Reunited: Shocking with such glee

September 24, 2004

Reggae poet Linton Kwesi Johnson studied sociology at Goldsmiths College from 1973 to 1976

Last year I attended my first graduation ceremony at my alma mater, Goldsmiths College, University of London, some years after I graduated. Back in 1976, I was too poor to attend. Our warden, the late Ben Pimlott, made an eloquent speech in which he summed up the college's ethos.

"Goldsmiths is an idea working around a tradition that I would call bloody-minded anti-orthodoxy," Professor Pimlott said. "A tradition of attacking stuffy traditions that need to be attacked, a tradition of providing an environment where new ideas flourish." Sitting among the dignitaries on the stage, waiting nervously to receive an honorary fellowship, I remembered when I had studied there.

Three decades on, the college has lost none of its cool, but there have been changes. I was struck by two. First, neither the academic nor the non-academic staff were all white, as they had seemed to be during my student days. Second, and more amazingly, the proportion of Asian and black students had multiplied at least tenfold. Professor Pimlott proudly boasted that 35 per cent of Goldsmiths' students were from ethnic minorities. Moreover, the college has opened its doors even wider to the local community in Lewisham, where it is located. If "cool" is one word that characterises Goldsmiths, then "inclusive" has to be another.

After graduating in 1976, penniless, unemployed, with a wife and three children, I wondered if I had made the right decision when I had opted to do a degree in sociology. After all, economics had been my favourite A-level subject. When I enrolled, I was a 21-year-old political and cultural activist dedicated to changing the world, thirsting for knowledge, searching for answers.

Looking back, I have no doubt that sociology was the right choice for me.

Goldsmiths had an enviable reputation for sociology, with several of the lecturers there, including my tutor, Paul Filmer, being the leading exponents of "ethnomethodology". I did not find the answers to all the questions that haunted my young mind, but I left Goldsmiths armed with ways of making sense of the world around me.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a student, I didn't have to worry about tuition or top-up fees and I received a small grant. But those were still hard times. With a young family, and as the only breadwinner, I would do any part-time work I could find to supplement our meagre income. Given the same circumstances, I don't know if I could manage such a feat today, but I am sure that, in spite of the hardship and privation, the shared sacrifice was more than worthwhile.

I was further honoured by my alma mater when I was asked to give the inaugural Richard Hogarth Lecture last year. I was generously introduced by the warden. I spoke about the post-Windrush black experience in Britain, albeit mostly in verse. The lecture was very well attended and equally well received.

On my way home, I remembered Professor Pimlott talking about Goldsmiths'

capacity "to shock with glee" at the graduation ceremony, and it made me smile.

Linton Kwesi Johnson's LKJ Live in Paris is available on DVD and CD.

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