A Sociological Autobiography: 11 – Undergraduate Study

By | August 27, 2013

I eventually went to university in the autumn of 1968. The route had been circuitous. I had somehow gone from being an ‘Oxbridge possible’ in 1966, to exploring a course in economic history at Nottingham (and buying my first pipe) in 1967, to A-level re-takes and a choice between Hull and Surrey in 1968. Why Hull or Surrey, and to study what? Hull and Surrey were the only universities willing to take me; and I had somehow elected to focus on the social sciences. In choosing to attend Surrey to explore ‘Human Relations’, I had it in mind to drop philosophy at the end of the first year and to continue thereafter with psychology and sociology.

The University of Surrey was a new creation, put together out of the remnants of the Battersea College of Advanced Technology, or Battersea CAT, in 1966. Actually Battersea CAT only dated from 1956, while its predecessor, Battersea Polytechnic Institute went back to 1891. I was dropped off by my parents at the nearby Courland Grove Hall of Residence and began a novel, transitional phase of life. I was the usual boy left to fend alone, altogether unskilled in the crafts of self-maintenance; I ate baked beans on toast and used clothes soon began to pile up in the corner of my room. But I met others over a beer or two, discovered a local pub (where Maud would belt out tunes on the piano and lead sing-songs on Friday evenings), and, more importantly, visited fresher events and made acquaintance with fellow-students. I flirted with joining the rugby club, but with knee problems fresh in my mind, opted not to.

I remember little of my first year’s psychology, excepting for one experiment for which a mature Afro-Caribbean student, Jim B, was my partner. Blindfolded, we had to negotiate our way through a maze; and Jim took the wrong first option 13 times in succession, leaving me incapacitated by laughter. I am still baffled by his choices. How to explain: nature versus nurture? In any event, I was to drop psychology for sociology and my unexpected favourite, philosophy. And by autumn 1969 we were nestling in the shadow of Guildford Cathedral.

The philosophy teaching was in the engaging and competent hands of Nicholas Haines, Reader in Social Philosophy. He taught through close analysis of core texts like Plato’s Republic and The Laws, Hobbes’ Leviathan, Rousseau’s The Social Contract. He was the author of two student texts called, I think, Freedom and the Community and Person to Person. He was backed up by Pat Smart’s course on logic, the affectedly eccentric John Heron’s on ethics, and Irene Brennan’s on phenomenology and existentialism. It was Brennan’s that most fired us, introducing us via Brentano and Husserl to Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Heidegger and, especially, the dynamic French nexus of Merleau-Ponty, Sartre and de Beauvoir. She was almost serenely ‘still’, committed and giving, one of the few to invite us to her place to talk as well as to mix and to chill. I discovered then what remains the case: whatever its failings, the existentialists addressed real issues, in contradistinction to the often narrow and arcane foci of their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. A.J.Ayer’s dismissal of Heidegger’s Being and Time as ‘a misuse of the verb ‘to be’’ strikes me as no less absurd as it was supercilious even now. So Brennan made us think; and what greater accolade for a teacher. She was, I think, a religious mystic of sorts, which suited me more then than now; but no matter.

Maybe a diversionary word or two on Sartre is in order here. I continue to think him a neglected thinker. ‘The Beaver’ has perhaps been less neglected, at least by feminists: The Second Sex remains a well cited classic (and I personally rate her Ethics of Ambiguity). I accept that there is an unbridgeable gulf between Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and his two-volume Dialectic of Critical Reason: the individualism of the former cannot translate into the (Marxist) privileging of the social in the latter. But: (a) there is something compelling about the proposition that we are what we spontaneously decide day-to-day, with all the ‘terrible freedom’ this implies, always in a state of becoming; and (b) I think his Marxian analyses are as yet under-mined. Mathieu’s demonstration of his freedom by affixing his hand with a dagger in Roads to Freedom sticks in my mind. Agency always, by hook or by crook as it were, transcends or survives its structuring. Plus, philosophers/novelists/playwrights/intellectuals/activists like Sartre and de Beauvoir (plus Camus and others) commit and excite. In only one examination or piece of coursework in three years of philosophy did I dip below a ‘first’, testimony to my enthusiasm.

What about sociology, which ended up as ‘my’ discipline? No doubt that it came in second to philosophy, but at least it left psychology in its wake. Asher Tropp from the LSE had been appointed as Professor and Head of Department but was to arrive after our intake. Known for The School Teachers, published in 1957, he was an excellent lecturer, especially on Latin America; and he was to prove the catalyst for Surrey’s later reputation as a base and resource for aspirant sociologists. The team he inherited was diverse. Kate Evans taught criminology. Kind and supportive, I remember her chiefly for her rapid-fire delivery and refusal to slow down so we could take decent notes. Brian Darling, a radical ‘leftie’, was a contributing author to the May Day Manifesto of 1968 and another first-class teacher: Tropp disliked him and took to putting job adverts in his pigeon hole. Colin Tipton, expert on politics in general and South-East Asia in particular, was sociology’s equivalent to Irene Brennan. He took the trouble to ‘host’ us and to bring us together. Keith MacDonald taught industrial sociology and a young postgraduate converting from metallurgy, Mike Hornsby-Smith, led a series of seminars; both are now emeritus professors. It was a solid enough grounding.

The sociological orthodoxy from 1968-71 was structural-functionalism. We were allocated multiple chapters of Parsons’ The Social System, supplemented by Merton’s more subtle analyses, as a matter of course. It was not a wasted apprenticeship. If the present is always temped to downgrade the past, this temptation is surely questionable. Moreover we now inhabit ‘hyper-rationalized’ times. Functionalism was flawed, but it offered and offers more than many now appreciate: for those interested in health and illness, for example, simply re-read chapter ten of The Social System. Many wheels do not require re-inventing. Old-style functionalists rightly insisted, as did subsequent ‘systems theorists’ like Luhmann, that much of what structures or shapes, if not determines, our behavious occurs behind our backs. Quite right!

I made friends at Surrey, as one does. Mature communist-party member Peter K weaned me off the Daily Telegraph, which I had thought as neutral in news as in sport. Star student was Angela Little, the only one of us to gain a ‘first’ and as every bit as delightful as she was talented. I remain in touch with two or three. But by far the most significant and lasting happening in Guildford was meeting Annette. By the second year we were a couple and by the third living together. These autobiographical notes are mine and I shall not presume to speak about, let alone for, Annette and our four wonderful daughters. So do please read into my fragments loves that have and will last as long as I do.


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