The secondary school I went to didn’t have a sixth form – so after taking your GCSE exams, you had to make a choice between moving to the sixth form at Burford – the pretend grammar school a few miles away, or West Oxforshire Technical College – a few miles in the other direction. During the summer before I went there, it’s name to West Oxfordshire College. Everybody still called it “Witney Tech” though.
My first visit to Witney Tech had been during the summer holidays. I went one evening with my Dad, and met Mr Perry – an officious looking bear of a man. He looked like the sort of person you wouldn’t cross – with straight white hair sprouting from his head at odd angles, and horn rimmed glasses.
I don’t recall what we talked about, but a few weeks later a letter arrived through the post, confirming my place on courses for Mathematics, Economics, and Computer Science. For some reason I didn’t pick art, and I’m still not sure why.
Getting to college each day meant catching a bus from the middle of town – which in turn meant congregating at the bus stop with numerous other students. After years of wearing school uniform, suddenly we could wear whatever we chose to – some took full advantage of this. You might have thought the more fashionable boys were heading to a Simple Minds concert, and the girls not so much to see Madonna, but to be her.
The college bus was a dilapidated double-decker. I never went upstairs – that was almost exclusively the domain of the popular kids, and I was by no means popular. I wasn’t without friends though – a few of my old school friends also found themselves on the same courses as me, and over time a circle of sorts formed.
Simon was a staunch socialist – the son of a socialist that had run in local elections for years. During our secondary school years, he would always be out canvassing for his Dad – going door to door, delivering leaflets, and so on. He was tall, and wiry in build – all elbows and knees, and had a mop of straight dark hair. His reading glasses dominated his face, making him appear very serious. We shared the same idiotic sense of humor, and both harbored ideas of writing stories, or plays at some point in our life.
Kevin had only been a distant friend at school, but grew into one of my closest at college. He was tall, thin, and remarkably quiet most of the time. We would often sit in the library at college and pretend to read.
Michael – he of supernatural coding ability fame from secondary school – would arrive at the bus stop clutching a can of diet coke, and invariably try to appear far more cool than he really was. I bumped into him in a video store years later, and he was STILL pretending to be somebody he was not.
I remember standing at the bus stop with Simon, Michael, and Kevin, talking about the most recent episodes of Quantum Leap. That makes me feel incredibly old.
The bus journey to college only took a few minutes most days. I remember a few people buying motorbikes, and we would often see them en-route. One particular boy, that obviously imagined his 50cc scooter was far more powerful than it actually was, tried to overtake the college bus one day – I remember seeing his head slowly pass by the bus windows, as he held the throttle wide open. The bus driver obviously saw this going on (it was a quiet road), and sped up just a little bit – enough to make the boy’s head go slowly back down the bus – this time being laughed at and jeered by everybody on-board. I don’t even want to imagine what he saw in the back window of the bus after pulling back in behind it.
I can also remember a time we left for college, and a boy narrowly missed the bus – running to the bus stop as the doors closed, and we pulled away. I don’t think I have ever seen anybody quite so angry – he ran alongside the doors, thumping on them, and screaming obscenities. We could pretty much guess every word coming from his mouth – and most of them began with F.
The bus would drop us off in a car-park opposite the main college buildings – leading to a lemming-like exodus of students trying to cross the road every few minutes on a morning. In the council’s infinite wisdom, the nearest road crossing was several hundred yards away.
Although the college had a vast student common room, I very rarely set foot in it – I tended to congregate with a small number of other students on the same courses as me in a building called “G-Block”. In the foyer of G-Block there were a number of easy chairs and low tables – and somehow we made it our home. I don’t think we consciously set out to either – it just sort of happened. Across the way from the chairs there was a staff room, and a receptionist for the building sitting at a hatch. You could wander up and ask for paper – plain, narrow, or wide ruled – and would be given about an inch of paper to put in your work binders for free – without question. I thought this was marvelous.
