Have I ensured that a world socialist revolution will never happen?
A book by Steve Wallis (www.socialiststeve.me.uk)
Life and death at university
As I stated in the last chapter, I started a degree at the Computer Science Department of the University of Manchester in the autumn of 1984. That chapter described my studying and research there; in this one, I’ll describe my experiences of life there and a terrible tragedy.
I considered getting involved in politics when I started university, joining the Labour Club and going to the odd meeting of that club. The miners’ strike (against a massive programme of pit closures by Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government) that started in XXX of that year was still going on, but I didn’t hold out much hope that they could win their struggle. At a Labour club meeting on the subject, most of the students speaking seemed more keen on promoting their particular faction than helping the miners win.
I’m including lyrics from the start of a musical poem that I wrote mainly about walks in my life, called I Walk the Earth. The full lyrics can be found from the musical poetry page of my socialist website . The first nine lines are “borrowed” from a song called The Men Below by Latin Quarter (my favourite overtly political band of all time):
Imagine having to fight
To work two miles down from the air and the light!
And imagine having to plead
That a job that can kill you is a job that you need!
And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust, to the men below!
And who knows what we all owe
To the boys in the dust, to the men below!
I go on to explain that, partly as a result of not being inspired politically, I got involved in charity work, taking part in a sponsored walk during rag week:
During the miners’ strike, there was a slogan: “Coal not dole!”
But I didn’t think they would win – so instead I did the Bogle Stroll!
At university I did that 55-mile sponsored walk;
With many beautiful people, I did talk.
As I walked, I listened to many songs
And to some of them I just had to sing along:
I did the walk!
I did the walk of life!
I was mainly interested in folk music when growing up, largely due to Max’s influence. However, I started getting into pop music during the first term at university, buying a radio. One of my early favourites was Foreigner’s song I Want To Know What Love Is, which spent XXX weeks at number one in the charts. I took my radio or a personal cassette player with me each time I did the Bogle Stroll, and when that song came on, the lyrics seemed really apt. It became my theme tune for the Stroll.
There was a great song by a band called Foreigner
That was very apt for me as I couldn’t have been lonelier!
Can’t stop now
I’ve travelled so far
To change this lonely life.
I want to know what love is!
I want you to show me!
I want to feel what love is!
Why can’t you show me?
I exaggerated the problems with my love life a little by singing, “I couldn’t have been lonelier”, because I did have a few female friends at university. However, I was still rather shy around women and lacked confidence in my appearance, and I never had a girlfriend during that period of my life.
On the first attempt, I got half way, to Chorley
Before my knee gave way – I didn’t do poorly.
The second time, I just about did 40 miles
Before my knee gave in again amongst groans and smiles.
. The Bogle Stroll was quite a good opportunity to chat to strangers, particularly towards the end when people we’ve walked with have dropped out or gone at a different pace. I particularly remember walking with and talking to a woman (whose name I can’t remember) for the end of the walk the third time I did it – we helped each other reach the end; I was amazed I finally succeeded despite problems with my knee again. Unfortunately that woman had a boyfriend!
I vowed never to do the walk again, but changed my mind as the next year approached. I did it much more easily that time, free of injuries.
The third time, I did walk 55 miles!
And the following year, I did walk 55 more!
Yes, I did walk the full 55 miles!
Before collapsing at my door!
I had done the Bogle Stroll mainly for the challenge and I didn’t raise much money for charity. In fact, on the final occasion, I paid the minimum sponsorship amount myself. The experience helped me do a half marathon (running at a good pace most of the way but having to walk a little when I went uphill during the final mile) and a march from Liverpool to London – the People’s March Against The Poll Tax, which I’ll describe in chapter YYY.
I already knew two people who were studying computing with me before going to university, Rhod Davies and Rachel Lunnon, because I had met them when my A-level computer science class had gone to a college in Cardiff. My teacher didn’t know the subject particularly well, so she needed teaching too. I managed to pluck up the courage to talk to Rachel during freshers’ week, but didn’t know how to chat her up! She was the main target of my affections during my first two years at university.
