There’s often one particular member of your extended family who you just click with, maybe due to a genetic coincidence, making you two especially similar in personality. You might only see each other once a year, but on that day you can glance across the table during Christmas dinner and exchange a knowing look. As you’ve matured into adulthood you find a pint with them can be one of the best. My Uncle Rob and I share that bond (Yes: Bob’s my uncle). I like to think of him as my male equivalent, just always thirty years ahead of me. In 1981, Robert England started at Leeds University. Three decades later, I did the same.
Recently, Uncle Rob sent me a photo taken in 1985 for the student newspaper. The shot was of his uni friends on the Parkinson steps, sprawled out nonchalantly on the building’s grand entrance, in the way that only students can. The girls’ permed hairdos is perhaps the photograph’s only clue that the snap wasn’t taken yesterday.
The pre-internet clan in the original photo were grabbed by a student photographer with a camera full of film and asked to pose for the shot. English and embarrassed, the boys joked around while the girls giggled at the fun of it. Thirty years on, I group-messaged my housemates on WhatsApp and organised the re-creation of the old-school snap, and they behaved just the same.
Uncle Rob now lives in Uppsala, in Sweden: a city to which he originally went on a research trip for his PhD in Pure and Applied Biology. He returned to live there as a graduate after meeting the Scandinavian girl of his dreams (now my Aunt). He now owns his own Science Marketing & Branding Agency and runs a three hundred strong team of employees. Always keen to reminisce about Leeds, he jotted down some of his memories in an email to me. Little of what sticks in his memory about Leeds has changed:
“It never occurred to me all those years ago that I would be asked to recall my time at Leeds. One day you might be asked to do the same, so do keep your memories well. Leeds is forever part of me, having spent 6 formative years there, from 1981-1987, when I was heavily investing in my ability to think, do and socialise.
“Fourteen of us lived in a big house on 59, Cliff Road. Our landlord left us pretty much to our own devices. We learned everything from each other – for better or worse. How to cook a pork chop, keep a kitchen clean, and hold parties that everyone wanted to come to. We decked out the old Victorian house as Camelot, a Transylvanian castle or a bordello, depending on the theme.
“I remember Fresher’s Week being a blur of getting to know each other and drinking too much. I was late to my very first lecture. On entering the lecture room (the subject was quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle) from the lashing September rain outside, I felt the eyes and the smirks. What a way to meet my new course mates.
“My course mates took second place to my housemates. Is that still the way it works? Probably. When you share a house, you share a life. In a house of fourteen people, you get on with 4 or 5, are neutral to about 6 or 7, and there’s always 1 or 2 who you don’t quite get. There was this one bloke that brought his concept of the army with him. He was OTC–Officers Training Corps, and he spent weekends on manoeuvres while we languished in the Union bars. The world was in the midst of The Cold War, and we were about to invade the Falklands, but somehow I could never take him seriously. I remember him in the middle of the kitchen wearing his army boots standing in a basin of water, while we others skirted around him to make our dinner.
“We all had small cupboards to store our meagre food supplies. One third year had a large cupboard, which he kept stocked with only tinned food, for the sake of economy and efficiency. The thing that offended us was that he decided to install a padlock, “so that none of you buggers would be tempted to borrow from me”. We acknowledged this with raised eyebrows, and accepted it with bemusement. Our policy was generally to share whatever we had, as long as you asked beforehand.
“One day, his cupboard was left unlocked. We could have simply emptied it of its contents, of course. We had however a much better plan. We carefully removed all the paper labels on the tins, and randomly taped them back onto other tins. His dinners for the next few weeks consisted of surprises.
“Our house–and its contingent large circle of friends–did everything together. In the 80’s, the classic good night out was a couple of pints at the Faversham, dancing at Martinas, or DJs and gigs at The Warehouse (The Cramps, The Undertones, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood were memorable) and the legendary University Refectory. Those days, everyone came to The Refec to play: Elvis Costello, Simple Minds, Level 42, Bauhaus, and Leeds favourites The Sisters Of Mercy and The March Violets. The most lasting impression was a visit by The Clash, who were having trouble in the studio and were in need of a break. Andy Kershaw and the Ents team invited them up and the whole student population came to see them play an impromptu gig on the Refectory steps. Everyone who knew and cared about The Clash hung out with Joe, Mick, Topper and Paul on the lawns outside the Union Building.
“The Student Union vote to support the Miners’ Strike left us divided. It was a period of ideological transition in Britain. Change was needed, but it was difficult to stand by and see working families suffer. We marched for gay rights, demonstrated for the end of apartheid and we rocked against racism. Those things were clear. And we actually did believe that we might see thermonuclear war in our lifetime.
“I left Leeds in 1987. A couple of years later, the Berlin Wall fell, the World Wide Web was born, and a new era would begin.
“I visited Leeds again in December 2013. Well-dressed students invited each other to dance to the band playing Dixie jazz in the Old Bar. Smartphones took selfies and students drank hot toddies. How very civilised, and how very affluent everything seemed. In my time, in this very same space, we nursed a pint of mild and discussed the rise of AIDS while the jukebox blared “The Passenger”. Aye, times have surely changed.”
My uncle Rob’s fondest memories seem to possess so much of what mine do, and when he came to visit me in 2013 I felt proud that my lifestyle evoked so many feelings for him. Although perhaps we are not fully aware of how much more luxurious our experience is today.
From the first day of Freshers’ week to the cramming season of finals, over the decades the Parkinson steps have seen thousands of Leeds students climb them, smoke on them, cry on them and loiter on them for lunch. If the the building had a voice, it would have many a story to tell. Instead, memories have been preserved by the students’ newspaper for 118 years, recording history and preserving the voices of students past and present, which truly makes the student newspaper an institution worth fighting for.