From an old tin trunk to an iPod

16th September 2005 at 01:00
In my attic is an old black tin trunk. It has on it initials I don't recognise and is so battered it must have been used east of Suez before the Great War. It looked like you might find the words Port Outward, Starboard Home on it somewhere. I have no idea where it came from, but I do know it was crucial to my life at university in the seventies.

Two weeks before the start of term, it would be packed with my most prized possessions. From memory, this would have been about a dozen favourite LPs, the odd book, two or three changes of clothes and enough socks to last until half term, when I would duly return home with a suitcase full of dirty washing.

Once full, the trunk would be trussed up and dispatched into the tender care of the British Road Services, whose lorries would take it, tarpaulin flapping as they crested Shap Summit, up to Edinburgh, where I would receive it at some indeterminate time in the new term.

From this distance and described thus, the whole business seems like something Auden may well have written about just after completing Night Mail. As I drove through Edinburgh's student flatland last week, it began to seem positively antediluvian. There, on the cobbled streets of Marchmont, were the returning students.

From a selection of white hire vans, sporty wee cars and the occasional wrinkly-driven family four by four issued forth on to the pavements a variety of bright young things, all iPods, designer labels and holiday tans, ready to haul their belongings up the wallied closes of the douce tenements for the new term.

OK, yah, it was Edinburgh. But even if for many of them their lifestyles are funded on the loans we were forbidden to apply for in my day, it was clear things have changed greatly.

I made use of the experience when warning my sixth year to research thoroughly before choosing a university and setting out on the Ucas trail.

"Beware of stereotyping!" was my theme. They would find little sign of the stripey-scarfed, blazered and beer-swilling medics so beloved of Doctor in the House. Arts students would not all be misty-eyed dreamers, and not all scientists would be geeks.

But then I have to admit to a wee private snigger when I remembered that our hosts on our recent holiday in Vietnam had informed us that, in their country, teachers are regarded as "engineers of the soul". For all my determination to eschew the stereotype, those are hardly two words you'd expect to find in the same sentence.

Indeed, as undergrads, we English students would have had a word for it: oxymoron.

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