My revolting past

June 4, 2004

Steve Jones recalls going from stealing Tory election leaflets in Edinburgh to facing armed police in a protest in Chicago

While most students remember their first night at college, geneticist Steve Jones' memory of his introduction to Edinburgh in 1962 is peculiarly acute: "I spent the night on Waverley Station. The landlady at my assigned lodgings took one look at me - beard, guitar, vaguely hippy - decided that I must be a dope fiend and refused to let me in."

He was an accidental arrival at Edinburgh: "It was the last year before the introduction of the Universities Central Council for Admissions, and the system was a shambles. Everyone had their own closing date and you were supposed to be limited to four applications - I naively followed the rules and was turned down by all the Welsh universities. Then a friend discovered that Edinburgh's closing date was a week later than everywhere else. I applied and got in."

He never came to terms with Edinburgh's weather - the coldest winter of recent times, 1962-63, hardly helped. But that is his only complaint about the seven years there. Jones remembers his stint as an undergraduate as "a time of transition - as (Philip) Larkin put it - between Lady Chatterley and the first Beatles LP".

He was, in truth, a fairly conservative dresser. "I owned one tie, which I used to iron before I went out on Saturday nights in the hope of impressing some member of the opposite sex, which it very rarely did."

He was politically committed, but not in the style of the later 1960s. "I was still naive enough to believe that the Labour Party under Harold Wilson was leftwing. In the 1964 election, I worked incredibly hard to get Tom Oswald - whom we regarded with great reverence and were never allowed to meet, but was in fact useless lobby-fodder - re-elected in Edinburgh Central. I had the job of following a little behind the Conservative candidate Nicholas Fairbairn and his team. They left most of their leaflets sticking out of the letterboxes and I took them out."

He recalls violence at a demonstration for Northern Irish civil rights in 1968, but nothing compared with a subsequent experience as a postdoctoral researcher in Chicago in 1970: "It was the day when students were killed at Kent State University, and a perfect illustration of the power of rumour.

The story got around that the National Guard had taken over Kent State and killed 50 students. A march set off from the university to the National Guard Armoury and was joined by a contingent of black youths who were out for a fight with the police. Eventually we were confronted by armed police.

I was at the front and it wasn't pleasant thinking that one of half a dozen guns pointed in your direction might be fired."

It was a time of transition in biology as well. Jones recalls the standard textbook by Grove and Newell, both professors from his eventual institution, University College London. "It had a section on genetics, but written in a way that makes it clear they didn't really understand it."

Edinburgh was good at such explanations. It was a sociable but hardworking environment - Jones recalls the scramble for scarce reading-room places among students returning after the pubs closed - and the staff "felt that teaching was worthwhile in itself". He recalls in particular Henry Kacsir, "a mathematical biologist who had escaped from Eastern Europe, probably Hungary. He inspired generations of distinguished geneticists, but because he didn't publish much he'd probably be fired nowadays."

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