By Florianne Humphrey
‘One day, I woke up in a Norman castle…’ Although this sounds like the beginning of a Gothic novel, it is in fact the opening line of journalist and author Hunter Davies’ new autobiography, The Co-Op’s Got Bananas!
Davies is among the many authors who have come to Durham this week to speak about their works at the Book Festival. However, unlike the other authors, Durham means more to Davies than just a platform for promotion. The Norman castle that he writes about at the start of his book is University College, where he lived whilst studying at Durham University in the 1950s.
Davies waking up in Castle symbolises his sudden and unexpected arrival at Durham University. Not only did he not apply to Durham, but he came from an academic and social background where university attendance was uncommon. Davies grew up on a council estate in Carlisle, where he was so cold all the time that he had to put his clothes on under blankets and if he stepped on his lino floor his feet would ‘freeze and be there until Easter.’
He also shared a bed with his brother and, when he came back home after a term at Durham, found that his mum had rented out his side of the bed to a boy from the local children’s home. According to Davies, this was characteristic of his generous mother. Although they had no family income because Davies’ father was bedbound from MS, his mother used to claim they had ‘bags of money, bags of room’ and would let anyone stay over if they needed to. Davies even sent his clothes home to be washed whilst at Durham, and his mum would send them back with a slice of ginger cake.
Davies was also disadvantaged in terms of education. He did not sit the 11+ because he attended a secondary modern but, thanks to the Butler Education Act, he was able to move from his school to a grammar school. However, he never felt welcome in a place where the teachers didn’t know him and where he had to learn Latin in nine months for university applications because he was not taught it at his former school.
It is little wonder that coming to Durham and living in a castle felt like waking up in a dream. By his fourth year he was Editor of Palatinate and Senior Man of his college, which gave him a suite in the Norman Gallery and a cherry allowance.
Davies’ good fortune continued after university. He became a journalist for the Times where he started a column called ‘Life in the Day of’ about the humdrum lives of celebrities. It was based on a column he wrote for Palatinate and he is still writing it today, which makes it the longest running column in British history.
The most touching part of his talk was when he discussed his wife, author Margaret Forster, who died earlier this year. He spoke of her with incredible love and fondness, describing their chance meetings before they started dating and his joy when he finally walked her home one night where he ‘kept talking to her and didn’t stop talking for the next 60 years.’
He and his wife, although married for over fifty years, were very different personalities. Davies described her as ‘very obedient’, a product of the war generation of rationing and military rules. Hunter, for example, drove through no exit signs, whereas she would ‘go potty’. At sports matches, Margaret would leave when she saw the tickets were sold out, whereas Davies would determinedly search all the turnstiles until they found a ticket.
Although they were both authors, their writing techniques also differed. Hunter joked that her children didn’t realise she’d written 27 novels because she’d always hide when writing and never turned up to promotional events. Whilst Hunter extensively researches for his books, and even hangs a pen around his neck to make notes on the move, Margaret never planned them. She handwrote an entire novel without crossing out a single mistake, and then entrusted her only copy to the typist. Davies insisted she make copies of her manuscript before she sent them off, yet stubborn Margaret would insist ‘if it doesn’t turn up, it doesn’t matter. I’ve had my fun.’ Margaret seemed a fascinating woman and, when she died, Melvin Braggs called her a ‘legend’ on the radio.
After the talk, I took Davies on a tour of Durham. We went to Edinburgh Woollen Mill that used to be the spot of his favourite pub, ‘The Buffalo’s Head’, where he passed many drunken lunchtimes with his friends. We peered into the University bookshop that was exactly the same in the 1950s, where I had to explain to Davies that ‘stash’ isn’t drugs but those college jumpers hanging up in the window.
We walked down past the Bailey colleges, where Davies booed at Hatfield, his old rivals, and pointed out that St Cuthbert’s used to be the college for ‘bohemians.’ On Prebends Bridge, we searched for a quote by Sir Walter Scott where he mulled over the beauty of the weir. Finally, we wound up in the Library bar to watch the football for Davies’ New Statesman column, where Davies commented that this is a very ‘laddish’ place as we were jostled by locals pre-drinking before a night out.
Whilst his wife never went back to her university, Oxford, and even turned down a Fellowship, Davies is brimming with anecdotes from his time at Durham. He is incredibly proud of being Senior Man and his bedroom view over Castle’s courtyard; he still remembers, over 60 years later, the exact geography of the Bailey and the various adventures related to each place; he even owes his current column to his time with Palatinate; and his first autobiography opens with a Durham college, and that is where our tour ends up, back in the corridor where it all started.
Photograph: Durham Book Festival