My revolting past

December 10, 2004

After a rootless period of work, Ellis Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport, 'rolled the dice' and went to Newcastle Poly

When Ellis Cashmore wants to recall his years as an undergraduate sociologist at Newcastle Polytechnic, he listens to Roxy Music.

Cashmore, professor of culture, media and sport at Staffordshire University and author of Tyson , a new biography of the boxer, says: "Music was, and is, important to me and Roxy Music was the group that really mattered then."

In 1972, the year of "Virginia Plain", the group's first hit single, Cashmore arrived in Newcastle.

He still has a picture of himself complete with "Virginia Plain" T-shirt and hairdo modelled on Bryan Ferry, Roxy Music's iconic frontman. A visiting friend from his home town Birmingham observed at the time: "All your mates look like Bryan Ferry."

Cashmore enjoyed student life enormously. "You don't tell kids they should go to university because they'll get a better job at the end of it. The right question is 'why should anybody want to miss out on three years of complete revelry?'" - the euphemism he cheerfully uses to cloak the precise detail of Newcastle student life from 1972 to 1975.

He was not, however, a wholly heedless hedonist. Cashmore had left school at 16, "a technical school, where I was a complete square peg in a round hole, utterly hopeless at anything practical".

He was, he recalls, "rootless, rudderless and restless", drifting through a succession of jobs that brought no real satisfaction.

"There was no great epiphany. There was just no stimulation, I had no vocation or sense that I was good at anything." So he decided to try for a degree, "rolling the dice to see what might happen" and was accepted at Newcastle.

Work left its mark. He was more cynical than fellow students: "I spent my student life with Trots and Maoists. I went to the meetings, but I felt the idealism was naive and ingenuous. I remember one meeting where they were talking about getting hold of guns and thinking 'this is totally surreal'."

It had also inculcated useful habits: "I was good at getting up, going to the library and getting the work done." He found something he was good at, going on to a masters at Toronto University followed by a doctorate at the London School of Economics.

His thesis was on Rastafarianism: "I could tell you that the interest came from coming from Handsworth, or from having been in Atlanta in the late 1960s. But it wasn't. It was music again, and Bob Marley. I wanted to know what on earth Marley was on about."

He did not much like the LSE and was initially unimpressed by his supervisor, Percy Cohen: "I now realise he was brilliant. He would sit looking towards the ceiling with his eyes closed, throwing off ideas - and the ideas were superb, sharp and trenchant, sending you in the right directions. And he did deals with you." One of those deals, promising to get him viva-ed and qualified in return for a formidable quantity of work in a short time, got him through the viva within two years of arriving at LSE - allowing him to leave for the infinitely more congenial Australian National University.

The viva, too, brought advice he has followed through his career: "Brian Wilson of All Souls College Oxford, who like Percy Cohen died recently, told me, 'an article will be read and shelved, a course will be taken and forgotten. A book will be on the library shelves in 20 to 30 years time.

Write books'."

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