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When does small change mean big change?
In December 2022, the Royal Mint issued almost five million fifty-pence coins bearing the portrait of Charles Windsor. The English tradition of issuing coins showing the king’s head dates to the reign of King Edgar in 973CE, a mere one thousand years ago, but in world history the tradition is much older. The British Museum holds a silver coin showing the head of Alexander the Great, which was minted in western Turkey two thousand three hundred years ago, between 305 and 281 BCE. The Persian Daric, which was issued in the fifth century BCE, possibly shows the image of a man who might be the ruler and may be the oldest metal currency known to history.
Britain issues coins, banknotes, and stamps which bear the image of the current ruler. More commonly, states issue currency bearing the image of a former ruler such as George Washington or Chairman Mao. These images are one of the very subtle ways that the state conveys the message of its power to its subjects or citizens. It also tells its citizens that the state is useful to them too. How else would they organise their commercial lives if the state did not exist? For thousands of years, everybody in the realm who was not just a subsistence farmer had to use these symbols of the state daily, from the most mundane transaction such as buying onions, to the most memorable occasions such as buying wedding presents. It has been a very subtle way of reminding every citizen of the authority, legitimacy, continuity, and usefulness of the state, and, perhaps above all, it conveys the message that the state can be trusted by its citizens.
But are these subliminal messages still relevant? Four months after the Mint issued the new Charles fifty pence coin, I am yet to see one. For that matter, I doubt if I’ve seen an Elizabeth fifty pence coin since December either. I do have a pound coin that I take with me to Aldi every week that I use to liberate a trolley, my barber insists on being paid in cash, and every few months I use a banknote to pay my dues for the Broxbourne U3A creative writing group. But that is virtually the total extent of my use of cash today. Every other purchase I make is paid by credit card. But am I carrying a credit card in my pocket? No, that’s not necessary in the twenty-first century either. I just wave my phone above the card reader. Job done; transaction completed.
On a personal level, I’m quite comfortable with the idea of the cashless society. But looking at society as a whole, I’m not so sure. In the United Kingdom, we have on the whole, been fortunate that we haven’t been governed by a succession of kleptomaniacs, mass murderers or dictators, so we still trust these symbols of state. And these symbols have been part of our daily lives for more than twenty-five generations. We are exchanging them for the logos of Visa, MasterCard, Apple, and Android. These multinational corporations have existed for less than fifty years and are not usually subject to the laws of the country where the transaction is taking place.
One of the most worrying aspects of twenty-first century society is the growth of misinformation. Some TV stations, newspapers and social media users who do not have a benign agenda are anxious to convince people that, for example, Covid is a hoax, vaccines kill people, and that Joe Biden was only elected president because of malicious software used in the electoral system. If we no longer see the subliminal message that we can trust the state every time we reach into our pockets or purses then are we going further down the road to where no message seems reliable, and misinformation goes rampant? Should we be so eager to ditch a highly culturally significant means of payment that has been with us for twenty-three centuries?
Am I an outlier, with my almost exclusive use of non-cash payment? I think it’s easy for tech savvy older people like me to organise my life this way, and its also that way that many young people were already operating before the Covid lockdowns. Some people of my age who are not tech savvy may. However, find the cashless society difficult to navigate. There are shops in our high street which no longer accept cash, cash machines are being removed from the high street. I feel for those who are struggling to adapt. But families with young children are still using cash on a daily basis. Primary schools often request it for charity days and special events, and it’s very difficult to teach a seven-year-old how to manage money when it’s not physical. However, there are companies offering prepaid debit cards to the parents of six-year-olds, so watch this space!
Getting to Grips with Artificial Intelligence at age 74
AI is all around us, anyone who uses Google’s voice assistant, Apple’s SIRI, or Amazon’s Alexa, or even the grammar checker in Microsoft Word, is using AI. But this year, the one of the most interesting and, in the education sector at least, one of the most controversial new developments is ChatGPT. ChatGPT, which stands for Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, describes itself as ‘a language model created by OpenAI-’ which has ‘been trained on a large corpus of text data using deep learning algorithms’ and is therefore able to ‘generate human-like responses to a wide range of questions.’ The reason that I know these facts is of course because I searched for ChatGPT in Google, and typed in the question ‘what is ChatGPT?’
