College or a sex life? The choice is yours...

September 1, 2000

When Lorna Sage went to Durham University, she scored two firsts. One took three years of study and came with honours - the other she achieved when, as a wife and mother, she was allowed to enrol on her course.

Bad Blood, published this month, tells the story of three marriages - my maternal grandparents', my parents' and my own first marriage. One of the book's themes is the changing character of marriage across the generations. Though there is an "Afterword" sketching what happened later, the account of my personal history in Bad Blood ends in 1961, when I was 18. "Just like a Barbara Cartland novel," I'd say to people who asked, when I was still writing it. But there was a difference - I'd been married for 18 months, had a 15-month-old daughter, and was about to go to university - my equivalent back then of "happy ever after".

Vic Sage and I (he was only 19) would both read English literature at Durham and both take Latin as our second subject. When we graduated in 1964, we were the first married couple of ordinary student age to graduate in the same subject at the same time, with firsts. Or so the newspapers said.

We were news, because until then universities had been throwing out women who got pregnant or married and education authorities had been stopping their grants. It was the beginning of the end of an era in which women had to choose between a sex life and children and a professional life.

In the 18 months between school and university, we had been living with my parents. We did odd jobs and sent out my father's bills and receipts to help pay for our keep, and earn pocket money. We had also been revising hard for A levels and preparing for various university entrance exams with scholarships attached.

Our bookishness had always played a big part in our attraction to each other, you might even say books had got us into trouble. Now our idea was that they would get us out of it. We imagined a mutant marriage built out of poetic conventions. We were each other's other half, we had developed a kind of dialogue of one, we read together, talked endlessly and excitedly, went in for cults of our own. Joyce in particular was our hero, and by the summer of 1961 we'd saved enough pocket money to go to Ireland (very cheap then) on a pilgrimage. We took the August bank holiday night boat, its decks awash with half-digested Guinness, from Liverpool to Dublin. It must have been when Ulysses was first unbanned because copies were being sold from barrows on the street. But the Republic was still puritan, we had neglected to take our marriage licence and it was hard to find anywhere to stay. Only when we went back the following year with Sharon were we welcomed: we were a family after all, and we had not even committed the Protestant sin of contraception.

For our part we were enchanted with Joyce's blasphemous religion of art, the notion of a world well lost for literature. By the time we left rural Shropshire and went up to Durham we had concocted our own private mental atmosphere, perhaps also a body-language. A student from Sierra Leone, a bishop's son following in his father's footsteps, who went to the same Latin lectures, asked us whether we were twins - he had noticed we shared a surname, as well as being fair-haired and blue-eyed. When we explained we were married, he laughed and shook his head and said resignedly that white people all looked alike to him.

But he was right, there was something incestuous about our relationship. If Sharon had been there with us, we'd have seemed more solid and separate, but the deal was that she would stay with my parents during term-times (Durham terms were short, eight or nine weeks each). Genial Miss Scott, the principal of St Aidan's, who had changed the rules to let me in, insisted it was for the best and it did not occur to us to disagree. Living with your grandparents was traditional, I had done it, Vic's half-brother had too. Also, the fact of having a full grant - winning a scholarship - made being a student a kind of job. We were going away to work, and we would be able to contribute to expenses back home. University, seen this way, made sense to my workaholic haulage-contractor father and to Vic's mother, who served all hours in a local draper's shop. We did not have to persuade them to believe in the romance of the life of letters, so long as someone was paying us to read books.

Studying was a labour of love, but our first couple of terms were bleak. We were outsiders in a collegiate university where almost everyone except for a few ex-servicemen (National Service had only just ended) lived in college or with a landlady for a nanny. Our contemporaries, parading, flirting, gossiping, sizing each other up, getting drunk and climbing late over college walls to be fined or suspended - the university was in loco parentis - seemed so much younger than we were. Yet we were the ones who lived a cloistered life. We shared one rented room, a newly converted bed-sit in a terraced house: one bed, one chest of drawers, one table, two chairs, one electric fire (with one bar), one book-cupboard. The inventory was spartan and so was the life we led. We worked, went to lectures, wrote letters home, missing Sharon and reporting on our experiments in housekeeping. But reading between the lines you can tell that we were horribly lonely, for we were too close to each other to be company.

