My revolting past

May 14, 2004

David Triesman recalls his days as an unwilling member of a terracotta cult and being expelled in 1968 - just before his finals

Albert Sloman, Essex University's first vice-chancellor, may have wondered what he had brought upon himself and his university when David Triesman said he had been inspired to study there by Sloman's 1963 Reith Lectures, "A University in the Making".

If he did, he never said so. Triesman remembers: "We always had a good personal relationship, with never the slightest sense of antagonism even in the most difficult times."

They were never more difficult than in 1968 when, after a demonstration, Triesman was expelled three weeks before finals. He was readmitted just in time, but recalls: "Not a lot of work was done in those weeks."

Fortunately, his approach was "and to some extent still is" to work in intense bursts close to deadline. He emerged with a 2:1, enabling an academic/labour movement career that progressed via the Institute of Psychiatry and South Bank Polytechnic to national official with lecturers' union Natfhe, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers and then the Labour Party. He is now a government whip in the House of Lords.

He had come late to university, going initially into journalism rather than pursuing the "archetypally Jewish" family ambition to become a doctor. That family background grounded him in Labour and Communist politics and brought with it "a loathing of Trotskyists".

Arriving at Essex in 1965, he found reality fell short of Sloman's vision:

"It was a very exciting place to be, with brilliant staff. But the place he'd talked of, with less hierarchy, with staff much closer to students, did not happen - in part because it was a building site. We spent two years on a campus paved with bright red non-stick mud. We looked like members of some strange cult, the lower halves of our bodies dyed in terracotta."

Richard Lipsey, known to generations of novice economists for his Positive Economics , had his own response to persistent drilling: "When it started, he'd crush the stick of chalk in his hand and let the powder drop to the floor," Triesman says.

Triesman disputes Paul Foot's description of him as "the wildest of wild men", saying "typical Trot". He adds: "My main aim was to get Jack Straw elected president of the National Union of Students, and I wouldn't have thought that was particularly wild." He worked alongside Straw, Anna Ford and David Widgery, "the only civilised Trot I ever met", in the Radical Student Alliance, but argues that many of their demands, such as student's right of appeal against university decisions, became common practice not many years later.

Nevertheless, there was a sense of youthful ferment and the great galvanising cause of Vietnam. It was Vietnam that got him into trouble, with a demonstration against a visiting scientist who was working alongside US weapons experts. "The aim wasn't to silence him, but to challenge him on what he was doing. The whole thing developed a momentum of its own. More fool me, perhaps, for not realising what might happen."

It wasn't all politics. He played football, and treasures the memory of being told by a member of the New Left Review board that heading the ball was "incompatible with serious socialist thought". The game may also have contributed to his political reputation: "Rather than saying I was playing football, I'd tell people I was off to a meeting in London. You could see them thinking 'another meeting - my God, he's committed'."

Huw Richards

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