In my first year as a student, I stayed at a hall of residence called Owens Park in Fallowfield. In the second year, I lived in a student house in Chorlton-cum-Hardy with my two best friends from Owens Park, Dave Koppe and Jon Stevens, plus a friend of one of theirs called Alan. I didn’t get on very well with Alan, and things came to a head at a party we held at that house when Alan tried to chat up Rachel – I poured a pint of my (disgusting) homebrew cider over Alan! I think it was the rift between Alan and me that caused the other three students in the house to make arrangements to stay at another house without me in the third year. This proved beneficial for me, since I managed to get a place in another hall of residence, Wright Robinson Hall on the UMIST campus in the centre of Manchester; I had a much better social life in the two years I spent there than I’d had in Chorlton.
Rachel was one of only four women studying computing in my year, apart from some Chinese (or Taiwanese or from Hong Kong) students who didn’t really mix with the Western students. [I was attracted to one of the Chinese students in particular, but I was too shy to make a move. I had a good friend from Taiwan who was also at Wright Robinson Hall, called Chieh-Li Chen, but he wasn’t studying computing.] I was actually more attracted to one of the other three Western women, Carol Thorpe, than Rachel, but Carol was so good looking I felt she was “out of my league” and I didn’t get to know her until my third year, when we worked on our computer programming projects in the same office. I didn’t get to know Carol socially however; I came up with an excuse (of somebody in my hall looking for accommodation for the following year) to invite myself to her house, but it fell through for some reason. I did speak to Carol when we graduated and got a photo of her in her graduation gown, but I was still too shy to ask her if we could stay in touch.
In the first two years at university, I had kept up my chess playing from my time in Penarth, playing the game on Wednesday afternoons (a time allocated to student union activities) and for the university’s chess teams – usually for the third team which I captained for a year having the responsibility of picking the team, but also sometimes for the second team and once for the first team. However, my style of play, particularly when playing in competitions, had become rather boring and I was having difficulty concentrating on the game. I gave up chess in my third year, apart from the odd social game usually with my best friend from Penarth Julian Beard, to learn how to play bridge.
Somebody from Manchester Bridge Club came to the university to teach students how to play. My regular partner that year, who I also “had the hots for”, was called Lisa. I phoned her up at the end of the year and visited her in Chorlton; she was friendly enough but her boyfriend was there and I didn’t see her again. I kept playing bridge, at university and various bridge clubs (Manchester, Chorlton and Stretford), sometimes playing in the Manchester league and once entering an inter-university tournament at Warwick University. I also taught various people, including students in Wright Robinson Hall, some of my cousins, Julian and the odd friend of his, how to play bridge.
Both chess and bridge have been useful training for my mind. I found bridge more interesting than chess due to the psychological aspects of the game – I think that cooperating with my partner and competing with my two opponents, working out or “reading minds” to guess what cards other players hold, was useful training for cooperation and competition in the class struggle.
Most of my male friends while I was a student had, like me, little success with women. I’m not sure why! However, there were two women in particular, during my first year at Wright Robinson Hall, who hung around with us – Angie and (a different) Lisa. That hall was next to UMIST student union and we often went to the discos there, and I danced with Lisa and Angie there quite a bit. We also played a lot of pool at the student union, and I got quite good at the game. I played a bit of snooker too, which had been my main form of recreation when living in Chorlton since we lived near a snooker club. We mixed with non-students a fair amount too, often going to our local pub, the Bull’s Head, where I got quite good at darts.
I got into drinking cider in my first year at university. I didn’t like the taste of bitter or lager, the latter always making me puke. I also had difficulty keeping down the very strong Merrydown cider available at UMIST student union, so I tended to stick to normal strengths of cider. There’s only one occasion in my life when I drank more than five pints, and I did it in a big way, having ten (or rather nine and a bit since I dropped most of one of them) on a pub crawl on my 21st birthday. I couldn’t remember the end of the night; perhaps that was why I limited myself to five on later occasions. Four or five pints (or three when I was out of the habit of drinking) made me drunk anyway, and I didn’t see the point in taking things further. Nowadays, I call myself “teemainly” – my term for being not quite teetotal but hardly ever drinking alcohol. I have a healthy suspicion of drugs generally, legal and illegal, having experienced a fair number of them, and I usually prefer to keep my wits about me more fully than I would under the influence of alcohol.
In the autumn of 1988, after two years at Wright Robinson Hall, I bought a house in the Moss Side area of Manchester. I managed to get a mortgage of £10,000 on the basis of a PhD grant of around £3,500, and paid the remaining £10,000 deposit (nearly all of my savings left over from writing computer games). My mum had to act as a “guarantor”, guaranteeing to make my mortgage payments if I couldn’t.
