I have now been working at UCL for a year. That time has been filled with activity: our team put a huge amount of effort into launching the Generation UCL project; we are preparing a major Octagon exhibition on student life, opening this autumn; I have started looking at archival material and delivered several conference papers and public talks, or seminars for UCL students; and I have read a great many books and written a review of the literature focusing on UCL’s history, the history of higher education since the early nineteenth century, and the history of students and youth culture. I continue to work across departments, including in UCL’s Students’ Union, where I am helping think about our history in advance of the Union’s 130th birthday this year.
The majority of my time, however, has been devoted to conducting oral history interviews with former students. I am delighted to say that over fifty of these have now been recorded, most have been fully transcribed, and all are ready to be utilised in our research, publications, talks and exhibitions. They will also, of course, be preserved as a permanent collection for the future, and we hope that another generation of researchers will use them to shine a light onto whatever themes are of interest at the time – during UCL’s tricentenary, perhaps!
Fifty interviews seems like a neat point at which to stop and take stock, and to think about how the process has gone so far. I also wanted to highlight some of the themes that are emerging from the research. The video outlines this in some detail, and the rest of this blog is a very condensed version of what I say there.
The big, unavoidable them is London. It seems impossible for any generation of students to come and study at UCL and not find that their experience of doing so is totally interwoven with being in a major, global capital city. Whether that is access to a range of huge (and usually free) museums and galleries, or an opportunity to go out to an almost-unending range of eateries, or a chance to see the biggest bands of the day, London has clearly provided people with a range of experiences. That is especially so when we consider how UCL has never really been a campus institution and students therefore feel like a part of the College but also a part of the community of the city in which they live. When I ask people what their first impressions of UCL were, for example, the responses often encompass often reflections on experiences they had in the city itself. Lord McNally, for example, who was a student and the SU President in the mid-1960s remembers marvelling at the Portico and the Cloisters of the Wilkins Building, whilst also concluding that he would ‘never spiritually leave London’ after that.
London is not just a cultural or social hub, however, but a political one. I always ask people I interview what the extent of their political involvement was when they were a student. Did they go on marches or protest about anything specific? Many did. Many of those I've interviewed studied in the late 1960s and became passionate about the Vietnam War in particular. I have met many former students who protested about this, or went to the famous Grosvenor Square demonstration, or took part in debates. But something I argue in the video is that people’s political engagement was often more prosaic. They had other concerns. Study, or everyday life, got in the way of getting too politicised. The most frequent comments relate to politics and the big events of the day ‘passing people by’, or ‘not really registering’. Discussions over tube fares or council tax, as Caroline and David Bateson show, were the kinds of things most students disagreed over.
Politics and ideas were not all about marches or protests, however, and some students could express their views through things like clubs and societies. A notable one of these at UCL was its debating society, where interesting and sometimes controversial figures came to speak. Rodney Hornstein, for example, remembers attending a debate where Oswald Mosley (the former leader of the British Union of Fascists) and David Irving (who would later become a notorious Holocaust denier) were on one side of the argument. Also fascinating is the testimony of Jamie Gardiner, who I was delighted to interview. Jamie was responsible for setting up UCL’s first Gay Soc in the early 1970s. His account of doing so, which appears in some detail in the video, is heart-warming. It shows that an action like that can be simultaneously brave and radical, whilst also feeling quite ordinary at the same time.
Most interviewees talk about who they were at College with, and I wanted to draw out some ideas about where students had come from. UCL, of course, has a long reputation for being relatively meritocratic, drawing students into its orbit from all walks of life. This appears to be the case from people I spoke to, who don’t remember their cohorts as especially posh. If anything, some had ‘a working-class profile’, especially in the couple of decades after the war as a new, more meritocratic grammar school generation filtered through into higher education.
This gives the smallest of snapshots of where I think some of our research is going. I have many more general observations, some of which are:
- I think in-person interviews still yield better results, on the whole, although Zoom has allowed me to talk to people I could never have met in the flesh, which is brilliant.
- People’s memories certainly can be unreliable, but that’s not the whole purpose of oral history interviews – we are just as interested in getting a sense of time and place.
- Communication about the process of doing interviews, including explaining what will happen to the recorded material, is key.
- Most people like taking part in these conversations, and many comment on how unexpectedly enjoyable it was to talk about their life and times.
On which note, if you think you would like to do so, please get in touch!
And watch this space for many more updates about Generation UCL, coming soon!