Because I am a recent graduate, I have been following lots of conversations in the press and on Twitter, where some futurologists are predicting the end of the written essay. Some go further, since you can ask ChatGPT to ‘write a spy story with a humorous ending’, for example, could this even be the death of the novel, or the death of an entire literary culture? I decided to find out for myself. I have recently written a review of Woody Guthrie’s song ‘Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon.’ Could ChatGPT do any better? I typed “Write a review of Woody Guthrie’s ‘Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon’ " into the user interface, and after a few minutes it returned the following 258 words:
"Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon," also known as "Deportee," is a powerful and poignant song written by American folk singer and songwriter Woody Guthrie. The song was inspired by a tragic event that took place on January 28, 1948, when a plane carrying 32 people, including 28 Mexican migrant workers, crashed in Los Gatos Canyon in California.
Guthrie was moved by the fact that the victims of the crash were buried in an unmarked mass grave, and that their names were not even mentioned in news reports at the time. He wrote the song to give a voice to the forgotten victims and to condemn the injustice and discrimination that they faced.
The song's lyrics are simple but powerful, with Guthrie's trademark use of repetition and imagery. The chorus, "Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye Rosalita, adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria," is hauntingly beautiful and captures the sadness and tragedy of the event.
The song has been covered by many artists over the years, including Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, and Joan Baez, and it has become a classic in the folk music canon. It is a testament to Guthrie's ability to use music as a tool for social commentary and activism, and it continues to resonate with audiences today.
Overall, "Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon" is a powerful and moving song that captures the heartbreak and injustice of a forgotten tragedy. It is a testament to Guthrie's legacy as a songwriter and social activist, and it remains a timeless classic in the American folk music tradition.”
Not bad, but quite short and a bit superficial. To my mind, this song has three qualities. It gives names to the nameless and powerless, as ChatGPT rightly points out. But it has two other qualities. It is an unashamedly political song, dealing with the farming sector’s use of undocumented immigrants which is still highly relevant seventy-five years later. ChatGPT just about nods in this direction when it says that ‘It is a testament to Guthrie's ability to use music as a tool for social commentary and activism, and it continues to resonate with audiences today. Could I persuade ChatGPT to address this issue in more detail? I typed ‘Why is this song still relevant in the twenty-first century?’ and ChatGPT responded with:
‘"Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon" remains relevant in the twenty-first century because it speaks to issues that are still present in society today, particularly regarding the treatment of immigrants and the working class.
The song highlights the discrimination and mistreatment that the victims of the plane crash faced simply because they were Mexican migrant workers. This message resonates today, as the treatment of immigrants and the debate around immigration policy remains a contentious issue in many countries.
Furthermore, the song's emphasis on the value of human life and dignity is a universal message that transcends time and place. The idea that every individual deserves to be treated with respect and dignity, regardless of their social status or nationality, remains just as relevant today as it did in 1948 when the tragedy occurred.
Additionally, the song's message about the importance of remembering the victims of tragedies and giving them a voice is particularly relevant in an era where there are ongoing debates around the memorialization of historical events and marginalized communities.
Overall, "Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon" remains relevant in the twenty-first century because it highlights issues that are still present in society today and speaks to universal themes of human dignity, justice, and remembrance.’ [206 words]
The last paragraph is quite similar to the first one, which makes me think that the algorithm is getting out its depth. It’s correct to say that the song deals with immigration as a theme, but in the 1948 song immigration and food policy are tightly interconnected, as they still are today. ChatGPT has missed this entirely.
Finally, Guthrie’s song contains some remarkable poetic imagery. The dead people are compared to dry leaves which are rotting on the topsoil of the farms that have been exploiting them. Perhaps ChatGPT would have an opinion about this? I typed ‘Discuss the poetic imagery of the song’
The algorithm responded with a total of 369 words where it, in my opinion, did examine the song’s imagery as well as any human could within the same wordcount. I’ll post them at the end of my piece so that you can judge for yourself.
