in the garden

 

Jan 2009 Journal

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The getting of wisdom - the hard way

I’d have preferred the dreaming spires - of course I would. But I was 52 years old with a busy full-time job. I won’t add ‘and a home to run’ for, as all my friends know to their cost, I’ve never been much of a home-runner. And there it was, a tantalising option, the brainchild of Jennie Lee, still in its infancy: the Open University.

The temptation was great. I’d always regretted my lack of education, had always felt inferior to university graduates, and here was my chance of obtaining a degree in my own time. But would I be able to do it? Wasn’t I too old? Should I even consider it? I dithered but my husband encouraged me. He thought I should, and could, do it. I applied and was accepted.

So, in January 1972, at the beginning of the OU’s academic year, I started my career as a mature – not as mature as I am now, but mature enough – student. The Arts Foundation Course was my obvious choice for the first year. When I presented myself for our first session I felt much as I had, not quite six years old, on my first day at school. I met my fellow students and was introduced to my tutor and counsellor. There were some people of about my age but not many. Most were in their thirties and forties, white and middle class. If the government had hoped to attract ethnic minorities, preferably working class, it had failed.

The teaching was mainly by correspondence, with some supplementary TV and radio broadcasts and monthly tutorials. I began to lead a double life. During office hours, I was in charge of an office, signed cheques for large amounts, smiled at VIPs my boss had asked me to ‘charm’. At night, I worked furiously on my assignments – we had to submit at least six essays of about 2,000 words during the academic year – drafting and redrafting, all on my little portable typewriter. No cutting and pasting then! And, of course, I read. I read on trains and buses. I read during my lunch hour. I read in libraries. I did much of my research in the old Guildhall Library, which was close to my office.

Like an adolescent, I waited anxiously for the return of my marked essays. An A was a cause for celebration, the very occasional C one for deep depression, a B one for quiet satisfaction. I was mostly a B student.

In October it was exam time and I was as nervous as if something really depended on the result, for which we had to wait until Christmas. I passed and could now move on to second-level courses.

We still had holidays abroad at least twice a year. Sometimes I contrived to combine leisure with my studies. When I was doing the ‘Renaissance and Reformation’ course we went to Florence and visited as many churches and art galleries we could cram into a week. While doing ‘The Age of Revolutions’, I looked at every neo-classical painting, from David to Delacroix, in the Louvre.

For my third-level courses I concentrated on literature. I got through ‘The 19th Century Novel’, ‘World Drama’ and ‘20th Century Poetry’. I learned what T. S. Eliot thought of the Jews and Philip Larkin of mums and dads (not printable in this journal). I also did a course on ‘Religions of the World’, which only confirmed me in my agnosticism.

My diary entry for 3 June 1978 reads: ‘Al. Pal. Hot sticky day.’ My proud husband beside me –and indeed it was his achievement as much as mine for, without his selfless support, I’d have never been able to do it – I was awarded my degree at the old Alexandra Palace. When I get the odd communication from my alma mater, with BA (Hons) after my name, I still think they can’t mean me.
 


 

Edith Argy

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