We had been heralded as freshman freaks in the local Durham paper ("The Sages take up Literature"), along with a former Congregationalist minister in his 40s from Hartlepool. We were defensive, self-conscious and socially inept. Only gradually did it dawn on us that there were other students prowling on the edges of conventional college life - such as dashing German-Jewish Maria, who had been exiled to Durham by her parents for bad behaviour back in Berlin and who was reading Chinese; or Tony from Manchester, who lodged in The Spread Eagle under the prison walls, and found himself manning the bar whenever the landlord was carted off to dry out; or a wild man called Mike, who read psychology, and lived in the lab with the rats; or philosophical Mike, with whom we drank away the night at the climax of the Cuban missile crisis, when we all half-expected the bomb to drop. Add to these, local drinkers and talkers - autodidact ex-miners who argued politics (socialism versus communism), and shared their pints of mild with thirsty whippets - and by the end of the first year's party season we felt more or less at home. Opposite our bed-sit was a pub, where we would drink after hours, once we had finished work. It was a style of life that belonged to 1950s provincial Bohemia.

However, there were signs of change of a different order. For one thing, by letting me in, the university had made it impossible to send down other female students who got pregnant and married. Miss Scott had hoped, she confessed, that I would somehow advise other people how not to do that. But Vic and I were not at all convinced we knew, we had our own chronic contraceptive crisis, pre-Pill and pre-legalised abortion.

The women for whom I had blazed the trail belonged to the 1960s in a way I did not: passionate Fran, who dropped out of English to raise a family in a cottage in a deserted pit-village; or mathematician Nona who, with her husband Tim, was planning a life of enlightened self-sufficiency. Both of them made motherhood part of their mythology. I may have symbolised the new freedom of having it both ways, but my dream of liberation was androgynous. I was an old-fashioned socialist, utopian in my politics.

But that heritage too was being born again and transformed into a practical prospect. At the end of our second year, Vic and I decided to stay for an extra month, to work in the library, and we attended the 1963 Miners' Gala, where Harold Wilson and George Brown prophesied the advent of a new Labour government. In the vision they conjured, the new universities established by the Tories would inaugurate an era of social mobility and full employment, erasing the old lines of privilege and dark-ages prejudice.

Durham made their point perfectly: you still had to report to a "moral tutor" - mine was a fat deacon's wife who gave lessons in manners over congealed lamb chops; Latin textbooks were bowdlerised by the time-honoured method of excising the smutty bits and putting them together in the back; Lucretius was censored in case his pagan account of the natural order disturbed the faith of theology students; and the student union was dominated by Oxbridge rejects.

The stars of the faculty were moving on: Clifford Leech and Reg Foakes would go to jobs in the US, Sandy Cunningham would go to the new University of York, and Nicholas Brooke, who tutored both Vic and I and became our friend and mentor, would go to the University of East Anglia in Norwich. He leaned against a flinty wall in the Old Bailey, took a deep drag on his cigarette, and said how pleased he was to leave this glorified pit village. We went on to get our firsts without him, and to acquire yet more state money for research at the University of Birmingham, where I went to the Shakespeare Institute to do an MA by thesis on the impeccably trendy and self-conscious topic of poems about writing poems about writing poems I in the 17th century, and Vic to the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies to work on extra-social figures in the fin de si cle, and Sharon went to school.

So university was not the end of the story. True, we are both still there - at UEA, colleagues still and friends, though we divorced long ago. Looking back at our Durham career as harbingers of change, I realise that the main feeling I had when we graduated was that though time seemed on my side, and outsiders were suddenly insiders, the doors that were opening could close any minute, I must always stay one jump ahead, take hold of the future now.

So when in 1965 Ian Watt, Nicolas's new boss at UEA, invited me to apply for a job, I did, instead of doing a PhD, and started teaching just one year on from graduating. And once I had an academic job, I took to moonlighting as a literary journalist, wanting the sense of writing to the moment, belonging to the real world. Writing this memoir is I suppose part of the same pattern of having it both ways, never being able quite to make the life of letters fit into the proper academic mould, not being wedded, after all, to university.

Lorna Sage is professor of English at the University of East Anglia. Bad Blood: A Memoir is published by Fourth Estate, Pounds 15.99.

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