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Chapter Three - The College Year

So in 1971 I left home and spent nine great months at college in Essex. It was the first time I had left home for any length of time and I loved the freedom and all the friends I made on the course. The rock concerts, the parties, the pubs - it was all new to me.

I remember journeying down with the Anthonys. Peter Anthony was on the same course. After lunch at a Harlow restaurant we went to the college. The first afternoon was spent acclimatising, talking about Harlow and taking us round on a coach tour.

Two would be students dropped out after the coach trip and returned home. I don't think it had anything to do with bad driving.

Harlow was a rather confusing, rather imposing place. The kind of town you either love or hate. I loved it. In many ways my nine months there were the happiest of my life.

It was just something about the new town set-up. The smell of autumn nights on the open grassland areas but above all to be in a town where I had total freedom to go out when I wanted, to arrive home when I wanted, to study when I wanted.

And home was remarkable. Once we had enjoyed the guided tour we were dropped off at our lodgings. Many people signed up for rooms at the YWCA (included men as well as women). I opted for lodgings where meals would be provided.

It was a smart move. I remember being one of the last to be dropped off which meant I lived the furthest away from the college. This proved a problem in the early days when I had to walk over 30 minutes to college and over 30 minutes back. That was all sorted out, however, when I later bought a mini car which made the journey easy.

I still remember that walking journey from college, along one of the main avenues, down the full length of Abercrombie Way and along a couple more roads before getting to 123, The Maples.

Two of us were staying at the Maples address. It opened up a whole new lifestyle for me. Living at home with my parents had been rather a sheltered existence. Suddenly I was thrust into the world of the Turners. Sonia was a lovely lady in her late 20s whom I looked upon as a big sister rather than a landlady. I would love to meet her again. She had two children - Samantha who was about six and Jamie who I believe was about four. Sonia was divorced but had boyfriends.

I soon found myself on the same wavelength as the kids and used to enjoy reading to them at bedtime. They were real characters.

As well as myself and Tom Carver (also on the journalism course), the house played host to a number of other inmates during their stay there. There was Marcia Davis who was a reporter with another newspaper group and another female whom I believe was called Veronica. She made quite an impression on me due to the fact that she insisted on walking round the house in a see through blouse (well it was the early 70s and a time of freedom of expression). She worked on the lighting at Harlow Playhouse and used to meet many of the stars appearing there. 

She was rather blase about meeting the stars, telling us that David Bowie had been rather boring. I remember that she was going out with a Hungarian chap whom I never did meet because on the only occasion he came round I was in bed with a rampant headache.

I remember periods of sleeping through what seemed to be whole weekends due to the pace of social life which saw us out night after night after night. Sometimes we got home at 2 a.m only to have to get up a few hours later to get to college and somehow get through the day on coffee, adrenalin and fun.

Sonia had excellent parties, served good food and was tremendously good fun. In addition she liked my Richard Harris records which I thought was unique until one of my fellow students (Andrew McClardy) quietly admitted one day that he was a fan too. Andrew married one of the other students - Pippa Birchall - and I understand they have now celebrated their silver wedding anniversary and I believe have three children.

At 123 The Maples, it was open house for us and I loved the freedom. As for my fellow course students,  I remember all their names because I have a copy of the student newspaper with all the photos in (one day soon I will place them all on the internet). So who do I remember and for what.

I remember Carolyn Burns very well. We became firm friends throughout the course and she later visited me in Lowestoft and also Norwich and had tea with my parents and my mother thought she was wonderful. When I originally wrote this article, I had a great wish to meet Carolyn again and find out what has happened in her life. My wishes were realised thanks to the already mentioned friends reunited web site. I was able to contact Carolyn again and meet up with her in London. She is a top cooker writer and has something like 37 books in print under her married name of Carolyn Humphries.