So at the end of this interrogation, I have a bit less than 800 words, which will require some editing to remove duplicated information and verbosity. The review that I wrote myself is just over 1000 words long, including all the song lyrics which account for 250 of them. But it was only because of my existing knowledge of the song that I was able to ask the algorithm the supplementary questions. Had I no knowledge of the subject matter, and just wanted to cheat in an examination, I would have only been able to get the app to produce the first 258 words, which would be a very superficial review of this fine folk song.
This is not the only exercise I gave ChatGPT. Two years ago, I wrote my BA History degree Dissertation about the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship, a British charity founded in 1939. When I asked ChatGPT to; ’Summarise the history of the Infantile Paralysis Fellowship’ it came up with a load of rubbish that began:
‘The Infantile Paralysis Fellowship was established in 1917 by Franklin D. Roosevelt and his close associate, Basil O'Connor, after Roosevelt contracted polio in 1921…’
Not only has it returned results about the wrong charity - it’s actually referring to the much larger American charity the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis - but it seems to think that 1917 is later than 1921! There are two possible reasons for the algorithm to select the wrong charity. Quite possibly it has an American bias, as so much AI research is carried out in the USA. Secondly, there is vastly more information available online about the American charity. It was many times larger than its UK equivalent and was founded by one of America’s most famous statesmen. Just in case you were wondering, Roosevelt did indeed contract polio in 1921, but he founded the charity in 1938.
I think that for the time being, academia can rest easy. ChatGPT is most unlikely to lead to a situation where hundreds of thousands of students who have zero aptitude and zero knowledge of a subject start crafting essays which demonstrate deep insight into a subject and well-honed literary craftsmanship. It was, however, quite fun to use. I am impressed.
Here is ChatGPT’s full answer to the question about the poetic imagery of Woody Guthrie’s song:
Woody Guthrie's "Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon" is a song that employs powerful and evocative poetic imagery to convey its message of social justice and remembrance. Here are some examples of the poetic imagery used in the song:
"The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon": This opening line sets the scene for the tragedy and creates a vivid image of a plane on fire in the sky.
"All they will call you will be deportee": The repetition of the word "deportee" creates a haunting effect and emphasizes the dehumanization of the victims of the crash. The line also creates an image of people being stripped of their identity and reduced to a label.
"The crops are all in and the peaches are rott'ning": This line uses a metaphor to describe the passing of time and the decay of the natural world. The use of agricultural imagery also reinforces the idea that the victims of the crash were migrant workers who labored in the fields.
"You won't have your names when you ride the big airplane": This line uses repetition to emphasize the loss of identity experienced by the victims of the crash. The image of riding a big airplane without a name creates a sense of anonymity and reinforces the idea that the victims were not seen as individuals.
"The radio says, 'They are just deportees.'" The use of the word "just" emphasizes the dismissive and dehumanizing attitude towards the victims of the crash, highlighting the discrimination they faced.
"Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted": This line uses metaphor to describe the way in which some people are marginalized and excluded from society. The use of the word "illegal" creates an image of people being criminalized for simply existing, while the phrase "not wanted" creates an image of people being rejected by society.
Overall, the poetic imagery in "Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon" is used to create powerful and evocative images that convey the tragedy of the event and the injustice and discrimination faced by the victims. The use of metaphors, repetition, and vivid descriptions creates a sense of emotional resonance and underscores the importance of remembering and honoring the victims.
Review of "Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon"
Plane Crash at Los Gatos Canyon (sometimes known as "Deportees") is a folk song written in 1948 by Woody Guthrie. I've known it since I was a teenager and I think that it may be the best political song ever written.
It's poetic, with remarkable imagery. It's written from experience and from the heart and the message is just as relevant today as it was when it was it was written seventy-five years ago.
