Northern Line Part 4. A bucketful of eels

During the two years that I attended King’s College London, I lived with my parents. Our relationship had been turbulent in my mid-teens. There had been pointless battles over hair and clothes, the common intergenerational battleground of the time. These things mattered to them because they retained a fierce working class pride. I thought that was this was atavistic and a bit ridiculous. I would tease my father that he was a “displaced proletarian class traitor”. I can only remember one fashion-based disagreement with my own children, when I did not want one of my sons to cut off dreadlocks that he had come to feel were ill-judged. My relationship with my parents became more harmonious during my student years, apart from the brief flare-ups with my mother that were a fixed element of our relationship.

My girlfriend and I split up during my first year at medical school, but not for very long. As the summer came around, she graduated from York University and the relationship revived. We have been together continuously ever since, bound together by numerous deep-seated  values that I shared with no one that I met at medical school. In retrospect, I can see that residual atavistic working class pride was one of them. On one occasion, a protracted wobble in the relationship resolved on the spot when she apologised for keeping me waiting because she had been unable to leave a clothes shop until “Roadrunner” by Junior Walker and The All-Stars had finished. It nailed something that needed no explanation between us.

Picture of a bucket of eels

We remained part of a close-knit circle of pre-university friends. George was on the periphery, socially mobile like the rest of us, but not through higher education. George and I had been close at primary school. The friendship persisted despite different secondary schools and his admiration for the works of Black Sabbath (beyond the pale as far as I was concerned). He was a good drummer, and he sometimes played with our band. He had never been terribly engaged by education, and all academic ambition faded as he became more interested in money. From the age of 15, he was involved in illicit retail at local gigs. I disapproved and nagged him about it, but I was wasting my breath. As he got older, he moved up the dodgy food chain  and he became more guarded about his business interests. He was forever pursuing short-lived legitimate projects, which I assumed were conduits to launder his income. One of these was an old-fashioned, open-fronted, wet-fish shop with marble slabs and buckets of live eels.

My girlfriend and I went round to see him late one Saturday afternoon as he was closing up. We decided to go for a drink, but a few minutes later there was a loud pounding on the shop’s metal shutters. There was a heated conversation through the letter box and eventually, with great reluctance, George opened up. A large man with a tight suit and an implausibly thick neck rolled in. They obviously knew each other, and the big man was not very happy. The atmosphere became a little tense. As we had not been formally introduced, we stood in the far corner of the shop, by a marble slab, hoping that we might be mistaken for wet fish. We tried to give the impression that we were not listening.

The Luca Brasi look-alike wanted someone’s address. George denied all knowledge of it at first, and then did not want to disclose it. At least, this is what we gathered because there was a lot of dense South London gangster slang. Just like listening to conversation in shops in France, we could not understand every word, but we got the general drift. George eventually gave up the information. The big man broke into an unsettling smile and said “Now, why did you have to put us through all of that, when it was obvious you were going to tell me in the end?”. Then he left. George was shaken. He decided that he did not fancy going for a drink after all, and on reflection, neither did we.

George was good-looking and had an ability to charm people, but as the years passed, his charm faded and he was increasingly prone to sudden unpleasantness. In retrospect, it seems likely that he had succumbed to over-enthusiastic sampling of the stock, as people in his line of business are prone to. We drifted apart and lost contact.

Despite my history of academic under-achievement, I decided to ignore received wisdom on how to study. Instead, I attempted to reason my way to an easier pattern of study. I kept no lecture notes. Instead, I blitzed textbooks in the run up to vivas and written examinations, which were tiresomely frequent. I came slightly unstuck at the end of the first year when I failed an anatomy exam, despite having passed the monthly vivas up until then. I had decided that the small histology component of the curriculum was not worth a great deal of attention, and I was wrong. Misjudgements like this have marked most of my efforts to reason my way to an easier life, but fifty years later I remain undeterred.

The need to re-sit first-year anatomy cannot have been seriously aversive, because, as time went on, I came to feel that not only were lecture notes superfluous, but lectures themselves were a waste of time. I started to sleep in even later, turning up at 11 am for the second lecture of the day. During the clinical years that followed, lectures were programmed on Wednesday mornings. The afternoon was reserved for sport. I tended to turn up to meet everyone else for morning coffee, then spent the rest of the day in the library. This passed without comment by the medical school authorities, as no record of attendance was kept. I told my friends that their attendance at lectures was superstitious behaviour, like greeting the fairies as you cross the Fairy Bridge on the Isle of Man or touching wood. The association with passing exams could not be causal, I claimed, because so many lectures were really boring.

At King’s College, an Irish radiologist called Oscar Craig gave a series of barnstorming lectures on radiographic anatomy. He was a natural performer who appeared to be effortlessly funny. He did not bother too much about sticking to the curriculum, but he still managed to get important ideas across. I was impressed and, when I started giving lectures myself, I concentrated entertaining the audience. This involves a fair bit of improvisation. The idea is to slip in a few key learning points once I have their attention. Sometimes it works, but I cannot claim anything approaching Oscar’s excellence. Should anyone be tempted to follow my example, I must issue a caveat. Everyone has bad gigs, and I have had my share. When improvisation fails, it fails spectacularly. The strategy requires a bulletproof ego.

