I’m not into football, as they say, but I have found it impossible to ignore Leicester City’s astonishing turnaround from obscurity to giant-killing league winners this year. It’s not long since my grandson Luke (football mad) asked me which team I supported and in desperation I identified Leicester, simply on the tenuous grounds that I spent three years there in the sixties, as a less than distinguished student.
What’s more, for one of those years I lived in a redbrick back-to-back student house in Filbert Street itself, only a few doors away from City’s former home ground. If I have a soft spot for Leicester, forgive me – it’s probably largely due to that year, when I not only graduated but fell in love. How was I to know then that 50 years later the City, not content with having dug up an English king, was to become world-famous once again for winning the Premier League?
In those 50 years I have of course had ample time to reflect on my time in Leicester, a city which I had previously thought of as being in “the North”. In fact when I first went there for the University interview, it was the furthest north I had ever been. I recall travelling by train from London with a small bundle of written instructions, only to be bamboozled by the small map provided. When you leave London Road station there are only two ways to turn; I chose to go left because the road went uphill that way. In retrospect it turned out to be an apt metaphor for my unremarkable student career, an uphill struggle, but in the right direction.
Even more typical was my lack of faith in my own decision-making. After slogging about half a mile, I asked a lady for the way to the university. She was rather puzzled at first, then asked me if there was a university in Leicester. I said I certainly hoped so. She thought for a bit then said she supposed it must be in University Road. She had always wondered why it was called that. So much for public engagement in higher education.
(This experience was later to be useful to me as the editor of the University of Lincoln’s short-lived public engagement blog. I might have been better to describe the university – or any university – as, you know, that place made of ivory; you can’t miss the tower.)
I can’t recall much about the interviews now. I was down to study French and Philosophy. No, really. I knew what French was, because I was rather good at it at school, but I chose Philosophy as the least worst choice of compulsory subsidiary subject, the other options being Latin, English, German and History. Not that I really knew what Philosophy was, any more than I do now. (Epistemological joke.)
The reason I was there at all was that one of my two French teachers at grammar school was a Leicester graduate herself and she had put in a good word for me with the boss, Professor Sykes. He should have known better than to offer me a place on the slim evidence of a recommendation and whatever waffle I had spouted at the interview. It would be unkind of me to say bad stuff about Prof Sykes, but I think it’s fair to say that our dislike was mutual from the start.
The Philosophy interview I remember a little better. It was with Professor Nowell Smith, who I later realised must have been well aware I was lying my head off. In particular I recall he asked me what I thought about Plato’s Republic. In my defence, I had skimmed it, but that’s all. Either the prof had a problem meeting his student numbers target or he was prescient, as I soon discovered that philosophy was indeed a fascinating discipline. The problem was, I liked the discussion element, but did not put in the swot, with the humiliating result that I failed the exam and had to resit or quit.
Patrick Nowell Smith turned out to be a revelation for me, and I’m sure for my classmates. His specialism was ethics, and he challenged just about every assumption we had unconsciously hoovered up at school. In one of his obituaries, he is quoted as defining the role of a philosopher: “The function of the philosopher is to stand on the sidelines and jeer.”
In the same 2006 Guardian article, Colin Radford goes on: “Patrick, who has died aged 91, believed – or frequently acted as if he believed – that a philosopher was not doing the job properly unless he or she was causing alarm and concern.”
It all makes sense now. We soon picked up the vibes. Radford puts it rather elegantly “A colleague of Patrick’s joked that he was the only man he had ever met who felt that he had a positive moral duty to sleep with other men’s wives. On hearing this, Patrick, who believed that wives were under no less an obligation, joked back that, as a utilitarian, he believed that he should add to the sum of human happiness – and had striven to do so.”
Well, it was the sixties, and it was a delight to witness the barely concealed outrage of other academics. Or was it jealousy?
To be continued. Here are some clues: wrong subject wrong group, why did I stay? Existentialism in Filbert Street, love in Narborough Road…………….
Sources (apart from my memories):