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Suing Oxford University

hertford bridge side window wm trimmed

Oxford University

Faiz Siddiqui, a former student of Brazenose College, Oxford, is suing Oxford University because “negligent teaching” caused him to underachieve in his final exams, damaging his subsequent career. I can sympathise.

Mr. Siddiqui was awarded a second class degree, when he expected a first. I left Oxford with an unclassified degree, when I might reasonably have expected a first. The letter from Hertford College stating my finals results admits as much. “With your ability you should have been at the other end of the school” it says, and “things conspired to cause you to do much less well than you should.” It doesn’t say to what extent Hertford College caused or could have prevented those circumstances.

Staff at Hertford College may have perceived it to be in their interests to neglect my academic progress. The only other chemistry student in my year, awarded the college’s only chemistry scholarship, was the son of one of Oxford University’s own chemistry professors. How would the Professor have reacted if the son underachieved and I didn’t?

I didn’t know until recently that other Oxford University colleges threatened to expel Hertford College from their common system because of its student recruitment policies (the Tanner Scheme). Hertford claims on its website that “Hertford’s initiative challenged the status quo and was unpopular with vested interests”, but I believe it was unethical. Hertford’s student recruitment depended on encouraging state school headmasters to bully or otherwise persuade students to apply for admission to Hertford straight from school. Today many academic institutions encourage students to take a gap year. Instead my own school headmaster behaved weirdly and inappropriately and caused me to believe he could be vindictive if he didn’t get what he wanted, encouraged I believe by Hertford College.

Neither Hertford College nor my Warrington state school told me that Hertford’s recruitment methods were anything but traditional. My father’s education ended at age fourteen, my mother’s at twelve, they couldn’t advise me.

Giles Coren wrote of Faiz Siddiqui “If you want to be taught and pass exams and become a lawyer, don’t you go to a red brick? Or Cambridge? Oxford is for drinking and playing tennis and nicking books out of the Bod under your cricket jumper and lobbing them at punting tourists from Magdalen Bridge.” It’s a pity for me he wasn’t around to advise me. If I had taken the year out, which I wanted, no doubt I would eventually have gone to Manchester or Cambridge.

Almost ten years after I left Oxford University, a senior manager at TSB Bank, where I was employed, told me I couldn’t be promoted on an already restricted career path, commenting “you had trouble at university, didn’t you?” Those people who say your university record doesn’t matter after ten years are not telling the truth.

Hertford College cheated me out of the career my A-level grade “A”s deserved. I’d be happier and more successful in a career and in my relationships, and I’d have avoided much unpleasantness, but for Hertford College, Oxford.

Terrorism jinx?

benazir_bhutto

Benazir Bhutto

I’ve met three people subsequently murdered by terrorists in three different countries.

John Stevenson was Treasurer of TSB Bank Computer Division (Wythenshawe) Sports and Social Association. I was secretary of the same club, though not at the same time. He was killed with his wife and two daughters in the Pan Am Flight 103 (Lockerbie) bombing on Dec 21, 1988.

I met Benazir Bhutto, who twice became Prime Minister of Pakistan, at the Oxford Union in 1974. She was assassinated in Rawalpindi on 27 December 2007.

Andreas Liveras was at a Greek Orthodox Christian community social event I attended in 2000. He was in India on business when murdered by terrorists in the Mumbai massacre on 27 November 2008.

Stay safe, people!

Killing my first German.

italionclip2

My father couldn’t spell “Italian” but he was meticulous when dealing with mines and booby traps.  His commanding officer had a different skill set. He could spell “Italian” but was killed by a butterfly mine.

“I shot my first German when I was your age” is what my father said when I told him I was leaving Oxford. He occasionally told stories about the War, but that was the only time he said anything about killing.

I had discussed Oxford with him when I was still at school. “You’ll make a good chemist” he said. Based on my school academic record, that seemed obvious. I doubt he knew about my school headmaster locking me in the examination room after I arrived late for the entrance exam, and the headmaster’s subsequent weirdness. I didn’t tell my father, and I doubt my mother said anything. My father left school at fourteen, and my mother at twelve, so they didn’t have the information to advise me academically.

