Down memory lane in Leicester

I realised when writing about arriving in Brisbane, that I had not thought for some time about other moves that changed my life. Then I was invited to Leicester University and used this to stimulate a meander down overgrown paths from the past.
I don’t recall my leaving of Ireland in 1970 to start to study for a PhD in Leicester, but remember being pleased/relieved when Ken Jones, my supervisor, was at the train station to take me to the house I would share with 4 other students. He quickly realised that I did not have blankets and brought me to his home where Rosemary invited me to stay for supper before returning with bedclothes. As they prepared food they left the starter on the table for me. It was corn on the cob…..and I had never seen that in the West of Ireland. Trying to eat it with a knife and fork was a mistake! Ken gently guided me to use my fingers and perhaps worried about his new researcher….but did not show it.
Next morning in 45 St. Leonard’s Road I met my house mates. The busy reading of the Guardian was scarcely interrupted when I came down for breakfast. And when I broke an egg over my ill chosen tie when I had engaged in an unfortunate manoeuvre of having the egg in my hand as I tried simultaneously to open the silver topped milk bottle….there was no reaction, the newspapers scarcely ruffled.
Thus I took my first steps away from the extrovert society that still characterises Ireland into one where privacy was respected, where the ability to refrain from intrusion or judgement contrasted with an irresistible urge by the Irish to build on an event until it became a community opportunity for provide advice, and, through humorous suggestions and analysis, to grow a chance meeting into a friendship. It was a shock.
Indeed the move to England was perhaps the most difficult of the many that I have made in life (see for instance my blog on arriving in Brisbane). Of course I was young, anxious about starting a PhD, concerned about how to learn how to undertake a research project, lonely at leaving my girl friend, aware of the distance from family and friends -but more than anything else I was aware that cultural differences were real despite the language and media that was shared between the neighbouring islands. But I had decided to move away from Ireland to get new experiences and be challenged by what I met there,so the differences had to be welcomed.
Leicester was a choice made in part out of necessity. I could only find two universities that had scholarships open to applicants from outside the UK; Birmingham and Leicester. The topic in Birmingham was related to brewing with yeast and that was both too practical and stereotypic for me. Leicester would allow a more academic entry into a core area of Biochemistry, Ken was a pleasant interviewer when I went to see the options a few months earlier……..and the Leicester City football team ,with Peter Shilton and co., seemed to have a better prospect of getting into the first division and games against teams like Manchester United!! And they did the first year I was there.
Three years later I had finished my PhD and was preparing for the move to Madison Wisconsin. My emotions when leaving Leicester were the polar opposite of those I had when arriving. I had a good circle of friends there. I had become attached to Leicester City Football club. The news in the Leicester Mercury was as important to me as that in the Sligo Champion. I had lived with an intelligent group who became friends who overlooked my gaffes such as putting milk in Earl Grey tea when I first discovered that more teas existed than what would today be called Irish Breakfast. I attended concerts (I had never seen an orchestra perform before that!) and plays. I filled in many gaps in my upbringing and also learned how to be a researcher and discovered that I really wanted to be one! But most of all I had seen the benefits of tolerance daily as I shared the tea room during the very troubled times in Northern Ireland with some who had family at risk there. The cleaning lady, Mrs. Smith was somebody that I met most evenings as she did her work in the lab and I did mine. Her son David was on duty in Derry and it was always a relief when she came into the lab with a cheery grin and a greeting such as “you all right?”
It was a time to try out new things and I did. I felt unskilled mechanically and I took a course in theoretical car maintenance-I was the only one who got wet going to the evening classes as I did not have a car. I also decided that I should try carpentry and spent extremely frustrating evenings making a wobbly and very imperfect coffee table. I joined a group (Shelter) that painted old people’s homes and I fear that the outcome was not an improvement for them. I joined the choir as a bass and ended up a tenor. I appeared in a musical (Fings ain’t wot they used t’be by Lionel Bart). I went, for one series of Sundays, to a different religious services each week (correct Methodist, intelligent Quakers, polite Church of England and riotous Evangelical).I almost taught myself to play the guitar when there was a postal strike in Ireland that stopped my letter writing. I learned to enjoy cricket, but let the side down when once I played. I got to know the telephone operators and appreciate their kindness when coins would not go into the phone box when I called Ireland. I saw Iain Paisley speak and was surprised that his tirade was against the Queen!-I put an Irish sixpence in the collection to confuse him. I joined a march to protest against bloody Sunday deaths in Derry and against local racism when refugees expelled from Uganda by Didi Amin came in big numbers to Leicester. And towards the end ,when I returned to Ireland for a Christmas break,I fell in love with my wife. Yes with all of that and the thesis delivered in less than three years, it was a very busy time!!!!
Last week I returned to Leicester to give the Redfearn Lecture as part of the 50th birthday celebrations of the Department of Biochemistry. Again I was delivered to Ken and Rosemary’s house and the conversation about who was where and the sharing of anecdotes continued until I left. I was surprised that most of the staff that was in the department 40 years ago were alive and well and attended the event. It was a shock to realise that those “senior” figures h charged with the building up the department had been in their early thirties at that time. The visit went in a flash and then I was on the road that has taken me to Heidelberg Strasbourg( more memories!) Erlangen and Turin before I head back to Brisbane. Some moments from the trip will last-but when reflecting on the years in Leicester, it is clear that we are very efficient in distilling years of experience into a few relatively minor vignettes. The day –to-day realities get totally homogenised into flashes that don’t deserve words. And yet it is those low-content moments and conversations that have the real formative effect on us. The baseline is what really defines the deviations from the evolving normality and in giving prominence to anecdotes we distort the overall reality. It is a comforting feeling of a good period of my life that predominates when I dwell on that time when writing this piece. And it was good to have an occasion to visit, go down memory lane and to leave Leicester with a warm thought that it succeeded in being my first home away from home, that there are friends there and others from that time are still friends (who deserve more attention from me!) and that without it I would not be the me I became.

One thought on “Down memory lane in Leicester

  1. kate

    I am interested to find that as we pass 60 nostalgia seems to kick in – hence my reading this blog. I am glad you remember “Fings” I am still singing but Rock and Roll dancing is decidedly rusty!

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