It was in February that my father had his first coronary. It happened on a Sunday, after lunch, when I was home for the day from boarding school. My father suddenly had to lie down. If this happened today we would call the ambulance, but in those days you called the doctor to any emergency, day or night, weekends included, and he always came. The doctor, on learning that my father had never had mumps as a child, diagnosed this as the cause of his illness. Obviously my father could not drive me back to boarding school that Sunday evening, but my Aunty Olive stepped into the breach. My mother had already had a stroke a couple of years earlier and this left her with a slight difficulty in walking but her arm was not affected. So by their late fifties both my parents had serious health problems.
My father stayed in bed for a fortnight with “mumps” before he was finally diagnosed as having suffered a heart attack. By then there was little point in sending him to hospital as he had plainly survived the immediate effects. At least he could then be put on the correct medication, which consisted of warfarin and little else. This effective drug against thrombosis had been introduced in 1948 as a rat poison! It is still used for some coronary conditions.
While he was laid up in bed he had plenty of time on his hands, and he spent some of it writing an article for a competition the Optician magazine was running. He was gratified to win the prize of £100 which, in 1967, was worth a great deal more than it is today. This helped his finances too, as he was not earning while not working. However he gave away the proceeds several times over.
He stayed at home until Easter, and just before he returned to work the family went to Itteringham mill near Aylsham which in those days was open as a tea room. It was run by Derek Neville, the nature poet. We also went to Mannington Hall near Holt which was not normally open to the public, but was having an open day. The gardens are now a popular attraction, but the house is still only occasionally open to the public. I have not been back there since 1967.
1967 was the year when I took my A levels, so for the first few weeks of the summer holiday I was on tenterhooks, awaiting the postman with my results. My grade for art wasn’t very good, indeed it was downright bad – a D; so my dreams of going to the Slade or indeed any art school were dashed. History was somewhat better as I got a B grade for that. English was my best subject and I got an ‘A’ grade despite only answering one of the three sections of the exam paper. This was divided into Poetry, Drama and Novels but nowhere did it say that you had to answer a question from each. I did all my answers on poetry. Mr Coleridge (my English master), when I told him what I had done, shook his head and said I should have done one on each. Nonetheless I got the top grade so he need not have worried.
Even in spite of my good marks I was still turned down to read English at Hull, which was one of the universities on my application form. At the time the poet Philip Larkin was the librarian there and this is what had attracted me to the university. I can only think that this rejection was pique on the part of the university as I had put them last of my six choices on the UCCA form, the predecessor of UCAS. All my other applications were to read history, and that too may have had a bearing on my abject failure at Hull. First art school and then Hull University; I wasn’t doing very well. Fortunately everywhere else accepted me. I can recall LSE among the others I applied to, and something tells that another may have been Bristol.
My top choice had been Oxford and, luckily for me, at that time they took no notice of your A level grades. I do not think that D, B and A would be a suitable batch of results for even a second tier university today, which all seem to demand straight ‘A’ grades. In 1967 Oxford and Cambridge based their selection solely on your performance in the Entrance Exam, which you took at the beginning of the following December and, if you passed that hurdle, it all depended on your interview which took place shortly before Christmas.
Why did I choose History? It was all down to David Gregory. I was really enamoured of English. I was not particularly looking forward to doing Anglo-Saxon which was still a compulsory part of the Oxford English course, but I still intended to pursue English at university. However my teacher David Gregory convinced me to read history instead and even recommended that I apply to St Peter’s College at Oxford. He himself had read history at Lincoln College a few years earlier. I am so glad that I followed his advice on both counts. I got a place to read history at St Peter’s and this led to a marvellous three years, some of it even spent studying!