I have written a few times about life at school but I don’t think I’ve talked about my experience of higher education.
I studied Law at the Polytechnic of Central London, which is now the University of Westminster. As well as my visual impairment, due to my arthritis, I was walking with crutches at the time. This meant I couldn’t carry a long cane either for mobility use or to indicate to others that I couldn’t see. As you might imagine, this complicated my life a little.
I was allocated a room in a hall of residence in Marylebone Road.
You may have seen the concrete jungle opposite Madame Tussauds. That monstrosity housed the School of Management and the hall of residence. The latter was 21 storeys high and in high winds people on the upper floors could see ashtrays and mugs move across their desks.
I was originally given a room on the 15th floor but when it was mentioned that in the case of fire the lifts would be turned off, I pointed out to them that I would never make it out of the building. They then moved me down to the 5th floor. I explained that, in the event of a fire, I still wouldn’t be able to get out of the building alive. The Law School’s answer to this was to warn me in advance whenever there was going to be a fire drill. No one ever answered my query as to who was going to warn me in advance when there was going to be a real fire!
I shared a galley kitchen with 11 other people. There were six girls’ rooms on one side of the building and six boys’ rooms on the other, with a common room in the centre.
I will come back to the kitchen in a moment.
On the first night I plucked up courage, knocked on my neighbour’s door and asked if she was going to the canteen for breakfast the next day and, if so, could I come with her. She said yes and the next morning off we went. I did eventually learn my own way there although it wasn’t easy. You had to go down to one of the lower floors, up some stairs, and across the area linking the hall to the School of Management. This last sometimes contained moveable stands displaying students’ work, which conveniently served as unexpected collision hazards for visually impaired students like me. (I seem to recall exhibitions of work by the students on the photographic arts course, so perhaps they were housed there as well as the management students. I can’t remember!) You then had to go upstairs again and, finally, you came to the canteen.
It was all of a bit of a trek and after a while I started getting my own breakfast. I did use the canteen sometimes in the evenings though.
The Law School also had a canteen. Obviously, I couldn’t identify the food on offer or carry a tray so, if I was on my own, I just turned up at the counter and one of the staff would help me. They were really good about this.
I remember one particularly cheerful guy – I think his name was Bernard – who was great. One morning I turned up for breakfast in the canteen and, as far as I could tell, seemed to be the only person there.
“Hello beautiful,” he said.
I turned round, thinking that someone had crept up behind me, before realising that it was Bernard addressing me from behind the counter. In those days, this sort of banter came without consequences. I didn’t mind. His cheerful demeanour was reassuring to me as one who very much needed his assistance.
I said that I’d return to that student kitchen I shared with 11 others…
I am amazed we didn’t all suffer regularly with salmonella. Piles of dirty plates would sit in the sink, sometimes for days. I once had to sit on the floor to stir my scrambled eggs because there was literally nowhere to put the pan down.
One day, one of the boys came into the kitchen whilst I, the blind girl, was trying to cook on the inadequate oven, and asked me how to boil an egg. He must have been truly hungry.
Somehow, we all survived!