In conversation with Hunter Davies

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Stash, Ents, quaddies, rogue SNK, wavy garms, good chat…Durham of today is, of course, more than just its slang, but it is a good place to start. There is also the beautiful cathedral towering out of Palace Green, the steep, heart-attack inducing hills, the distant Hill colleges, the quaint Bailey colleges, the DSU monstrosity, the high-security library, the historical viaduct, and the tiny, intimate clubs.   But how much has changed from Durham of the past?

If you ever need to prove to your parents that a university education is the key to success, use Hunter Davies as an example. Raised in an unheated, crowded council house in Carlisle, Davies is now an author and journalist for The Sunday Times, the New Statesman, and the Guardian, famous for being the only official biographer of the Beatles. His other works include children’s novels, a history of the Lake District, and the autobiographies of Wayne Rooney and Paul Gascoigne. In 2014, Davies was awarded an OBE for his services to literature. Not only is this an impressive list of achievements, but he is also a Durham alumni from the 1950s and a former editor of Palatinate. Davies’ new book, The Co-Op’s Got Bananas, is a memoir of his life growing up in the post-war North, including interesting and hilarious anecdotes of his time at Durham.

Think back to that moment when you logged onto the UCAS website: heart pounding, dry mouthed, worrying that, after hours spent mulling over your personal statement, Durham has decided to reject you. For Davies, there was no such anticipation; in fact, he never even applied. His Carlisle grammar school suddenly announced he was going to Durham, making him one of the 4% who attended university in the 1950s. If that doesn’t make you feel disgruntled, not only was Davies free of the eternal burden of extortionate fees, but Durham even paid for his train fare from Carlisle.

Davies was a member of University College, also known as Castle. The college back then had the characteristics of a true castle, with servants, a butler, ‘bedders’ to make beds and clean rooms, and a buttery that sold groceries alongside sherry embossed with the coat of arms.   However, despite this, Castle was far from its current ‘rah’ stereotype. The college – and the rest of Durham – was relatively unpopulated by public school students. In fact, almost everyone came from a middle class or working class background and, even more surprisingly, there wasn’t the mass exodus from London and the southern counties. Most students were from the North or the Midlands, which meant Davies was never aware of class differences. Davies, from a working class background himself, says he cannot imagine how council estate comprehensive students feel now when they come to Durham. Of course, some things never change. There were still the Oxbridge rejects, says Davies, who moped around resentful for the first few weeks until they got used to the idea of studying at a ‘lesser’ university.

Durham in the 1950s was far smaller, with only ten colleges and 1,500 students, including King’s College, located in Newcastle. Davies’ main qualm about the demographic was the low ratio of women to men. Durham boys, be thankful that gender equality has led to over 50% female attendance. In the 1950s, five of you would have competed for one woman’s attention, not to mention the single-gender colleges and the strict visitation rules. In Mary’s, then an all-girls college, if a resident had a boy for tea she had to put her bed in the corridor and they had to leave by 6pm. One of Davies’ fondest memories involved inventively surpassing these regulations. When visiting his girlfriend in Oxford – whom he later married – he disguised himself as a woman to sneak out of her college.

If you feel guilty about skipping lectures for a lie-in or going to Klute five nights in a row, you are no different to your predecessors. As his professor was ‘as dead as his subject’, Davies admits to spending his first-year History degree ‘going to the Buffs’, which was the Buffalo Head pub on Saddler Street. His only attempt at societies was the rowing team, which he joined exclusively because the end of term dinner was ‘a total piss up.’ And Davies exceeded expectations, by getting so drunk that he threw an orange through the medieval stained glass window of the Great Hall.

Davies’ first year results led to a demotion from the more prestigious honours school to the easier General Arts degree. This was when Davies had the epiphany familiar to most Durham students: that procrastination had to make way for productivity, or he would be kicked out of university for good. So, when his roommate quit his job as ad manager for Palatinate, Davies was quick to take up the position. This opened up the opportunity to be a full-time contributor and in 1957 he was made Editor-in-Chief.

Palatinate in the 1950s was under the control of Hatfield students, with the office located in the Editor’s college room. It was a slim volume of just five to eight pages, with a circulation of 500. There were obviously no high-tech Apple Macs, just one typewriter that he stole and took back to his college room. Davies’ initial articles were first-person satirical pieces called ‘A Life in the Day Of…’, where he adopted the persona of various student stereotypes. For example, there was the private school rower who, with an arsenal of bad language., described rowing, drinking, and vomiting his way through the day. Davies still uses the idea now in his column for the Sunday Times under the same name.

Davies says that writing for Palatinate completely changed his career path and was the best experience of journalism he has ever had. Palatinate gave Davies the freedom that does not exist in professional journalism because there were no worries about circulation, advertising, or rivalry and, as no one got pigeon-holed, he could explore a wide variety of topics. Typical of humanities students, Davies thought he would become a teacher and never even considered journalism because he thought he wasn’t clever enough.   After blindly fumbling through his first year at Durham with no clear ambition or passion, Davies finally found something he loved doing at a university that gave him ‘elation, anticipation, and hope.’

 

Hunter Davies will be at the Durham Book Festival on Saturday 8th October to discuss his latest book ‘The Co-op’s Got Bananas: A Memoir of Growing Up in the Post-War North.’

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