Dad was right, though. If I’d been able to take a detached, unemotional view, I’d have put in the minimum laboratory work to pick up my third class degree, and used the time to try whatever Oxford had to offer. If Oxford University had somebody to mentor me, and who was on my side, that attitude might have been sold to me.

I panicked. Going straight to Oxford from a working class background seemed like a terrible mistake. If I had taken a year out, I’d be collecting my first class degree, or at worst a very good second, from Manchester, or perhaps a suitable Cambridge college, at the same time I was due to collect my third class degree after four years of chemistry at Oxford. I was distraught. I felt the need to get out and correct the mistake as soon as possible, although rationally it was never likely to be possible. Window punching was definitely not a rational response.

The chemistry tutor at Hertford College showed no apparent interest in encouraging me to stay. I only spoke to him very occasionally after my finals humiliation. Perhaps he was embarrassed about Hertford College’s chemistry open scholarship having been awarded to the Oxford University chemistry professor’s son, when I, the only other chemistry student, received just a place, in spite of my three A-level grade “A”s. His only encouragement – “In ten years’ time, you’ll wonder what you were worried about”, he said.

He amongst others have described Hertford as a “progressive” Oxford college, as does Hertford College’s promotional literature. What was so progressive about awarding the college’s only chemistry scholarship to the Oxford University chemistry professor’s son?

Lord Pannick’s Marxist Tutor.

Hertford College Law tutor Roy Stuart hosted a cheese and wine party in the College’s Old Hall in honour of a member of Salvador Allende’s deposed government, one evening in late 1973. I was incorrect in thinking the guest of honour had been the Chilean foreign secretary. Still it felt exciting to shake the hand of somebody of international significance, whoever it was. I was more socialistically inclined in those years than I am now, and I was surprised that my friend Chris M., then describing himself as a Marxist, refused to attend. Feeling socially unconfident, I’d have been happier with somebody I knew present. David Pannick wasn’t – he arrived a year or so later at Hertford.

People told me Roy Stuart was himself a Marxist. Apparently he attempted to support the radical socialist Rudi Dutschke, who was eventually expelled from the UK by the Heath government. Dutschke was in England in the early 1970s, recovering from a serious (eventually fatal) wounding by an assassin. I was told also that Stuart couldn’t practice Law because of a cannabis conviction. I’ve no idea how much of this was true.

I arrived in Oxford during an upsurge in radical student politics. Students occupied the Examination Schools in November 1973, and the Indian Institute the following February, demanding a central students’ union. The place seemed awash with middle class kids wearing grandad shirts and donkey jackets, mostly subsequently on fatcat salaries in the City and the media I think. Out of interest I looked inside the Schools during the occupation, but when somebody suggested I stayed I made my excuses and left.

It was a difficult time for me. I was very homesick and remorseful and felt ill much of the time. I smoked, was prone to bronchitis and ate unhealthily. Though I gave up smoking during the Christmas vacation, I suffered a fractured cheekbone in a sports accident, putting me in the Radcliffe Infirmary and the Churchill Hospital for an operation serious enough for a general anaesthetic. Then I had to find private accommodation at the end of the first academic year because unlike the only other chemistry student at Hertford College in my year, the Oxford University chemistry professor’s privately educated son, I didn’t have a scholarship award from Hertford College.

Lord Pannick wrote a brief biography after Roy Stuart’s death in the Law section of the Times (July 26, 2005, paywalled).  It reminds me that Dr. Stuart was the college Dean, “responsible for student welfare and discipline”. I believe the welfare of few students suffered more than mine. Yet I never spoke at all to Dr. Stuart. I never really got used to Oxford university terminology. If I had an instruction somewhere which stated in plain language “in case of poor welfare, see …” I think I would have been more likely to make the appropriate arrangements.

As “Dean”, Dr. Stuart just didn’t seem to me to be an approachable person. I could imagine why David Pannick would have a better rapport with him. David Pannick attended an independent school in London, I was from a state school in Warrington. Roy Stuart seemed distant and patrician. I could imagine him judging me somewhat Lumpenproletarian.

