Friday, February 21, 2020

Thank you, Roland Hall: In praise of generous university offers

After I left Boxmoor and my good school reports, life was difficult. I had moved from a comprehensive that had recently been a very traditional grammar school to one (a middle school) here in Market Harborough that had been a secondary modern.

I was left by my new school to sink or swim. There was no pastoral care and no help coping with a very different curriculum. I suppose my problem was that, though I was poor, I could pass as middle class so no one thought I might need help.

Most damaging, I found that if I did not work, no one was going to make me. I reacted as any 13-year-old boy would in such circumstances and stopped working.

When I moved to the upper school I found I had been put in a CSE set for maths. Having done mathematical aptitude tests in later life, I can say objectively that this was a crime.

Fortunately, I had an ally in the same situation and we fought and won a campaign to be moved up to an O level set.

Still, my O levels were not great - seven passes, two at grade B and five at grade C.

After that life got better. I was in the sixth form studying subjects I liked and was back on even keel academically.

I finally had a teacher (Mark Clay-Dove) who took a special interest in me and helped me with university entrance. I remember going to his house for coffee one Saturday morning, being introduced to his wife and looking over a statement about why I wanted to study Philosophy that one university had asked for. He told me it was fine and I don't think I changed a word before I sent it in.

I remember another conversation with him after school when I confided that I was worried about my A levels and what I would do if I didn't get to university. He told me not to worry and that I was bright enough to do a postgraduate degree.

One reason for my doing a part-time Masters in my thirties was to honour that conversation.

And he also told me that the school had given me a remarkably generous academic reference. It is now obvious to me that he had written it himself.

In retrospect, choosing a non-school subject like Philosophy was a smart move for someone with ropy O levels. It meant universities were more likely to rely on their own judgement and pay a less attention to exam results.

So when I went to Nottingham, was interviewed and wrote an essay while I was there, they responded by making me an offer of EE to read Philosophy with them. Delighted? You have no idea.

Another thing that made life good in the sixth form was my Saturday job in a secondhand bookshop. Yes, Market Harborough readers, there was once a bookshop in Nelson Street.

It was run by Mark Jacobs - an expert on the poet Laura Riding who still has letters published in the London Review of Books from time to time - and his wife Barbara.

When I told Barbara Jacobs (now a successful author) that I was off to the University of York for another interview, she told me that she had met a member of the Philosophy department there at a party while Mark was doing his PhD. He was called Roland Hall and was a very nice man.

I arrived at York to find that, sure enough, my interview was with Roland Hall. I was filled with a sense of confidence and wellbeing.

And he was a very nice man. We had quite a casual chat about Philosophy and why I wanted to study it, before he said: "What shall we say for an offer? Three Cs?"

Given that York accepted General Studies towards their offers in those days, this was generous yet challenging enough to ensure that I continued to work.

I still had to persuade my school to let me take A level General Studies. They said no at first - I am beginning to see a pattern here - but I persisted and in the end quite a few of us took it.

Since you ask, I got an A.

I am sorry to have written so much about my teenage self, because this post was meant to be a tribute to Roland Hall.

When I took it into my head to look him up a few months ago, I found he had recently died. I also found that he had lived a life that made his patience with spotty herberts like me remarkable:

Here are some extracts from an appreciate of him published in the journal Locke Studies:
In 1949 he joined the British Army for National Service. After basic training, which included touch typing, he was found a position where, in the words of one of his superiors, “his brain would not atrophy.” 
This was as Clerk to General Frank Simpson, the President of the Court at the British War Crimes Unit in Hamburg, during the four-month trial of Field Marshal Erich von Manstein, regarded as Hitler’s greatest General Manstein had been taken prisoner by the British in August 1945. He testified for the defence of the German General Staff and the Wehrmacht supreme command at the Nuremberg trials of major Nazi war criminals and organizations in August 1946. 
Under pressure from the Soviet Union to hand him over, the British cabinet had decided in July 1948 to prosecute Manstein and several other senior officers held in custody since the end of the war. Roland’s job was to collate and safeguard all the written evidence for the Court, which he read in its entirety, and to keep track of the Court’s proceedings. 
This experience had a profound effect on Roland, only 19 at the time. It convinced him of the justification for war in the face of great evil, though, having seen the evidence against Manstein, he was amazed at the severity of the sentence passed upon him. 
When the sentence was given, he was able to hear it through the sliding doors of the room behind the court in which he was working and wondered whether he had misheard “18 years” for “18 months,” which would have made more sense to him.  
At the end of the trial, General Simpson was instrumental in Roland joining the British Forces Network, where he was responsible for producing classical music programmes at the Musikhalle for the Allied forces in Western Europe. 
He often ate at the Church Army cafe near the Alster and spoke with the German musicians playing there. One day he asked them about a particular piece of music they were playing. After that, they played Brüch’s Violin Concerto whenever he came in. 
Lest the impression have been given that his Army service was not very military, it should be added that Roland’s pay-book records that he was a first-class shot, meaning that he could hit the bullseye with a rifle at 300 yards.
And because I was taught by him, I am only two moves away from some of the greats of 20th-century British Philosophy:
He obtained the B.Phil under the supervision of two of the great names of linguistic philosophy, J. L. Austin and, briefly, Gilbert Ryle (when Austin was away in America). It was Austin who suggested that Roland should work on “a big word like ‘as’” when contemplating topics for his Bachelor’s thesis and who gave him a method, this being to “start with the dictionary.” 
Ignoring his supervisor’s sage warning against going into the academic profession - “There’s no money in it” - he took his first job in 1956 as Assistant in Logic at the University of St. Andrews. The next year he moved to Queen’s College, Dundee, as Lecturer in Philosophy, becoming Senior Lecturer in 1966. From 1961 to 1967 he was Assistant Editor of The Philosophical Quarterly. In 1967 he was appointed Reader in Philosophy at the University of York, where he remained until his retirement in 1994. 
Meeting Roland Hall and walking round York afterwards was enough to convince me that this was where I wanted to study.

So, thanks to his generosity and that of the department at Nottingham, my last university interview consisted of my gently breaking it to an academic at Bristol - a university that school rumour maintained would not even look at you unless you gave them your first preference - that I would not be studying with them.

In the first year at York I had to pass two papers: one on general philosophy and one on formal logic, which Roland Hall taught us. I passed both with an upper second mark, putting me in the top third or quarter of students on the course,

Thank you, Roland Hall.


Keith Elliot said...

Lovely. I had a similar experience with my O levels but then began to fly once in the sixth form. Wonderful days in many ways. Tortuous in others!

Jonathan Calder said...

Thank you, Keith.

I remember having a clear out years ago and discovering my school reports from when I was 12. I was astounded at how good they were and suddenly saw my young self in a kinder light.

I think the mundane truth is that I left a good school at 13 and went to a bad one for just over a year. It took me until I was 16 to recover.