I spent three years of my life in Leicester, between 1962 and 1966. In Part 1 I wrote briefly about my earliest impressions of this city, its university, and my tenuous connection to its football team.
Talking recently to another graduate of Leicester University I was reminded of an odd aspect of student life there in the sixties, just one mild absurdity, the use of haute cuisine names for mundane dishes served up in the refectory (academic-speak for canteen.) One ludicrous example has stayed with me – the term “Turbigo”, used as an adjectival noun in menus, for instance “Chicken Turbigo”.
For me there was something intrinsically laughable about the word itself, and I was amused by the pretentiousness of dressing up canteen food with posh names. Over time I noticed that Turbigo could be applied to just about any main course; the common factor was that the dish always included mushroom stalks. No heads, just the stalks.
The food in the refectory was supplied by a catering contractor who also owned at least one restaurant in the city. A dapper, fussy man, he used to appear occasionally behind the counter, apparently to upset the serving ladies and confuse the customers. I wish now I had had the nerve to ask about Turbigo and all the other nonsensical terminology, but I guess we were all keen to see what ridiculous term he might come up with next.
It turns out that Turbigo is a town in Lombardy, and that in the food business it’s usually is associated with kidneys, presumably a regional delicacy. Some of the many recipes for Kidneys Turbigo do include whole mushrooms. What the crafty caterer was really up to was serving mushroom heads in various dishes in his restaurant, and palming off the stalks, which have little taste or nutritional value, on us unsuspecting students. To test the theory I did once take a young lady to his restaurant in London Road and ordered a mushroom omelette. Very tasty I have to say, but guess what. No stalks.
Looking back, most of my memories of this period are either happy or just embarrassing – or both. I have to confess right away that my engagement as a student at the university, after an initial burst of enthusiasm, turned out to be ever more tenuous as I stumbled my way through the three-year degree course. My fault, not theirs.
From the start I had the queasy feeling that I was at university only by luck and a dash of insider dealing: I was sure that quite soon I would be found out. I soon discovered too that I had bitten off more that I could chew. Not for me the finer points of Corneille, Racine, La Fontaine and Molière, nor the complexities of Gallo Roman and medieval French. I realised too late I was not cut out to be a scholar – in any discipline. But there were compensations, so I hung in there.
Also, having spent six months surviving in France between school and university, I felt a misfit in my allotted year group, who were mostly a year younger and serious scholars, usually to be found in the university library rather than the students’ union bar.
There were exceptions, but I took to hanging out with some of the fourth year finals students who had returned from their compulsory year in France, fluent French speakers full of Gauloise-smoking, vin rouge guzzling existentialist sophistication. Not for them the lure of chicken Turbigo.
In those days it was compulsory to live in a single sex hall of residence. More like a no-sex compound. In my case I was allotted a study-bedroom (academic-speak for cell) in a modern block attached to a lovely old country house called Digby Hall in Oadby, about 5 miles from the university, near the racecourse and the botanic gardens. It was a genteel and comfortable life there, without women students (officially….) but not without its own brand of absurdity.
One of the drawbacks of the Scandinavian style block was the ground floor windows. As you can see they were hinged at the top and opened outwards, and if you left yours open at night you could find your room full of drunken miscreants taking a short cut to their rooms when the main door was locked. Another snag was that the stair hand rails, made from beautiful Scandinavian pitch-pine, started to sprout little branches.
A blogger called Adrian Jones (Aka Jones the Planner) commented in 2011 on Digby Hall: “I spent a year at Digby Hall and although the head warden named Geoff liked to impose some sort of infrequent Oxbridge pretension, the halls were very convivial for socialising and maybe invoked some sort of revolution by the time the year was out…….Internally the dinner hall rhomboid roof is dynamic and externally the complex of is a muted Scandinavian modernism by Sheppard, Robson & Partners”. Evidently things have changed since my day – rhomboid roof! Bursar replaced by Geoff the warden! I also see it’s now a mixed hall.Tut tut, whatever next?
At weekends we were expected to dine in the old house. This meant conforming to a fairly liberal dress code and turning up at mealtimes to be served by wenches, attractive or otherwise, in the august presence of the top table, notably the bursar in full academic gear, and sundry guests, for whom we stood up on entry. Lateness incurred stern glares from on high and possibly cold soup.
This palaver seemed ridiculous in an otherwise quite forward-looking redbrick university. This was 1962 – only months before the high tide of the swinging sixties. Here I was, an anonymous extra in a scene straight out of Inspector Morse, while my former prefab estate contemporary Charlie Watts was already well on the way to a stellar career as the Rolling Stones’ drummer. Mind you, no Chicken Turbigo at Digby Hall – all home cooked nosh!
The saving grace was the bursar, a retired academic. This man was still living the scholarly dream, surrounded by a court of favoured undergraduates and postgrads who had elected to live this sheltered life beyond the compulsory first year. He had two great attributes – irony and jam-making. Both were evident at weekly soirées musicales held at his flat, where sherry was taken, classical music played, scones with raspberry jam consumed and genteel banter exchanged. I attended a few of these late afternoon set pieces, and thoroughly enjoyed them. Ironically, of course.
Life in Digby Hall wasn’t all scholarly calm. One one memorable occasion, I got drunk at a party held in a friend’s room at the top of the the old house and was threatened with a knife by the so-called friend. Fortunately he was even drunker and was easily disarmed. The incident, caused by his jealousy regarding my girlfrend of the moment, was hushed up, but not before the Bursar had delicately stepped over my semi conscious body blocking the narrow staircase, uttering some suitably laconic comment. Him, not me.
Another diversion available to students of French was an annual performance of a play in French, before the public. In my first year the chosen play was Samuel Beckett’s En Attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot). I fancied having a go at acting, and because I looked so young, I was cast as the boy. Though I had only a few lines, this was a challenge because the play is notoriously repetitive and it’s easy to miss cues.
My second (and last) play, again in French, was a medieval farce – La Farce de maître Pathelin. Though I didn’t know it at the time, this fifteenth century comedy was extraordinarily popular in its day, and was an influence on popular theatre for over a century. It’s a simple tale with only five characters: Pathelin, his wife Guillemette, a clothier named Guillaume Joceaulme, a shepherd named Thibault l’Aignelet, and a judge. Every character except the last is dishonest in some way.
I played maître Pathelin, a dodgy lawyer who advises his client to pretend to be mentally unfit by replying to cross questioning in court by repeating “Baaaaa” like a sheep. The play is in medieval French verse, and it has to be pacy to get the laughs. Amazingly we did get the laughs, but not necessarily in the right places or for the right reasons. It was a lot to learn, and the worst moment was when I inadvertently skipped a few pages, to the horror of the other actors. An abrupt end to my short lived acting career.
The first year slipped by all too easily. I had also elected to study philosophy, as a compulsory second subject. Unlike the French syllabus this was a revelation. I loved the completely different way things happened in this apparently disreputable department. What a contrast to the stuffiness of the Sykes empire. I don’t remember any lectures, but I loved the group discussions exploring philosophical theories. I also appreciated the structure of the course, based on ideas rather than the more normal chronological study of the teachings of philosophers down the ages.
I was also impressed by the infamous department head Professor Patrick Nowell-Smith, who had a controversial approach to ethics. He was once quoted as saying “a philosopher was not doing the job properly unless he or she was causing alarm and concern.”
After his death aged 91 a colleague of Patrick’s joked “…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.”
This was more like it! Down with Corneille and Racine, up with Plato, logic and ethics, not to mention free love. Of course, it couldn’t last. Never mind – there was always the occasional chicken Turbigo to look forward to.