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silverlinings
March 18, 2013 | by  | in Features |
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Silver Linings

Julia wells talks to Frances [not real name] about her life at London University in 1948, horse-meat deliveries, and the problems in buying lipstick…

JULIA: SO, WHERE WERE yOU WHEN yOU WERE 21?

Frances: I was in London as a student, living in student digs, sharing a room with another girl. We lived as members of the family of our landlady, so we had no degree of independence, but also we didn’t have the burdens of housekeeping that student flatters have now.

J: yOU WERE AT UNIVERSITy?

F: Yes, at that time I was in my third year of an honours degree, which at that time was the final year, because wartime arrangements had allowed us to telescope it somewhat.

J: WAS THERE MUCH OF A STUDENT LIFE? PARTIES, DRINKING, DANCES?

F: There was a student life but first you have to allow for the very different conditions. This was london still almost under wartime conditions,
only no one was throwing anything at anybody anymore. But the shortages had continued long after the war ended, and there was certainly no general culture of drinking. I don’t say that the male students didn’t have a binge every now and again… there were a couple of organised events, one of which was the November 5th march on Parliament, a mock attempt to follow in the footsteps of Guy Fawkes and menace Parliament… It was all good for a laugh.

J: yOU MENTIONED SHORTAGES. WHAT kiNd OF STUFF COUldN’T YOU geT?

F: Food. Almost any consumer goods, because production, of course, had all been directed in the war towards war materials. After the war, it had rejigged itself towards exports, which would earn the foreign exchange that England was now so very short of, and so everything was in very short supply. Clothing was not too bad, because everyone who had served in the forces had their own uniform. They usually weren’t too warm to wear inside, because heating was also in short supply. Our place was quite chilly.

J: SOUNDS LIKE TODAy!

F: For the people who hadn’t been in the forces, a whole lot of surplus to requirement government stores had come onto the market. I had a beautiful close-fitting jacket that had belonged to the fire service which did me for years, and was very warm and trim. Another notable one was cosmetics, and most creature comforts. The chemist at the back gate kept a waiting list of people, so I had to wait a whole term to buy my lipstick—geranium shade—costing at that time one and ninepence. it took me a whole term to get it, but once i’d got it I made it last a very long time.

J: WAS THERE MUCH OF A BLACK MARKET?

F: yes, there was [laughs]. Almost anything could be got on the black market. The locality I went through on my way to Bloomsbury had a little enclave of the dodgy dealers doing their affairs on street corners. They looked menacing: they had the standard thing of wide-lapel trenchcoats, tightly belted; trilby pulled down over the eyes; collars turned up, sometimes, but not always, dark glasses… But they were of no menace at all to the average passer-by.

J: WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE SLEAZy SIDE OF LONDON?

F: We did walk through Soho. In the mornings they would be cleaning out the nightclubs from the night before, with some very unlovely swilling of pavements. They didn’t look at all glamorous with the neon lighting off and everything exposed to the cold light of day. Soho was also a place for nice little restaurants, and we were probably some of the very few people to see the carts delivering horsemeat parked discreetly round the back, away from the façades with their tempting menus outside of steak. In spite of shabbiness, London was still London, and a wonderful place to be.

J: WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST diFFeReNCeS ThAT YOU’Ve NOTiCed BETWEEN EDUCATION TODAy AND WHEN yOU WERE yOUNG?

F: There were far fewer people with a university education, and you could confidently expect to get a job. There were also fewer women science graduates, and fewer going into industry. Most women would have gone into teaching or the civil service, which surprisingly did recruit women quite freely. The sting in the tail of that was that before the war it was necessary for a woman civil servant to retire on marriage.

J: IF yOU HAD ANy ADVICE TO OFFER STUDENTS TODAy..?

F: I would say that they would probably develop certain powers better by choosing a limited range of subjects, within a body of related knowledge, rather than by taking a large eclectic set. It’s wonderful to think about doing that, but whether subjects cross-fertilise each other is an important thing to think about.

J: LAST OF ALL, HOW DO yOU THINK IT IS BEING A STUDENT NOW COMPARED TO THEN?

F: Hard to judge. As far as student life goes, it’s the conditions of living really that allow students now such greater freedom. They almost always go flatting, which in the post war shortage of accommodation just was not possible.