It was ultimately because of my social background, I believe, that I was never able to do justice to my A-level grade “A”s at or after Hertford. Although they spoke of equality, in practice the benefits were skewed towards the progeny of the professional middle classes. At a “progressive” Oxford college like Hertford, some animals are inevitably more equal than others.

The “Frank Sidebottom meets Mensa” debacle.

frank sidebottom letter 2

Dear Phil,
Thanks for your letter and the invitation to your meeting at the Wheatsheaf on the 15th October (1987). Please let me know the time and I will be happy to come along and meet you all.
If you would like the super-intelligent, fantastic Frank Sidebottom to do an interview with MENSA for Radio Timperley, (networked on Radio 2 and Piccadilly Radio) I can also arrange this for the evening.
To answer your question yes, we do have a brand new Executive Lounge, with a bar, that can be used for private meetings.
Look forward to meeting you.

8pm arrived, and then 8.15. Somebody came up the stairs. “There’s a guy in a papier-mâché head in the bar, he’s bothering the customers”. As I went downstairs to placate the bar manager, I passed Frank. The bar manager gave me a telling-off, I should have warned him, or something. By the time he’d finished, and I returned to the upstairs room I’d hired, Frank had gone.

A couple of the members present tried listening out for the programme on Radio 2. There was a late night quiz on, and true to one stereotype, they rang in to take part. The presenter denied any knowledge of Frank’s programme though.

I felt sad that nobody seemed to get what they wanted. I was surprised the staff at the Wheatsheaf didn’t know who Frank Sidebottom was. Apparently his fame hadn’t spread from Timperley, a few hundred yards across Navigation Road, to Broadheath. I felt guilty too. It seemed one of those occasions when people say “oh, the intelligent people” with more than a hint of sarcasm.

I could imagine Steve Rodent (not his real name but close enough), Principal Systems Analyst, the guy who said I lacked the oral communication skills to be a systems analyst in his team (“it is clearly beyond his capabilities”) crowing with satisfaction, if he found out. It’s only later that I realised most things to do with Frank Sidebottom did involve chaos.

That nexus of ineffectuality on the Wheatsheaf stairs occurred 29 years ago today.

 

Modern Tribes – the Depressive.