My computer science and mathematics classes were all in G-Block – on different floors of the building. I seem to remember maths was on the second floor, and computer science on the third. The ground floor was dominated by engineering – with the classrooms setup for pneumatics, electrical experiments, and such like.
I think I’ve written about the computer science teacher elsewhere. His name was Jeremy Jackson – a small man – who always dressed in a suit, but had a huge mop of dark hair, and a black beard. His fringe would be pulled across his forehead, often hanging over his glasses. He walked with a limp – perhaps the result of polio as a child – we never asked him, and he never told us. We would wait outside the door of the computer science class for him to arrive, and watch as he limped along the corridor towards us. He stood or sat at the front of the classroom, and wrote notes onto a reel of transparency on an overhead projector. I thought this a genius idea – throughout the year the roll would slowly fill with everything he had written, drawn, or whatever else – and it meant he could roll it backwards to re-cap something from a previous lesson.
We all knew that Mr Jackson could be distracted by talking about Star Trek, or about his own days at university. I remember one particular story about the people he was sharing a house with dying their cornflakes to prevent thieving.
Who were “we” though? Let’s see how many of the computer science class I can remember.
There was me, obviously. Graham, who did archery at weekends, Stephan, who played drums, Andrew, the son of a farmer, Michael, the gifted genius I had been at school with, Sarah, one of the prettiest girls I think I ever knew (and that I stumbled over talking to every time I had to), Tony (that had been in the year ahead of me at school), and Simon – a somewhat aloof but likeable kid that I would learn to keep well away from.
Simon did nothing directly awful, or nasty – you might even say he was charming. He was also the most manipulative person I had ever met – only I had never met anybody like him before, so I didn’t realise at all.
The computer classes were mostly lectures – listening to Mr Jackson talk, and writing lots of notes. Occasionally we had programming assignments, and used the computers on the desks (we each had a computer!) to write and test code. We learned a programming language called Pascal. Coming from a background hacking bits of code together in BASIC, I was horrified when told that there was not “GOTO” command in Pascal.
“and even if there was, you would be banned from using it”
If you have no background in software development, you will have no idea what I’m talking about. Most programming languages have methods of jumping across the code, from one point to another – for example, if something happens in the code, or if a condition is met, go to this part of the code next – that sort of thing. In BASIC you can use GOTO to skip to any part of a program – imagine the mess you can get into with lots of GOTO commands. Needless to say we learned all about properly structured programming methods, where you DON’T get into a gigantic mess.
I found computer science pretty easy. My exam project was kept by the college, and used as an example for future years – not because it was stunningly brilliant it turns out, but because it was pretty good, but could have been better. I remember writing the documentation for the program (an order processing system for the family business) in one week of mayhem on a PC I borrowed from my Aunt. I typed up 70 pages in about three days, and damaged the nerves in my finger tips in the process.
On the middle floor I sat in Richard Goddard’s mathematics class. I think it’s fair to say that Mr Goddard turned me around in terms of mathematics. Not just me. He turned the entire class around. He was a wonderfully gifted teacher, and must have been horrified at the holes in our mathematical knowledge during the first few math lessons – so much so that he went back to basics, and spent the first few weeks teaching us math from scratch again.
The “us” were myself, Tony (again), Kevin (from the bus), Simon, and Andrew from the computer class, Bob – a mysterious guy that seemed to be something of a math prodigy, James, who dressed like a computer game joystick, Kate, who was gorgeous and that Simon had a monumental crush on, Tina, who had a mass of curly hair, and an endless supply of denim jackets, and Neil, who appeared to have just come from a skateboard or BMX park most days.
Somehow – by hook, or by crook – Mr Goddard got me through the math exams in one piece. I’ve often thought about finding him again – to thank him. I’m not sure how I might go about it though.
While most of my memories of college are good, there are some negative ones too.
