Issue 122: 2017 09 28: Freshers’ Week (Chin Chin)

28 September 2017

Freshers’ Week

Horticulture can breed distress.

By Chin Chin

I do not know whether Jacob Rees-Mogg objects to being known as the hon member for the 18th century, but I certainly resent it when changes which took place in my lifetime are described as ancient history. There was a bad example of it in The Times this week.  The education correspondent, Nicola Woolcock, described the origins of freshers’ week as “lost in the midst of time”.  Her piece dealt with a report by Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice Chancellor of Buckingham University, which criticises excessive drinking and drug-taking by freshers as endangering their mental health.  Well, that is as may be, but the modern approach of treating the first week is an opportunity to drink and drug yourself  insensible is something which emerged in its current form after the early 70s, when I was myself a fresher.

We did it slightly differently then.  That isn’t to say that the period before lectures began was entirely devoted to prayer and contemplation.  We had to get to know each other and bars and pubs were good places for that.  Also we had to decide which clubs and societies we were going to join.

Most of the clubs and societies were anxious to recruit freshers to bulk out their memberships.  The captain of boats was looking for tall fit people to power the eights.  The rugby and football clubs were looking for the same sort of people to boost their chances of success.  Then there were the political societies, the debating societies, drama, minor sports and even a tiddlywinks club.  All gave drinks parties in an attempt to seduce the new blood into join them and – free drink being free drink – the parties were well attended.

The difficulty was of course that it requires a certain amount of bluntness to explain to the head of a society why you are not going to join when you still have the third of its free drinks in your hand.  How much easier to temporise and to say that you will give it a go.  That is how I became a member of all the major political parties and a number of different religious societies, all of which began putting propaganda and tracts through my door.  Had I taken up all the sports to which I committed myself they would have had to extend the decathlon.

Obviously once you had had the free drinks you completely ignored the commitments you had made, but that could make it difficult when you met those who had recruited you around the University.  One problem was that it was impossible to remember who was who, a difficulty aggravated when there was some special greeting involved.  “Death to the capitalist oppressor” was fine if addressed to a member of the Communist league but not so good when the recipient was the secretary of the banking society.

Anyway, we did not drink as much as they do nowadays – perhaps we were saving more capacity for the next three years – and I certainly don’t think that people risked their mental health.  According to Sir Anthony, however, inappropriately heavy drinking is now the norm and he feels that this should be balanced by “providing alternatives for students”.  Sir Anthony’s ideas for positive alternatives are not restricted to fresher’s week but would run for the whole of the first year.  He is in favour of mentoring, of quiet rooms for meditation, and of campuses with plenty of trees and water.  He also suggest that opportunities for growing vegetables and plants be made available.  That is an area in which I have some experience.

I arrived at my first boarding school aged eight, and although at that age we were every bit as mature as the modern fresher, it was a stressful change; and the school, early pioneers of Sir Anthony’s methods, made allotments available to those boys who wanted them.  Mine was about 10’ x 6’ but it came with a surprising bonus.  The previous user had planted sweet williams across one end and they produced a blaze of colour in my first year.  All year I laboured in the vineyard growing radishes, carrots and other vegetables which are dear to small boys.  I was careful, however, never to disturb the bed of sweet william which lifted the plot from a mere vegetable patch into a garden.  In March I began to look out for new shoots.  There were none.  Never mind, it was still early spring.  I looked again in April.  Still none.  Well, perhaps this was a late year.  By the time that May gave way to June the dreadful truth dawned. The sweet williams had gone.  Nothing would bring them back.  It only remained for me to dig up the bed and contemplate vengeance on those who had destroyed them.

Who could it be?  There were a number of candidates.  I had the normal share of enemies and had boasted a great deal about my flowers.  Anyone could have sneaked down at dead of night with weed killer in their hand and herbicide in their heart.  Perhaps though the plants had been stolen.  I went round surreptitiously looking at the other allotments.  No sweet williams.  Then I started to ask oblique questions of the type asked in detective stories.  “Do you happen to know anybody with some sweet williams for sale?”

Gradually I became paranoid, listening for clues among my fellows, sharp eyed around the locker room, and then suddenly the mystery was solved in a most unexpected way.  The radio was playing a gardening programme, and they referred to sweet williams as ‘biannuals’.  “What is a biannual?” I asked a teacher.  Ah, yes, I see.

I wish Sir Anthony all the best introducing his undergraduates to gardening, but if it is to improve their mental health he will need to see that they know a bit about plants before they start.  Maybe another of those “lifeskill” subjects that so many are keen to add to the school curriculum.


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