The song works just as well as a poem, which is good because I haven't got the talent to sing it to you, but because it is very short I will read all the verses interspersed with my own thoughts and reactions.
Woody Guthrie was born in Oklahoma in 1912. He was one of the "dust bowl refugees" described by Steinbeck in "The Grapes of Wrath" who sought work in the orchards of California in the 1930s. He and Steinbeck knew each other. He wrote over 10,000 songs, the best known of which is “This Land is Your Land”. He was a major influence on later songwriters such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and Brice Springsteen. When Guthrie wrote the song, he had just heard that a plane had crashed in Los Gatos Canyon, California its way to Mexico, killing all those onboard. The plane was carrying four American crew members and twenty-eight illegal immigrants who had been working in California's orchards. The plane had been chartered by the Immigration Authorities specifically to deport the twenty-eight and did not have enough seats for them all.
In the first verse Guthrie deals with the pointlessness of it all. Too many crops have been picked and some of them left to rot, and next year the people who've been deported will pay hard earned money to people traffickers to get back to the USA so that the whole pointless process can be repeated:
The crops are all in and the peaches are rotting,
The oranges piled in their creosote dumps;
They're flying 'em back to the Mexican border
To pay all their money to wade back again
Guthrie read about the crash in the New York Times, whose report printed the names of the crew members and a security guard, but simply described the passengers as "deportees" and didn't print their names. These people had no worth - this is the point that Guthrie stresses in the chorus which is repeated at the end of each verse:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
The next two verses continue to describe the lives of the undocumented immigrants that America depends upon to bring in its harvests:
My father's own father, he waded that river,
They took all the money he made in his life;
My brothers and sisters come working the fruit trees,
And they rode the truck till they took down and died.
Some of us are illegal, and some are not wanted,
Our work contract's out and we have to move on;
Six hundred miles to that Mexican border,
They chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.
The next verse reminds us that little has changed in seventy-five years, and that Guthrie's words are just as applicable to Europe now as it was to America then. It is relevant to current political discourse in the United Kingdom – how do we get our crops picked without dependency on foreign labour and how should that foreign labour be treated? It reminds us that only last month sixty people died in one incident alone in the Mediterranean trying to enter Europe illegally. We will never know their names. It also reminds us of the fate of at least twenty-one Chinese cockle pickers , all illegal migrant workers who were killed by an incoming tide at Morecambe Bay, England in 2004. They had names too:
We died in your hills, we died in your deserts,
We died in your valleys and died on your plains.
We died 'neath your trees and we died in your bushes,
Both sides of the river, we died just the same.
In the next, penultimate verse, Guthrie returns to the fact that the press refuses to name the victims of this disaster and uses the images of "scattered dry leaves" to describe the plight of the deportees. He convinces us that these people are his friends. It is unlikely that he did know any of them personally as he'd been living in New York for a decade by 1948, but of course when he was a migrant worker he would have known many people like them:
The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon,
A fireball of lightning, and shook all our hills,
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees"
In the final verse Woody Guthrie continues the dry leaves imagery to rail against the system that caused the deaths of the thirty-two passengers and crew:
Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees"?
It's very clever imagery - just who or what is falling like dry leaves and rotting on whose topsoil? This is what makes this song such a profound criticism of the system that feeds us and these few lines are what makes the song so relevant to today:
The song ends with a final chorus:
Goodbye to my Juan, goodbye, Rosalita,
Adios mis amigos, Jesus y Maria;
You won't have your names when you ride the big aeroplane,
All they will call you will be "deportees"
The emotional impact of Guthrie’s poem is that it gives names to the nameless, and in so doing it empowers the powerless. I will never tire of listening to this song.