During the clinical course, there were one or two really good lecturers. Dilip Banerjee always reminded me of Little Richard, because he had pompadour hair, a pencil moustache and he smiled a lot. He was responsible for almost all of our microbiology teaching, which was good, because he brought clarity to a rather dry and complex subject. It would be an exaggeration to say he made the subject interesting to me, but his lectures were excellent. Joe Collier was a clinical pharmacologist and he stood out as a charismatic teacher. He was an affable and approachable man who is a significant scientist, innovator and radical. I always attended Joe’s lectures, but what I remember best is that he was the only person I knew who wore the same (rather large) size of motorcycle helmet as me. He writes an excellent blog.

Photograph of King's College London

King’s College London Students’ Union

I did not really bother much with student politics. By the late 1970s, they were tame in comparison to the occupations and anti-war demonstrations of the previous generation. I dutifully went to sparsely attended student union meetings at King’s College London, but the experience was not uplifting. The Union Presidential post (a full-time sabbatical role) sometimes went to a Conservative. At the time, national student politics were dominated by the Broad Left, which was an alliance of Labour Party, Communist Party, Liberal and non-aligned left-wing students. The leader of the Broad Left at King’s was Fiona McTaggart, an articulate woman who made passionate speeches. She was tormented by political opponents for having attended Cheltenham Ladies College. I thought her that her political positions were not entirely coherent, and I was not tempted to join her group. She later became a Labour MP and a Home Office Under-Secretary of State in Tony Blair’s Government. When I saw her on television, she did not seem to have changed much in twenty-five years.

The most memorable Tory in the students union was an early adopter of the Young Fogey stance. In those days of ubiquitous long hair, he had a severe short back and sides. He was a bit like Jacob Rees-Mogg and equally as charmless. His political positions broadly corresponded with those of the Monday Club, an influential right-wing faction in the Tory Party at the time. The Monday Club was anti-immigration, pro-Apartheid, anti-European, anti-feminist and it looked back with nostalgia at Britain’s supposed imperial greatness. Fiona McTaggart and Young Fogey could turn each other incandescent with anger in a moment, which was one of the more entertaining aspects of the meetings. Notwithstanding the generally rather conservative nature of the student body at King’s, Young Fogey was not liked. I have often wonder what became of him, but have been unable to locate him on the internet.

Another regular at the student union meetings was a pedantic student who belonged to the Workers Revolutionary Party.  Just as I had been the whole of the WRP’s Brook Hospital branch, he appeared to be the whole of the KCL WRP student group. I suggested to him that he was trapped in a political pyramid-selling scheme, but it had no apparent impact. There was a further noisy one-man group, a skinny, nerdy man who was a member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. Thousands of people supported CND at the time of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, including my parents, but by the mid-1970s its membership had dropped to 2,500 and it seemed as anachronistic as the Young Fogey. The solitary KCL CND member tended to go on at length about military hardware, megatons of TNT explosive power and kill rates. I had the distinct impression that he was not so much opposed to nuclear weapons as fascinated by them. The Thatcher Government’s enthusiasm for nuclear weapons later caused a huge resurgent growth in CND, and its membership reached 500,000 in 1985, but in the heyday of punk, Megaton Man made no converts.

The National Union of Students had various business ventures that were promoted in the NUS weekly paper, including an LP mail order business. Richard Branson’s Virgin empire had been built on this business model a few years earlier, but times had changed and the NUS mail order record store failed. In my last year as a student, the NUS paper ran a music quiz with a first prize of any twenty LPs from their catalogue. It was unclear if this was a last ditch attempt to promote the business or a tax-efficient opportunity to clear the stock. I entered the competition and, out of all the students in the UK, I won. I was invited to the NUS central office Christmas Party, where I was to be presented with my choice of albums by the NUS President, Trevor Phillips, with a photographer in attendance.

When I arrived at the party, I quickly realised that I was the token everyman-student amongst an elite group who knew each other well. Almost everyone was a fair bit older than me, and I was taken aback to realise that the NUS was led by thirty-somethings. A lot of those present were already public figures. There was Charles Clarke, a previous NUS President who went on to be Home Secretary under Tony Blair; Fiona McTaggart, by now NUS National Secretary and Vice President; Sue Slipman, communist and immediate past President and, of course, Trevor Phillips himself, who has courted controversy ever since. At the time, they seemed remote from the realities of student life, and their subsequent careers confirm that. The NUS was a training ground for national prominence on the left of UK politics in exactly the same way as involvement in the Oxford Union was for the right. I chatted with Trevor Phillips, who examined my choice of records and expressed his approval, particularly John Lennon’s “Rock’n’Roll” and David Bowie’s “Low”. During the presentation I muttered at him through a broad smile that he was a dreadful President, which made the photographer laugh at a critical moment and we had to do it all again.

After the presentation, Sue Slipman talked to me for ages. Two years later, she did a remarkable political volte-face. She went directly from the inner-circle of the Communist Party of Great Britain to become a founder member of the Social Democratic Party, an ill-fated centrist party formed by four former Labour cabinet ministers. The SDP seriously weakened the Labour Party in the Thatcher years and eventually merged with the Liberals. Sue Slipman has held many senior roles in public bodies since then. On this particular evening, she made rather intense and prolonged eye-contact with me over a glass of wine. I started to be unsure whether I was being chatted-up, or whether this was just an aspiring politician aiming to secure loyalty from a potential elector. I never found out, because Fiona McTaggart broke into the conversation and I left shortly after.

The three year clinical course approached. Some of my clinical placements were at Hyde Park Corner, but others were scattered across South West London. There were to be no more long holidays. It became impractical to continue to live in the London Borough of Greenwich. My girlfriend and I moved in together on the day before my grandparents’ fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration. My Marxist grandfather, who believed in free-love (in theory, if not in practice) was delighted. “I was born too bloody soon! Give us a kiss!” he said.