Bob Mee was a belligerent Midlander from Oadby in Leicestershire whose first love in life was boxing. He is now one of the foremost boxing journalists/writers in the country. Bob, despite at times seeming aggressive, was at heart a very gentle person. I remember one weekend staying at the home of one of the lecturers. There were about 10 of us there and Bob went to the pub to get some drinks and was picked on by one of the local yobs. He laid him out with a perfect right hook but felt upset and guilty about it for some time. He didn't feel guilty, however, the day he asked me to teach him how to play table tennis and let me go through all the rules before wiping the floor with me and admitting he had played for Leicestershire. Bob was also a very proficient footballer and on a number of occasions we went to White Hart Lane to see Spurs play. When on my own I preferred to go to Highbury to see Arsenal. Bob had periods of depression and it was alleged that he spent one Christmas wrapped up in his Leicester City scarf without any heat, very little food and listened throughout the day to Leonard Cohen.

Again through Friends Re-united I have been able to get in touch with Bob and met up with him as well as Carolyn.

Others I remember less vividly and for different reasons - Celia Merrell because she fitted perfectly in a waste paper bin and was often placed in the men's toilets at college; Christine Barrett because she was sweet; and some of the others I remember with less than fondness. I remember one guy who insisted on reading us the entire sleeve notes and record label of every Pink Floyd LP.

Of the staff I remember Joe Barrett (strangely there were two journalism lecturers by that name). This Joe was a garrulous Scotsman who used to insist that we should all be "operators" without really ever explaining what he meant. You didn't joke with this guy. Apart from his size, he would call everyone's bluff. I remember him asking once for a subject for a survey in the town. Somebody jokingly said "birth control." We spent the next two hours on the streets of the town asking people about contraception! Joe lusted after a female lecturer called Cherry who was a lovely lady.

I recently came across an unauthorised biography of Mark Knopfler the Dire Straits guitarist and leader who was on the journalism course a few years before me. There is a specific chapter about his time on the course which is more a chapter about Joe Barrett than Mark. Barrett gave me a pretty luke warm report I seem to remember, but he did say that I had put in more effort and time to my studies than anyone else on the course (not true).

Bill Hicks was a former sports editor on the Express and had a holiday home in Cromer and so I got on reasonably well with him. He died a few years ago after enjoying a long retirement. Brian Downie was the British Constitution lecturer (I think) and introduced us to T groups which involved sitting around and chatting about ourselves and our problems (very seventies). There was also a politics lecturer who we called Red Mole and a former policeman by the name of Wilf Graham who, behind a very gruff exterior, had a heart of gold. On Friday afternoons he used to tell us: "If those of you who are going home for the weekend and have a long drive ahead were to ask me if they could go to the toilet and then not return, well come Monday I will have forgotten all about it." There was also dear Ted Mawdesley who would often take pity on us and give us lifts home and a shorthand teacher by the name of Ted Ware who had a humped back but who was a very keen cyclist. Sadly I am sure many of these will have passed on by now. Another I remember is Frank Warner who had a west country accent and who was at heart a very gentle person. 

I was only at Harlow for nine months but it probably affected my life more than any other period. I have so many memories - concerts in the main hall organised by Steve Clarke who later went on to become a well known rock music writer. He booked the likes of Medicine Head and America and on one autumnal evening I went to see a band I had never heard of. In those days the main group came on late with three or four support bands preceding them. I had never heard of Barclay James Harvest let alone know what their music was like. But being at a loose end I decided to go along.


That night had a profound affect on my musical taste. I thought they were brilliant and have been a fan ever since. Mockingbird remains my favourite ever track and I was left speechless when they concluded with the Poet/After the Day with its apocalyptic overtones.

My other great musical memory was going to the playhouse to see David Bowie. The support band were Cochise and they cleared the auditorium. Bowie was sensational. He played a one hour acoustic set featuring material from Hunky Dory. He then introduced his new band The Spiders for Mars and returned as Ziggy Stardust and played an entire electric set. I think it was only his second or third appearance as Ziggy. I have seen Bowie many times since, but he has never eclipsed that evening.

As you will gather, Harlow and music go together. I can still be reduced to tears driving along the M11 in the vicinity with Barclay James Harvest's Once Again on the CD player. All the memories, all the smells come flooding back.

Other memories include being introduced to Chinese food by Sonia; regular visits to the cinema to see the likes of Straw Dogs, French Connection, the Devils, Clockwork Orange, Love Story and nights spent in the Hare, the Painted Lady and other pubs.