If you would like to listen to "Plane Crash" here's a link to an audio track of Joan Baez and Bob Dylan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAXV4JmuNrs
English folk singer Kevin Littlewood has written a very powerful song about the Chinese Cockle pickers. Christy Moore sings this version. If you enjoyed "Deportees" you'll probably like that too. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UN8gAlhSMDAClick
“The Passenger” by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz
Less than a year after Kristallnacht – the 1938 pogroms against Jewish citizens of Germany and Austria - Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, a twenty-four-year-old Jewish refugee who had sought asylum in Sweden, France, Luxembourg, and Belgium before arriving in Britain published “The Passenger”. This novel tells the story of Otto Silbermann, a man who, like the author, had never considered himself Jewish. Both the author and his protagonist were the sons of fathers who had married Christian wives and converted to Christianity. However, the Third Reich saw things differently, and Silbermann was forced to sell his home and business for a fraction of their true value and was now reduced to making long journeys on the German railway network in order to seek refuge elsewhere in Europe.
The novel sold only a few copies and disappeared from bookshops almost immediately. A few months later, the author, like over 20,000 other Jewish refugees in Great Britain, was arrested, interned as an enemy alien, and deported to Australia. In 1942 he wrote to his mother to tell her that he was due to be released from detention and would shortly return to England carrying a revised version of the novel. His letter describes the nature of his revisions in considerable detail. But neither the author nor his new manuscript ever arrived. On October 29, 1942, Boschwitz was a passenger on the troopship MV Abosso when it was sunk by a U-Boat seven hundred miles north of the Azores. The author and 361 other passengers were drowned. He was twenty-seven years old.
The novel begins with Silbermann fleeing his home when it is ransacked by the mob. He then takes a train from Berlin to Hamburg to meet a former employee who has just purchased his business for a fraction of its worth, which is paid in an amount of cash which most of us would be wary of carrying on our person. But he can’t pay it into a bank, as banks no longer accept deposits from Jews. Carrying his briefcase full of cash, he takes further train journeys, back to Berlin, then on to Dortmund and Aachen, back to Dortmund, east to Dresden, and finally back to Berlin. At Aachen, he pays what we today call a people-smuggler to get him across the Belgian border, but he is captured by border guards and forced to return to Germany. He avoids the company of his fellow Jews because he does not look Jewish and can pass as an Aryan, which is safer. He meets people who are prepared to help him, and others who are more than happy to fleece him and betray him. Many people he considered close friends, such as his Christian wife’s brother, refuse to help him. Each leg of the journey depletes his stock of cash, his self-esteem, and his physical and mental health.
Just as the parallels between the lives of the author and his protagonist are striking, so too are the parallels between the lives of the refugee from the Third Reich, and the refugee of today. British people have memorialised our ancestors’ decision to accept 10,000 child refugees under the Kindertransport operation, but we forget that the British state refused asylum to their parents. Silbermann had tried to join his son in Paris, but his visa was refused, and when he tried to walk into Belgium he was sent back. The author was granted a kind of asylum in our country but met his death because of the British State’s decision to expel him to Australia. Australia seems to be the Rwanda of the 1930s.
“The Passenger” was published in German for first time ever in 2018 and re-published in English in 2021. These editions came about because Ruella Shachaf, Boschwitz’s niece, heard a radio interview with Peter Graf, a German publisher who had had some critical success in re-publishing anti-Nazi German novels of the 1930s. She drew Graf’s attention to the original German manuscript which lay untouched and unloved in an academic library in Frankfurt, and his 1942 letter to his mother, which outlined the changes he intended to make. Peter Graf then made those changes, as far as he could in accordance with the author’s wishes.
Jonathon Freedland, writing in The Guardian, describes the Passenger as “part John Buchan, part Franz Kafka and wholly riveting.” I thoroughly agree. Because the story of the novel is just as engrossing as the novel itself, it is well worthwhile reading the introduction, and the afterword, which is written by his current publisher and editor Peter Graf.
Some Thoughts About Slavery and the Culture Wars
Slavery has been part of human life since the dawn of history. It is still with us today, as shown by American singer-songwriter Rhiannon Giddens’s twenty-first century re-write of ‘Barbados’, an eighteenth century poem by the abolitionist William Cowper.
What I hear of their hardships, their tortures, and groans
It's almost enough to draw pity from stones
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For how could we do without sugar and rum?
Especially sugar, so needful we see?
