I remember feeling a little discomfited by this episode of Blackadder Goes Forth, in which a German spy was unmasked by making the mistake of thinking that the University of Hull was on the same prestigious level as Oxford and Cambridge:
Of course there wasn’t a University of Hull at the time this drama was set; but the humour lay in the very idea that Hull could be mentioned in the same breath as those other two seats of learning – or indeed in any context that might seem to flatter the place.
Hull was then, and probably still is, almost universally regarded by Southerners as the lowest, dirtiest, most working-class city in England, the ‘crappiest town in Britain’, according to a book of that name, and the ready butt of classist jokes. Which is why when I decided to begin my university teaching career there I was widely scoffed at by my fellow-Fellows in Cambridge, who simply couldn’t understand why I should want to exchange my comfortable situation in such a beautiful, as well as prestigious, university for what seemed to them like a kind of ‘secondary modern’ college in the dismal North. In fact I never ever regretted the move, and in fact did regret my move away from there, to a Chair at Newcastle about twenty years later. When I retired, I moved my British base back to Hull.
In a later blog I may explain in detail why I became un-enamoured with Cambridge. Class came into it, I think: I just didn’t fit in socially, even after eight years there, and I found the effort to live up, or down, to the standards set by the dominating ex-public schoolboys there a great strain. It was not their fault; they were mostly ‘decent chaps’, kind to me albeit in a patronising sort of way. And then came my row with the college’s governing body over undergraduate admissions, with the senior Fellows refusing to agree to my very modest plan to widen the college’s intake to include a few comprehensive or even grammar school boys: ‘we don’t want that sort of boy here.’ (Before you ask – no girls, of course. I know; I should have objected to that too.) It was after this that I took up an invitation to go in for a Lectureship at Hull.
After all that, I found Hull wonderful; full of people – both staff and students: we were allowed to call them ‘students’ there, not ‘undergrads’ – who were very like me. The two professors, John Kenyon and Richard Vaughan, were currently building up a new History department of great talent, which it was a privilege to be allowed to join; including about half a dozen young lecturers in our twenties, all recruited at about the same time (the late ’60s), who had novel ideas, about what should be taught and how, which had a great impact on what for that time became a really quite progressive syllabus. There was a core of ten of us, all pretty good scholars, who were particularly close; and in our family lives too, most of us having babies at about the same time. The others were Alan Lee, Howell Lloyd, Peter Heath, Leslie Price, Ken Andrews, Theo Hoppen, John Palmer, John Major and John Bernasconi; plus of course Kenyon and Vaughan: great scholars themselves, and highly liberal Heads of the Department. (Again: almost no women.) I’ve worked in other universities since: Cambridge, Newcastle, Yale and Sydney, and more briefly and temporarily at Rochester NY, the Australian National University, Copenhagen and Stockholm; but have always looked back on those years at Hull as the happiest and most productive time in my scholarly life; and would rate Hull University and its History Department as the best, based on my experience, and not at all deserving of the snobbish put-down of Captain Blackadder in that episode of ‘Goes Forth’. (And Hull itself, incidentally, isn’t anything like as ‘crappy’ as it’s made out.)
Of my list of those colleagues and dear friends from that time, seven are now dead: Kenyon, Vaughan, Lee, Heath, Andrews, Major and Lloyd. Howell Lloyd is the latest to go, about a month since, to my very great sadness. I hope the survivors, if they read this, won’t mind my saying that I think I loved him more than anyone in that group. Howell’s death is what has prompted these memories, and this rather gloomy post. I’m returning to Hull from Stockholm next weekend to attend his funeral in the Minster on the 27th. I hope it will be very Welsh. He was.
Seven gone. Five of us left. Who will be next?