J: ARE WE ALL SELFISH AND DEGENERATE?

F: Not the ones I notice. Now that conditions for student support have become so difficult, you could hardly be judged selfish for making the sacrifices necessitated by getting yourself to university these days.

 

Julia wells talks to Lindis Taylor about student idealism and Victoria University in the 1950s…

JULIA: COULD yOU TELL ME ABOUT WHERE yOU WERE WHEN yOU WERE 21?

Lindis: When I was 21 i was not in a place very different from you. I was at Vic, doing an MA in English and finding it very heavy going. In those days there was no BA Honours, you just finished a BA and went straight on to an MA and could do it in one year. In a subject like English, there was no requirement that you do a thesis, and you could do it by eight papers. It was a challenging year.

J: IT SOUNDS COMPLETELy TERRIFyING! WHAT WAS VICTORIA LIKE BACK THEN?

L: the main building that existed was what is now called the Hunter building, and the Law and the Arts faculties wre in that. To the South were two main Science faculties, Chemistry in the wing to the Southwest, and physics in the wing to the southeast, overlooking the city. The Music department was tucked into the first floor of the Chemistry block and the newest building was immediately behind the Kirk building. Biology and Botany were there. Behind that there was nothing, just a few prefabs. It was kind of a wilderness where Rankine Brown [the library] is now, and the Easterfield building was being built during that time. This was the late 1950s. Where the Student Union is now was occupied by tennis courts. It was a small institution, no more than 1000 full time students.

That’s tiny!

L: Most of the students were part-time students particularly those in Law and Commerce. You sort of knew everybody, it wasn’t much bigger than secondary school.

J: can you tell me about the SOCIAL EVENTS?

L: I didn’t go to them all, by any means. There were fairly regular dances, particularly Orientation Week. There were different activities: dances, a band playing popular music of the day. They were very sedate. There was no liquor for sale, but students used to bring beer to consume outside.

J: NOTHING CHANGES.

L: We had great fun, but there wasn’t a great deal of drunkenness, and nothing in the way of drugs. I gathered later that there were people who played around with drugs, but it was totally unknown to me and to all the friends I had. It was an innocent and very enjoyable experience. You didn’t have the sort of pressure that prevents students today from joining clubs and societies. I didn’t join many, but there were people who were very involved in the drama club, and in various clubs associated with their academic interests. I was involved with some other students in setting up a social democrat club. We decided that we weren’t exactly Communists, but were definitely on the left. I don’t know how long it survived. I was also one of the few students who set up the film society.

J: LOOKING BACK, WHEN yOU WERE OUR AGE, WHAT DID yOU THINK WAS GOING TO HAPPEN? WAS COMMUNISM GOING TO TAKE OVER? WAS NEW ZEALAND GOING TO GET RICHER, OR POORER? WHAT DID PEOPLE SEE AS THE FUTURE?

L: This was a period when the true horror of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe (and of course China) had not really been revealed. I think there were plenty of people, although I wasn’t one of them, who did believe that Communism in some form was the way to make progress. I had a feeling that large numbers of students shared those idealistic attitudes, believing that the world was slowly getting better, and that there was an inevitable move towards egalitarianism. There was also an awareness of the anti-colonial movement. At that time the Empires were still intact, and the moves towards independence were becoming strong. You were aware of the independence movements in Malaya and in parts of Africa. We believed that there was the opportunity for all those ex-colonies to set up governments that were enlightened, and controlled by forces that were moderately on the left.

Finally, if you could give some advice to young people today, looking back into your life, what would you tell us?

L: One of the things that strike me today is that students don’t have the time for interests and politics, and so becoming cynical and uninterested in political activity. The way states have developed, and the swing towards globalisation, have tended to undermine democracy and principles of fairness and equity. Consequentially, I think young people are disillusioned about the hopes of making changes. In terms of service, I would still say that the only hope for the creation of a fairer world is for young people not to lose the idealism, not to lose hope in making change, and in pushing back the overwhelming pressure towards unfetted capitalism. To me, civilisation depends on individual citizens accepting the sharing of power with each other, through an elected government. The opposite is really barbarism and anarchy.

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