In my first year I took Economics – taught on the far side of the campus by a woman called Sue Grant. She was kind of a throwback to the 1970s in the style of clothes she wore, and was probably a perfectly good teacher – but I had no real interest in economics, and probably put as little effort in as humanly possible. After a year of struggling, I dropped the subject, and remember a very uncomfortable meeting with her, where she sat at her desk and said nothing for quite some time. “Failing” at economics meant I would be at college for an extra year, but I didn’t really see a problem with that.
My one abiding memory of Sue was a story she told about teaching in a prison at some point during her career, and the lights failing in the classroom, followed by a huge amount of commotion around her. It turned out several of the prisoners were sex offenders – one of them had tried to reach her in the darkness, and several others had essentially kicked the crap out of them before the lights came back up.
The bonus to dropping Economics was I finally got to do art. I had tried the previous year, after realising my mistake, but the class was already full. I remember walking in and seeing all the students I had been at school with, who pointed with wide eyes, and told their new friends that I was good. So yes – FINALLY I was going to do art.
The art teacher was called Jane Pollard. She had long dark hair, was curvy (I was going to write voluptuous, but it seems wrong to write that about a teacher), and wore jeans with boots most of the time. She was a wonderful artist, and leaned on me pretty hard. She remembered me from the year before, and knew I might have some potential. She was shocked when I left college to get a job working with computers – I think she already had my future mapped out doing a degree in fine art somewhere.
Jane worked hand in hand with a pottery teacher called Dave Sutcliffe. He was barking mad, but also a mine of information about making and glazing pots, and one of the few teachers I knew that had a background in industry – he had worked at a pottery for years before becoming a teacher. He also taught photography, which I took as a filler subject during my final year.
The art class was kind of like a refuge from the rest of the college. I was a year older than many of the other students, and consequently a little bit more mature. It made a huge difference. I had little or no patience for the younger students that often messed around, and shut off when they began talking about drunken nights out. Art was the one subject I didn’t really have to try at though – I could just do it. In the same way I had been singled out at school though, the same thing happened at college to an extent. A lot of my work ended up on the walls of the art room – particularly my drawings of people.
I think I became fascinated with drawing people because they were so much more difficult than anything else. I’ve always held the opinion that people only paint landscapes because they can’t paint people. A tree is still a tree if you get it wrong – if you get a face or body wrong, it either looks hideously deformed, or nothing like the subject.
During my final year of college – my third year – I took filler subjects to help fill the days – Photography, Travel & Tourism, and Accounting. I have no idea why on earth I took the final two – probably because I thought they might be easy. Can you ever imagine me working as a travel guide? I thought not.
Photography was taught by the pottery teacher, and is interesting now perhaps because only a few years later digital cameras replaced everything I had been taught. I’m one of the last generations that learned how to operate a film SLR camera properly, and to process film. We learned about silver halides that recorded light, and various other noxious chemicals that printed and fixed photographic paper. I still have a box-file somewhere in the attic filled with photos from that course.
Travel and Tourism was taught by a wonderful teacher called Ramona Riley. It became obvious pretty quickly that we were all there to fill out timetable – the unlikely group comprised of me, a Chinese boy from the family that owned the local takeaway, a massive fan of Billy Idol that bleached his hair, and wore studded jackets, and a couple of younger girls. The course was hardly taxing – I vaguely remember a few written assignments along the way – one about Victoria Falls as a tourist destination. Of course in the real world nobody has been to Victoria Falls for the last decade because of the troubles that have ravaged Zimbabwe.
Accounting was another filler subject. I joined the course late (I don’t recall why), and learned how to do book-keeping on paper. It always struck me as slightly strange given that computers were now used exclusively to keep accounts, we were taught how to write it all by hand, as somebody might have a hundred years previously. I passed the course, but only just. I still don’t really know how I passed, because I almost go in trouble for missing 50% of Friday lessons for an entire term.
So there you go – my time at West Oxfordshire College, distilled into a few paragraphs. Can you even imagine my horror when I discovered a few years ago that the college no longer existed. Learning that somewhere you spent a considerable part of your formative years no longer even exists is a very strange feeling indeed.