When I initially applied to university in the autumn of 1990 I named only Scottish universities on my UCCA form (St Andrews, Dundee, Aberdeen, Stirling and hesitantly Strathclyde). The most natural place/subject choice for me would have been Topographic Science at Glasgow, combining my love of geography, maths and my passion for maps. But I have always railed against being “pigeon-holed” and believed it better to study a wide range of geography options first, before specialising so much. Hence why I named Strathclyde instead, although I knew I had to move away completely to have any chance of gaining a degree. I’d just about got through school with the corrosive atmosphere at home dominating my life; I couldn’t stand the thought of doing a degree from a Cleland base. So when it became clear that my four years out of school was standing against me, (a Stirling interview suggested I did more Highers at evening class to get up to speed again), I looked for foundation courses. I could see only three places that offered them; Newcastle who I could never get on the phone, Manchester who would put me straight into clearing and Keele who offered an interview.
All I had ever wanted was a degree and the graduation photo with scroll for the mantelpiece. I adored Geography principally the physical aspect of the subject, and had not missed a beat in my interview with the Geography lecturer’s questions. I loved science, but had been terrified by the aura of Prof Morgan from Chemistry and had muttered “dunno” to every question he asked, kicking myself when he confirmed the answers that had been screaming in my head all along. I thought I had blown it, but the Professor liked my “spunk”, and much later I discovered it was on his personal recommendation I had been accepted. Clearly my quip about the Scots superiority over the English education system had NOT gone down badly with the Newfoundland born professor. The Geography lecturer on the other hand loathed my attitude from that moment on, and a silent war (on his part) was declared between us. This eventually resulted in me changing to Classical Studies at the start of my first principal year.
My foundation year was brilliant, as I found myself faced with a plethora of subject matter options ranging from a few weeks to an entire academic year in length. My alarm bells clanged violently when I was timetabled for a year course in “human” Geography, something I had vehemently expressed an intense dislike for in my interview. The option I had chosen was apparently unavailable, but had I realised it was taught by my interviewer, I may have twigged to the problems ahead. Gullibly I thought the Geography department knew best and with reluctance studied the subsidiary course. It caused me nothing but grief and I fought Geography the whole year. Consequently I got to know my general tutor Dr Rob Jackson in Chemistry quite well, as he was never off the phone trying to sort things out for me. Sadly I had to face the fact Keele Geography and me were not going to be a marriage made in heaven, so I kept my love of the subject but studied something else. But that Geography ill wind blew something else in my direction as I ended up marrying Rob Jackson.
I hadn’t managed to study anything in Geology during my foundation year, mainly because of the way my timetable worked out. Therefore I had no knowledge of the department that would have been the natural alternative to Geography, particularly as many of the options sounded similar to the ones I salivated over. But I couldn’t face the possibility of another battle with a department and chose Classics instead. Having studied a term under the Classics head of department Mr Richard Wallace, whom I adored, it was an easy choice to make. I had really quite enjoyed my Chemistry course in foundation year, so kept my science going in this area.
I had no idea at the time of finalising my principal subjects that I would end up marrying a lecturer from one of them. This would later cause such tension in my Chemistry studies, the joy I had for the subject was sucked out of me. I’m afraid Chemistry was so paranoid about covering their backside ensuring it was seen I got no special treatment, that things happened which would be neither tolerated or condoned in today’s politically correct student climate. It was my Classical Studies course which kept me going in the latter part of my degree, and I proudly took my place in the department graduation class photo. I refused to be in the Chemistry photo at all.
Throughout my degree there was always a nagging issue with my health, which began going “funny” in the late summer of 1990. Investigations found nothing, so I was just left to deal with the flare ups that came out of nowhere. With hindsight I now realise that the concerns I had regarding my health, played a part in influencing my decision to study subjects NOT requiring compulsory field trips, and discarding the concurrent Education course too.
I felt great in FY, had niggles in the middle and end of my P1 year which continued to the beginning of my P2 year. It became obvious I needed to take some time off to try and deal with my health and there was the small matter of organising a wedding too. When I resumed my studies I was in a different year group and new options had become available in Classical Studies. From the few weeks in P2 I had experienced the year before, I reluctantly had to concede that keeping my Latin would be very hard, as it really was like having three principal degree subjects. It just about killed me inside giving up the Latin area of my studies, but the new options made the pain easier to bear. The wonders of Latin poetry, Greek drama, Roman & Greek art and architecture, Roman Egypt and New Testament Studies opened up instead. If I’d continued with Latin I’d have experienced only a few of these delights, as the language aspect of the course would have been 50% of my timetable. In my new P2 year I thrived in Classical Studies but began to realise that Chemistry wasn’t going to be so easy to deal with. The department attitude toward me had changed dramatically, and educationally I’d hit a brick wall in the organic area of Chemistry. With horror it dawned on me just how heavily orientated many of the options were toward this field. Although the physical, theoretical and mathematical side of Chemistry held no terror for me, I really began to struggle. Every week I had a major lab report and problem sheet to do and the effort of producing the goods wore me down. I felt I was on a conveyor belt with just no time to really think, “smell the roses” and enjoy the science. Always feeling I had to watch my back and be on guard didn’t help matters either.
In the final year my undiagnosed health issues spectacularly hit new heights, I was never out of the doctor’s surgery. Looking back, for that entire year I was probably either under a perpetual mental fog, or legally as high as a kite through multiple prescription drug use. Despite being in poor physical shape I managed to finish my studies to graduate with a 2:2 Honours in Chemistry and Classical Studies with Subsidiary Mathematics and Geography.
Six months after graduating I had lost 4.5 stones in weight, flat-lined and underwent emergency surgery for Crohn’s Disease. My surgeon said the only thing that had kept me alive was my “obvious bloody-minded pig stubborn attitude”. I agreed because that frame of mind got me my degree as well.