My revolting past

January 7, 2005

Becoming an Essex girl was an act of pure rebellion, recalls Ruth Lister, professor of public policy

Opting for Essex University was Ruth Lister's "first real act of rebellion". After finishing at school, near Oswestry, she was supposed to go to Oxford University. "The head, a rather eccentric upper-class woman, said to me, 'PPE, darling, that's what you want to do.'

But I didn't. I was excommunicated, she hardly spoke to me after I decided on Essex," she says.

Lister, now professor of public policy at Loughborough University, can't remember how she found out that Essex, still extremely new, was the place to do sociology. But she does know who diverted her from an intention to read languages by implanting an enthusiasm for the comparably novel subject: "We had a wonderful teacher, Jonathan Leftwich, who now teaches politics at York. He introduced me to sociology and I realised immediately that this was what I wanted to do, to learn about the society I lived in."

She arrived at Essex in 1967, "rather timid" but with the advantage of having lived away from home after winning a scholarship at the age of nine and through gap-year jobs in France and Germany.

And she had some idea of her politics. "When Harold Wilson was first elected, I found that a friend and I were the only Labour supporters. I remember one girl saying: 'They'll take away all our fathers' money.'"

Her first Essex political experience was disillusioning. "I wanted something more radical and went to one of the socialist societies, the International Socialists, I think. I was badly put off. They were cliquey and made no attempt to involve a shy new student like me. I remember thinking that they couldn't hope to change the world if they weren't prepared to engage with people."

The events of 1968 reignited her enthusiasm. "It was extraordinary - even the chemists got involved! It seemed as if the entire university was out in the campus squares dancing to the I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag , an anti-Vietnam War song by Country Joe and the Fish. I remember a packed meeting where one woman stomped across the room shouting: 'I'm off to Paris, where it's really at', and everyone roaring and shouting in response."

Yet Essex's revolutionary moment was short-lived. "I returned from the vacation ready to get on with politics again and discovered that the radical vanguard was now into drugs. I felt rather let down and threw my energies into the staff-student liaison committee for sociology.

"We had some success in arguing that not all assessment should be via exams, but we made a rod for our back as we ended up with a mix of normal exams, open-book tests and continuous assessment that involved much more work."

There were other downsides to Essex. "It was too close to London, and a lot of people disappeared at weekends. And it was a pretty bleak environment.

The story was that the architect was Italian and had visualised those grey concrete blocks against blue skies, not overcast English days."

But she remembers good times, which owed more to music than politics. "I'd listened to Radio Luxembourg under the bedclothes as a schoolgirl. The Hexagon had dances every Saturday, and all the big groups passed through - I remember The Who playing, while Fairport Convention seemed to adopt us.

If you look at the cover of their What We Did on Our Holidays album, there's a picture of the tower on the Essex campus."

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