Fruit cake, soup and packets of tea.

We all have other tales we tell, or not, about ourselves.

I have variously been: production line worker, agricultural labourer, Unemployed Centre dogsbody, housing department administrator, psychiatric nursing assistant, all encountered as I worked my way through the education system post-1960. University in the 1970s was a shock to my Northern working class sensibilities as I met, for the 1st time, the southern middle classes, along with the cosmopolitan elite with their sports cars & weekends in Paris & Milan.

My mother sent me weekly food parcels filled with fruit cakes, soup mix & packets of tea (Ringtons, of course), all essentials, in her eyes, for survival in the alien South; these weekly parcels from Newcastle caused much amusement amongst the college porters, as well as recognition. She couldn’t send me money so she did the only thing available to her: baked me cakes & made me soup, by proxy. My college roommates never understood my parcels & clearly saw my mother as a strange northern creature; they always giggled when I returned with my rather crumpled offerings from the pigeonholes. I felt both embarrassed & protective of these strange missives from home arriving in my new world of higher education. Yet, they provided the anchorage I needed, connecting me back to the realities of life in the North East, amidst the enervating oxygen of academic debate & reading. Not all was wonderful; I found my situation alien most of the time whilst also revelling in great freedom.

Some writers, discussing cultural & social capital have argued that social & cultural connections can both support & hinder people. I’ve sometimes felt my background hindered, but, on reflection, it has grounded me, bringing a much-needed sense of reality to my views & actions in the world. I remember having tea with one of my university tutors soon after I’d graduated & had begun teaching apprentices as a Further Education¬† lecturer on Tyneside: think Wilt with a Geordie accent. I was evangelical about culture & the masses. I told him tales of my adventures in my General Studies classes, how I’d managed to get a class interested in Dylan Thomas by reading Under Milk Wood, aloud. They competed to do the reading & listened in anticipation of the bits about sex; they greedily absorbed Richard Burton’s classic recording, abandoning their customary clock-watching (this was a classic 4pm General Studies slot). He commented that I must feel my work worthwhile compared to my other option, continuing through to Masters. I agreed then; now I wouldn’t see them as mutually exclusive.

What happened to chase me away from academic study when it was the one thing I’d always enjoyed? That is the subject of another post.