Journey from the Street of Shame

September 5, 1997

This academic life is fraught with difficulty - jobs are scarce, insecure and increasingly clogged up with teaching and administrative duties that prevent our brightest minds from pursuing their first love - research

Peter Rose tells Huw Richards about his conversion from Sun leader writer to doctoral student

Have you heard about The Sun leader-writer with the PhD? That might sound like the opening of a standup comedy routine but it represents the simple truth in the case of Peter Rose, awarded his doctorate in history by Queen Mary Westfield College, London earlier this summer.

Dr Rose, 58, admits that he sometimes "misses the buzz" of his former life as leader writer and lobby reporter and that some former colleagues are amused. "They think it is rather bizarre." But, he says: "It did not take me long as a student to realise that this was what I wished I had been doing all along."

The truth, of course, is that tabloid newspapers are not staffed by neanderthal men and there are plenty of people bending formidable intellectual capacities to the daily task of producing papers read by millions.

Even so the shift from the nightly composition of, at most, a few hundred words of blunt high-temperature low-syllable prose on today's hot issue to the task of writing 100,000 reflectively analytical words on the Northern Ireland policies of Harold Wilson's 1964-70 government is a formidable one.

Dr Rose - shortish, red-faced and direct in manner - looks the part. Like many successful journalists from the pre-Robbins generation, he went straight into the trade without going to university. A long career on nationals suggests that this did him little professional harm, but he says that he always lacked self-confidence alongside more educated journalists. "My friends in the lobby were people like Robin Oakley and Anthony Bevins who all had degrees and I felt very conscious of my own relative lack of education," he remembers.

It was another of those lobby-based friends, Elinor Goodman of Channel Four News, who provided the decisive connection, introducing him to political scientist Trevor Smith, then deputy warden of Queen Mary College (Westfield had still to be incorporated). "I went along to see him and a couple of other senior academics. He asked me if I was more interested in plumbing or poetry and I said poetry. He said that was the right answer," Dr Rose recalls.

Even so, getting into London University for his undergraduate degree in modern British history and politics was not that simple. "One problem was, without A levels, I had nothing to prove that I was qualified to take a degree. I had always read widely but rather indiscriminately and I'd worked for years in newspapers. But I'm still not entirely sure where or how the decision was taken - Senate House maybe."

He admits to having wondered how a middle-aged Sun journalist would be received by teenage students and was pleasantly surprised. "The Sun was banned on campus. But that gave it an illicit appeal - students used to read it concealed inside a copy of The Independent. I loved the company and the atmosphere of university. It becomes more difficult to make friends once you are middle aged, but there was no problem at QMW."

It took only a couple of essays to adjust his writing style to academic requirements. "Although I still tended to start rather dramatically," he says. And he found that the ability to express oneself crisply and concisely was a positive asset. Three years on, funded largely by his savings from a job that had paid Pounds 30,000 a year in the mid-1980s, he found himself the possessor of a degree, a prize and advice from tutors that he was ideally suited to doctoral research. "I expected to get a third and was delighted with a second. I had already decided not to go back into journalism, but took a little persuading that I was capable of doing a doctorate." Duly persuaded, he settled on his topic. "I had always been interested in Ireland and, while quite a lot had been done on Northern Ireland after the troops went in, there wasn't much on the earlier period."

As with his undergraduate work, journalistic skills and practise proved a positive asset. "It meant I had the ability to read things rapidly, absorb them and find the important points. Because I was used to official documents I wasn't intimidated by them and was able to find my way around."

But there was also satisfaction in the contrasts and differences. "Once you've been studying for a PhD for a year or two you become a real expert in your field, with a depth of knowledge. As a reporter I'd been very much jack of all trades - Europe one day, transport the next, mad cows the day after - and you never build up that expertise."

It did no harm to have Peter Hennessy, himself an ex-journalist as supervisor - not least because Hennessy's formidable Whitehall contacts got him in to see former civil servants so senior in rank that they cannot be credited by name in the thesis. Which does not mean that it was idyllic from beginning to end. He recognises the importance of family backing: "I could not have done it if my wife and daughter had not been completely supportive throughout the whole process."

And there are difficulties peculiar to the middle aged student: "Your parents are much older than the average student's and so much likelier to be seriously ill or even die. Both my parents died while I was doing my doctorate. This was terribly upsetting and gave me a lot of extra things to do." And one's own ageing process does not help: "You simply have less energy than when you were young and tire much more quickly. If I started work first thing in the morning I'd be flagging by mid afternoon." He is now looking for university teaching work. "I did some teaching throughout my period as a postgraduate and enjoyed it enormously," he says.

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