell to an unlikely group of heroes, museum directors, curators, artists, archivists, educators, librarians and architects. They were not combat soldiers, but they volunteered to serve in the combat zone. As with many from this generation, they put themselves in harms way and suffered personal hardships that now seem unimaginable.
Deane Keller, a professor of art at Yale University, was persuaded to join the army so he could put his artistic expertise to good use in Italy. His duties were to locate and safeguard art treasures and to coordinate emergency restoration of damaged monuments, churches and museums. The cartoon drawings that he sent home to his 3-year old son illustrate the sacrifices he made while serving in Italy. He died in 1992 and, in recognition of his extraordinary wartime efforts, was buried at Campo Santo in Pisa.
While the restoration of art was certainly a secondary concern behind achieving military objectives, the Allies efforts to protect Italy's historic riches were admirable. Unfortunately, though, many treasures were plundered and destroyed as a consequence of the aerial bombardment and ground warfare that engulfed Italy. But, the situation would have been a lot worse were it not for the efforts of these men and their commanding officers who recognised the importance of their work.
Keller's story, and that of the other Monuments Men, is told in Robert M. Edsel book Saving Italy. The film Monuments Men, directed by and starring a uniformed and mustachioed George Clooney, will be released in December.