Whoever said that school was the best time of your life had, clearly, not been given the chance to go to university in the days just before student loans, when tuition fees were paid in full by local authorities, and maintenance grants had, by law, to be available to all.
The minimum requirements placed on students, especially arts students, were… well, pretty minimal. As long as you turned up for tutorials, handed essays in by deadlines and passed your end-of-year exams respectably, you could more or less please yourself the rest of the time. Since no registers were taken, you didn’t even have to attend lectures, although obviously, if you were fool enough to skip them all, your chances of satisfactorily completing the essays and exams reduced to near-nil.
Even 20 hours’ contact time a week leaves a person with plenty of leisure for other things, however, and there is only so much time most people can spend sitting idle in the Students’ Union bar. Hence the flourishing clubs-and-societies culture at universities. Besides pursuing collective hobbies, though, I followed a personal one, which was sitting in on other people’s lectures. Since you didn’t have to sign in, you wouldn’t be noticed if you were canny; the trick was to find lectures that took place in the big theatres (where you could pass unremarked in the crowd) and to sit about two-thirds of the way back (so that the lecturer was unlikely to pick you for questioning).
I sneaked into School of Architecture lectures on structural steel and tensile strength coefficients, into presentations on the chivalric ideal in mediaeval literature, into an economics lecture on the relationship between macro-and micro-economics (utterly baffling, although I retain an impression that for economists, each aspect of said relationship can be demonstrated to perfection by a graph consisting of two axes with no scale, and three crossing lines in the middle). My low-level maths skills also caused me problems with the sciences – Brian Cox was still at the stage of being Daring or D:Reamy rather than making astrophysics accessible to the masses – but I sat through quite a few enjoyably enlightening lectures in the School of Medicine.
This was made all the easier because the Arts Faculty had a termly institution known as Reading Week, when teaching was suspended and students were supposed to read around their subjects in preparation for writing extended essays or sitting exams. Everyone knew it was really a half-term, and lots of students went away for the week, while I hung out with my med-student friends and sat in on their classes.
Some lectures were colourful – especially the slideshow for renal anatomy and the one on gastro-intestinal disorders. Some were tense, like the lecture on abortion and ethics that turned into a highly personal debate between students who were veering towards favouring compulsory termination for diagnosed conditions and using some uncomfortably eugenicist language, and a student born with spina bifida who argued vehemently that you couldn’t predict development from diagnosis, that everyone ought to have the same chance at life, irrespective of disability, and that, “If you pillocks had your way, I wouldn’t be here at all. Thanks a whole bunch!”.
Some were hilarious, like the paediatrics revision lecture one May reading week where the professor had written crib notes set to well-known tunes and I, along with everyone else in the lecture theatre, sang maxima voce through the symptoms of neonatal jaundice to the chorus of ‘Waltzing Matilda’: “Low haemoglobin, high bilirubin…” And there was the dermatology lecture, with the most startling slide showing a woman’s torso covered in Tinea lesions – the fungal infection variously called athlete’s foot, jock itch, dhobi itch, or ringworm, depending whereabouts on the body it shows up.
“This was an interesting one,” observed the lecturer with a sort of dispassionate enthusiasm, waving his pointer at the blotchy-red abdomen. “The main problem here was not so much the infection itself, but more how to persuade the young lady that she didn’t need to wear multiple layers of synthetic undergarments, which were causing her to sweat and creating the conditions for the infection to recur…. What was she wearing? Well, to my recollection, under polyester skirt and blouse, she had on a full-length nylon slip, a vest, a bra, nylon knickers over her tights to keep them up as well as nylon knickers under her tights for hygiene, and as a base for everything else she had a Lycra girdle that went from her bra-band to her hips. Undressing must have been like peeling an onion full of static electricity.” He permitted himself a small smile as he turned to contemplate the results of this mode of dress.
I remembered the dermo lecturer one day at the schoolroom centre, when I was helping Marion in the changing-room of a womenswear shop. Marion was always impeccably turned out, thanks to care of the sister she lived with, and she liked browsing for new clothes. She had removed her coat, her jacket and her twinset, preparatory to trying on a top. Underneath was a long-sleeved thermal vest, and beneath that could be seen the outlines of a sleeveless doubleknit vest and a stout, longline, cross-your-heart bra.
“Goodness, Marion, are you not hot?” I said.
“Ma sister says it’s best tae be well wrapped up,” said Marion, with finality.
“Well, yes, you don’t want to catch cold, but you’re wearing two vests!”
Marion looked at me scornfully and pulled up the outer vest. “‘Aat‘s ma vest!” she said, pointing at the inner garment. “An’ aat,” – pulling down the top vest and tucking it firmly between her tummy-control pants and the waistband of her Crimplene slacks – “‘Aat’s ma spencer!“