Somebody introduced me to Catherine Bennett, who was a student in her first year at Hertford College when I was in my third. “Oh you’re Chippy the depressive” she said. Her remark was perceptive, if not very friendly. I think my reputation had preceded me.
I had difficulties when I arrived for my very first term, but my mood improved during the year, in spite of a footballing accident needing a hospital operation.
From the beginning of the second year I found living in private student accommodation oppressive – all I could find was somebody’s back room in a house on Southmoor Road. Some of the people I liked left Oxford, and throughout the third year up to my Finals my mood just deteriorated.
After my finals, in addition to the chronic depression, I felt gut churning anxiety, to the extent that I was physically sick. A boy from my school had died from leukaemia recently and somebody suggested I visit my GP to see that I didn’t have a similar physical problem. Within seconds of me walking through the door the GP told me “you sound depressed” and prescribed antidepressants. I was unimpressed because I thought there was a simple reason for my feelings, because of underachievement and the dithering over going to university. I think I mistook the recent anxiety for the long-term depression, anyway I didn’t take the medicine as prescribed. I did think it ironic that I was prescribed some drugs which had appeared in the chemical pharmacology supplementary course in my second year.
I did contact the Samaritans, and rather than ring them from my parents’ landline at the bottom of our stairs, I preferred to visit in person at their rooms at the back of the Warrington Baptist Church in Sankey Street. One of those people I did find very helpful.
Returning to Oxford for the post-finals year peculiar to chemistry in Oxford, I was told that if I worked really hard, I might just scrape a second class degree. That wasn’t much of an incentive. I drank more and more and visited the physical chemistry laboratory less and less. I told the authorities at Hertford College that I would be leaving with my unclassified degree, rather than stay to collect a third. I had exit interviews with Hertford’s chemistry tutor and the Principal, “Moral Philosopher” Geoffrey Warnock. The chemistry tutor told me that in ten years’ time I’d wonder what I was worried about. I felt he was insincere. I felt he was only trying to make himself feel better. I felt “crawl away and die” would have been more honest. Warnock pointed out that there was more than one occasion when I had been unable to work at Hertford. I didn’t find that helpful either.
Although I said I was leaving I didn’t have anything planned, so I hung around at Hertford until the end of the term. My circadian rhythm evaporated, I started operating on a 28 hour, 6 days per week cycle, not seeing daylight on Sundays. There was a student counselling service at the university, and an employment service. I felt reluctant to tell anybody I was using the counselling service, in spite of all the erratic behaviour.
At some point I committed an act of incidental self-harm. It was incidental, in that I didn’t know what I did would partially sever the flexor tendon in my hand, however, neither did I know that what I did wouldn’t take the finger clean off.
I never attempted suicide, but I did indulge in pointlessly risky behaviour that might have got me killed. Closest I came I think was after leaving university. I had a job as a stores assistant at a factory in Penketh, and went to the Charity Shield game at Wembley with a friend from work, and his mates. We drank all day. On the train on the way back to Runcorn, I remember attempting to play a joke by reaching out of the slam door window and trying to tap on the outside of the adjacent window with a beer can, as if trying to get in. I bobbed my head back in whenever I saw a train approaching in the opposite direction, at a relative speed of 200 mph. Fortunately I must have been sober enough to avoid the oncoming traffic. I remember crawling on the floor of the Penketh Arms afterwards, but I must have sobered up enough to walk home.
When I found a job as a trainee computer programmer at TSB a few years later, my employer asked me to complete a medical form. My GP advised me that I should declare the period of depression. As a social environment I enjoyed TSB, but I found things happened to frustrate my career. Appraisals would go missing, courses would be offered then refused. On one occasion a senior manager told me I couldn’t be promoted, saying “you had trouble at university”. He knew nothing about my university career, he could only have been referring to my medical declaration. Then I found it difficult to be motivated by the work, and found myself in a spiral of discouragement. When I found a new employer I made sure not to say anything about depression, but then I didn’t get help when I probably should. Whether or not I was suffering from depression I found myself stigmatised by depression.

Posted on facebook – 2 August 2016.

Stinky fishhead

Now two of my contemporaries at university have been Prime Minister – Blair (1972-75) and May (1974-77). I arrived in Oxford in the year in between.
What did Blair and May have that I didn’t? Inter alia,
1. Middle class / establishment backgrounds. Neither of my parents was educated beyond the age of 14, my mother’s education ended at age 12 because of the German occupation of Greece.
2. State subsidised college accommodation for their whole university undergraduate careers. Although I had a state school northern working class background, I had to find private accommodation in high-rent Oxford for the two years before my Finals.
I’m not sure that in those years before grade inflation Blair and May achieved three grade “A”s at A-level like me (mine were maths, physics and chemistry).
Theresa May observed in her first speech outside number 10 Downing Street, “it’s a burning injustice” that “If you’re a white working class boy you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university”.
Hertford College provided accommodation preferentially to female students, and to scholarship award holders. Hertford awarded its chemistry open scholarship to eventually the one other chemistry student, who was the son of Oxford University’s Dr. Lee’s Professor of Physical Chemistry.
Not surprisingly, without a supportive environment, I underachieved, badly. Some years later a senior manager at TSB Bank plc where I was employed (FTSE 100 company, “the bank that likes to say yes!”) told me I couldn’t be promoted to senior programmer, commenting “you had trouble at university, didn’t you?”. A boy in the year above me at my state grammar school in Warrington (John W) had already been promoted when I arrived at TSB to a level I didn’t reach in my 11 years there. Not having been to university, nobody in the TSB management could tell him “you had trouble at university”. I’d have been much better advised not to take my A-level grade “A”s to university at all.
It’s said that a fish rots from the head down. I can understand why the ruling classes love Oxford, but for a working class boy, in my experience, Oxford University is the rotten stinky nepotism-loving fishhead of the English educational system.

Posted on Facebook 17/7/16