‘University? Don’t go. It’s not for the likes of us.’
I sometimes wonder if I might have been the last person in Britain to be on the receiving end of that phrase.
When my grandmother spoke those words to me over a cup of tea at her council flat in the mid-1990s it was already an anachronism — a cliché, or joke. But she really meant it.
I only got to know this grandmother well after she was widowed. As long as there was a rum-soaked bully with Navy tattoos in the corner we children weren’t made to feel welcome beyond a tense and gloomy visit a week or so before Christmas each year. Once he’d gone the house seemed brighter and she became lighter on her feet. For the first time I heard stories about her father and grandfather, East End hard men and bastards to varying degrees, and realised that she smiled so much because, however hard her adult life had been at times, it was infinitely better than where she had come from.
She worked until the day she died, cleaning the house of a wealthy local family who I gather thought they were doing her a favour by letting her scrub their floors despite her bad heart and busted knees. She never complained about them and always called them Mr and Mrs even as I sat on the chintzy sofa steaming with indignation on her behalf.
When I told her I’d been offered a place at a good university I thought she’d be pleased. I was used to adults being impressed by my achievements. In fact, that sweet hit of approval was what drove me through school and exams. — I was addicted to being told I was a clever boy, like a laboratory hamster conditioned with a controlled feed of sugar water.
But Nan… Nan looked horrified, as if she’d had a vision of the disastrous fate that awaited me. She did, after all, read tea leaves and regarded herself as having The Gift. It was a reaction and perhaps the most emotional I ever saw her.
I was upset and angry, not so much at her as at whatever accident of programming had made her think that way. What did she think was going to happen? That I’d be laughed at or bullied? I brushed it off and I never got to find out exactly what she meant because she died not long after.
I’ve quite often thought about her advice over the years. At various times I’ve suspected she was broadly right — it wasn’t for the likes of me and I didn’t have a huge amount of fun. When the university kept phoning and writing asking for donations after I’d left, as if we’d been great pals, I told them to stop.
Now I wonder if the bit she got wrong was specifically, ‘Don’t go.’ We have to keep going, even as more obstacles are placed in the way, and even if it’s a difficult experience. Otherwise the breach in the wall will get sealed up and we’ll back where we started.