What? Give up our desserts, our coffee, and tea?!
Besides, if we do, the French, Dutch, and Danes
Will heartily thank us, no doubt, for our pains
If we do not buy the poor creatures, they will
And tortures and groans will be multiplied still
And Giddens re-wrote those lines as:
I pity them greatly, but I must be mum
For what about nickel, cobalt, lithium?
The garments we wear, the electronics we own?
What? Give up our tablets, our laptops, and phones?!
Besides, if we do, the prices will soar
And who could afford to pay one dollar more?
Sitting here typing it seems well worth the price
And you there, listening on your favorite device
This bargain we're in, well, it's not quite illicit
So relax, my friend, we're not all complicit
It might be argued that today’s western consumer, who also enjoys the ability to vote and influence political discourse, knows and cares far less about slavery than his or her eighteenth century counterparts. Our forebears, who by and large, were unable to vote, regularly packed town squares and churches to protest against slavery and used their economic power to boycott slave-produced sugar and rum. Why doesn’t the twentieth-century consumer do the same? Could we make a difference if every time we bought a garment from a high-street store, we asked whether it was made from cotton produced by coerced Uighur labour in China, for example?
However, to argue that slavery has always been, and by inference will always be, part of humanity, runs the danger of minimising what happened to thirteen million Africans at the hands of white Europeans from the sixteenth until, in the case of the Belgian Congo, the early part of the twentieth century. More than a million died on the journey to the New World, and those who were enslaved in the West Indian sugar plantations, once sent to work in the field, measured their life expectancy in months not years.
Today, a lot of political discourse is centred around the so-called ‘culture wars’. Crudely, the culture wars are presented as a conflict between older people, who are concerned about familiar and loved local landmarks being renamed or demolished; and younger people who are accused of trying to ‘re-write history’. The National Trust has come in for a lot of criticism for daring to examine the relationship between many of its properties and collections. Specifically, the Trust is researching whether the wealth that established some of its large estates was created by the ownership of other humans. This criticism is, in my opinion, entirely malevolent and unjustified. What is the point of a body such as the NT if it doesn’t carry out historical research on its assets? Why should some areas of research be deemed acceptable while others are considered beyond the pale?
In 1784 Samuel Greg opened Quarry Bank Mill in the remote village of Styal, which is now on the outskirts of Manchester. The Mill took cotton that was produced by West Indian slaves and spun it into thread using water-power from the River Bollin. Greg needed a labour force to work the new machinery, and within Britain itself, slavery was not acceptable. Greg needed to find a way of subduing labour without enslaving it, and the solution was to tour the workhouses of London to find children as young as eight years old to work ten-hour days in the mill. These children lived in the cramped Apprentice House, which was controlled by superintendents who, to be fair, did their best to educate them. However, industrial accidents such as severed fingers were common.
Quarry Bank Mill has been owned by the National Trust for many years, and the Trust has always presented visitors with an honest and balanced visitor experience about the role of coerced child labour in the mill’s early history. But how was the Mill financed in the first place? The Trust’s research concludes that the initial capital came from the Greg family’s ownership, over several generations, of slave plantations in Dominica and St. Vincent. When slavery was finally abolished in 1833, Samuel Greg’s son Thomas claimed £5,080 - more than half a million pounds in today’s money – as compensation for the loss of 210 slaves.
Slavery is only the most extreme form of coerced labour. The young boys and girls who were sent to Quarry Bank Mill’s Apprentice House from the workhouses of Hackney and Chelsea were also coerced, but by a lesser degree. In terms of the culture wars, those who criticise the trust should answer the question why they consider it acceptable to point out the Greg family’s involvement in the exploitation of children but unacceptable to point out their involvement in slavery. For a nation both to have an honest record of its history, and to understand its place in the modern world, we need to be able to hear, and be prepared to listen to, both stories.
Earlier this month I retired after 13 very fulfilling years as a board member and former Chairperson of
. Here are my thoughts:
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.
Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.
In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?
In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.
In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.
The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would!
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