The letter from Ruskin College, Oxford, arrived in early 1983 and I eagerly tore it open to read my fate. “We are sorry to have to tell you,” it began, so I tossed it to one side without reading the rest and told my mother that I was staying in Manchester to continue throwing drunks out of the nightclub that employed me as a doorman three nights a week.
My mother had more sense than me so she read the whole letter. The College was sorry that I had not been awarded the scholarship that I had applied for, but I had been accepted as a student. As of Michaelmas term, 1983, at the ripe old age of 27, I would be able to call myself a Ruskin man.
Getting into Ruskin was not the easiest thing in the world. During my time there I compiled a league table of Oxford Colleges that had people in the House of Commons and, needless to say, Balliol and Christ Church were joint first. However, in third place came tiny Ruskin, a College that only took sixty or so students a year for its two-year diploma courses. Ruskin men also dominated the research departments of all the trades’ unions and well as providing them with very many full time officers. Obviously, the College could set its entry bar high.
A putative student had to show that he had sought to educate himself. That was usually via involvement in a political party or trades’ union, with a good record of attending WEA classes thrown in to separate the wheat from the chaff.
That was easy for me as I had been a projectionist from leaving school at the age of 15 in 1971 until my cinema shut its doors in 1981. During those years I had become a union activist, so I could get a letter of recommendation from the cinema workers’ union. I had also made my bones at the WEA and those lecturers were willing to add their recommendations to my application.
However, the College also provided all applicants with a list of essay topics and told us to choose one of them and then write a two thousand word essay on it. If memory serves me right, I selected “History is not what happened, it is what historians think happened. Discuss,” as my essay, which I then submitted along with all the other documentation in late 1982.
Needless to say there was an interview, and mine was at the then Labour Party headquarters in Walworth Road, London. Five Ruskin dons all had copies of my essay and took it in sadistic turn to tear it, and me, to pieces. I emerged from the thirty minute interrogation dripping in sweat and convinced that I had failed the interview.
Luckily, I managed to do enough to convince them that I knew something, so the rest is history as they say. In October 1983 I loaded up my Ford Cortina and then drove it south to start my new life as a student at the great Ruskin College, Oxford.
Kenneth Bell's writings are available from Amazon, and the paperback versions can also be ordered via your favourite bookshop. Signed copies of the paperbacks can be had from the author, so please click this link to drop him a line. He blogs at www.kenbell.info, when the mood takes him.