My revolting past

October 29, 2004

Once he'd got to grips with the lingo, political theorist Norman Geras got stuck into philosophy and poker at Oxford in the Sixties

Nowadays Norman Geras, emeritus professor of politics at Manchester University, says: "I don't feel English, but I like England and feel comfortable here." Arriving at Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1962, he did not know what to think. He grew up in Bulawayo, in what was then Rhodesia: "I'd never been to Britain. I had no benchmarks and no idea what to expect," he recalls.

He was bemused by Oxford terminology (not an experience exclusive to overseas students): "I found myself in a world of words like buttery and manciple." And his first winter, in buildings still to install central heating, was record-breakingly cold: "IJthought that was English weather. I had no idea that it was anything unusual." He still, though, recalls his momentary alarm at steam rising from a toilet bowl.

He arrived already politicised, known to schoolfellows as a critic of Rhodesian racism - he remembers one opponent threatening: "Geras, if you ever bring bloody Kaffirs into my house..." - but points out that "it was a white colonial society where you took it for granted that you had black gardeners and cooks".

At Pembroke, not the most political college, he was soon identified as "the Marxist" and switched quickly from law to politics, philosophy and economics: "In the first few days, I was talking to a friend who told me he was doing PPE. I asked what that was and when he explained, I said, 'that's what I want to do'. They weren't best pleased when I asked to change subjects."

He was more interested in reading politics than practising it, though: "I never really saw myself as an activist. I always hated selling newspapers or leafleting. There were a few demonstrations - the Cuban missile crisis in my first few weeks, and I went on an Aldermaston march in 1963. I remember sleeping in schools singing We Shall Overcome and chanting 'MacMillan out, out, out'."

He also played poker, with some success, and went to two or three films a week. He has one regret: "It wasn't cool to admit that you liked sport. I'd loved cricket and rugby, but let them fall away - I didn't play or watch, as an undergraduate at least."

While African by birth, "all my interests and outlook were Eurocentric", he says. "I've never been an Africanist, and I realised early on that I was in Britain to stay."

Those origins occasioned mild curiosity, the exotic sound of "Bulawayo" amusing some fellow students. By 1965 and Rhodesia's Unilaterial Declaration of Independence, Geras was a postgraduate at Nuffield College.

"I was in an Indian restaurant on the Turl on the day of UDI. Another Nuffield student, an odd, rather flamboyant character, who was on the next table called out 'Crush Smith' to me and it became a jokey slogan."

Nuffield supplied a long-term political and intellectual reference point: "I met Robin Blackburn there, and through him Perry Anderson, beginning a connection with New Left Review that became very important. I was on the editorial committee from the mid-1970s to early 1990s."

He remembers Oxford in the early 1960s - pointing out "the 1960s didn't really begin until 1965", with some affection. "I had a bloody good time."

But looking back he is aware that he still knew little of Britain outside Oxford. "There was an assumption that 'this is the place'. What I realised, once I knew more, was that it was a little less good than it thought it was."

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