I had been looking for a house near the university and was particularly looking in the Rusholme area. The house I bought was advertised at the estate agents as being in Rusholme, but I knew it was really in Moss Side due to seeing a church with “Moss Side” in its name a bit nearer Wilmslow Road – the road running through the centre of Rusholme famous for its many curry houses (it probably has the greatest concentration of curry houses anywhere in the world). I think that subconsciously I decided that Moss Side was a good place politically to live in, although I wasn’t considering doing political activity with my conscious mind at the time. Moss Side was a very run-down area of Manchester with a large black population, that had been the scene of one of the inner-city riots that occurred in the 1980s (before I moved there).
My house was an end terrace with a piece of waste ground next to it on which another house obviously used to stand. It was about 100 years old, but about three quarters of it consisted of much newer bricks obviously used to rebuild it after next door fell down.
I didn’t want to live on my own, so I invited friends of mine to stay as lodgers, paying a nominal rent to help cover bills. At first, the only lodger was Keith Guest, who had been a good friend of mine at Wright Robinson Hall. Another friend from university, Andy Stanford, stayed later, as did my then best friend Julian Beard (when he started working at a solicitors’ firm in the city centre). Keith and I eventually fell out due to a burglary – Keith wasn’t insured, despite living in an area with a high crime rate, but he blamed me because I hadn’t fully installed a burglar alarm – and I had to ask him to leave soon afterwards. In later years, after I had joined the Militant Tendency in June 1990, as I’ll describe in chapter YYY, I only invited other members of Militant (two of whom were women) to become lodgers and take advantage of the very low rent.
In the last chapter, I described taking six months out of the middle of my PhD to work on a simulation project, alongside Steph Wilson. This happened in 1989. Our supervisor Trevor Hopkins had a secretary called Marion who made no secret of the fact that she fancied me. However, despite enjoying the attention and getting on with Marion quite well, I was interested in Steph at the time.
Steph wasn’t particularly physically attractive, but I partly fancied her due to her mind. She was also very good at badminton; she beat me heavily when I finally challenged her to a game. I was a big fan of Black (originally a band but later used as a pseudonym for Colin Vearncombe, who is actually white!) and couldn’t resist buying two tickets when they/he performed in Manchester. It seemed so appropriate because Steph always wore black! However, I couldn’t pluck up the courage to invite her along and I eventually went on my own. I annoyed the ticket touts for ages by trying to sell the spare ticket at face value outside the venue, despite the fact that the gig wasn’t sold out and there wouldn’t be many people just wanting one ticket! Eventually, I sold it at a lower price to a tout (and, surprise, surprise, the seat was empty).
It seems bad to say that I didn’t fancy Marion because she had a weight problem, but I couldn’t help it. Besides, it wasn’t just her going on a diet that changed my mind, but her taking care of her appearance in other ways too. She probably started wearing makeup; some women look attractive without it, but I don’t think she did. Something that I’ve realised much more recently is that it is much easier to have genuine relationships, rather than ones based on falsehoods where people pretend to care about each other, if you take care of your appearance and there is some degree of physical attraction. There is a tendency for good looking people to have good looking friends and for their politics to rub off on each other, often leading them to become left wing (particularly if they have a working class background). Similarly, there is a tendency for ugly people to build false relationships with other ugly people and for right wing politics to rub off on each other. It is not primarily a matter of natural looks (although naturally beautiful people find it easier to build genuine relationships), but whether you take care of your appearance.
However it happened, shortly before a party organised by her sister Ursula (who was also at the Computer Science Department), I suddenly realised I fancied her. I decided that I’d make a move for her at that party. However, before I’d got round to making a move, I started feeling really ill and I puked up in the bathroom. I wasn’t feeling well and I had to go home.
Shortly afterwards, or perhaps from the date of that party, Marion had started a relationship with an ugly man who worked at the department and had been after her for a while. Perhaps as a consequence of going out with him, and perhaps influenced by an interest of hers in macabre crimes, she committed suicide a while later.
I didn’t blame myself then and I don’t blame myself looking back now. There was no way I could have known that that was going to happen, and even if I had started a relationship with her and had an inkling that she may have been contemplating suicide, it would probably have been more likely to affect me in a negative way than for me to solve her problems. It was just a terrible tragedy; I’ll describe another tragedy that affected me in a bigger way in chapter YYY.