al•ma ma•ter |ˈälmə ˈmätər; ˈalmə|

November 2, 2007

lancasterI went back to Lancaster University yesterday to give a lecture on Naturalising Sense-Making. Those looking for the slides will find them here. There are also some podcasts with similar material and related articles in the literature section of the web site. The rest of this blog is more sentimental, possibly mawkish and will mean more if you, dear reader, ever studied or taught there.

Now I have been back a few times since I graduated n 1975 but always in the past by car. This was the first time by train, which was my normal means of transport at the time and thus a more evocative journey. Students with cars in those days were the exception and always had lots of friends …

As the train drew into Warrington memories started to return. I used to change there from the Chester train and I can still remember the smell of the soap factory adjacent to the station. After that I discovered that the landmarks of the journey were still etched on my memory, from emerging mass of the Bowland Fells to the first sight of the Campus and the canal where I learnt to punt and spent many a happy weekend.

Several people asked me how much it had changed. To be honest the answer is not a lot. OK the hitching point by the Infirmary is no more, but now most students live on campus or have cars. There has been a lot of building to the south of Alexander Square but those of us from colleges to the north avoided that area anyway regarding its occupants as representatives of a primitive life form. The Trough of Bowland (the appropriately named bar in Bowland College) has the same layout and similar furnishings: we used to go there to plot the overthrow of capitalism after a seminar on aesthetics. The Chaplaincy Centre still has a unique shape, which is now the symbol of the University as a whole (that surprised me) although it is no longer the hotbed of late night debate on Liberation Theology, more’s the pity!

Lancaster still has a strong and unique identity as a campus university, isolated on the top of hill several miles from town. That was what attracted me there in the first place, it had an intensity and a novelty that was unique to a then fairly new University. The Headmaster of my school was not pleased as I turned down a near unconditional offer from Imperial College and refused to engage with his old college at Oxford. He was concerned, not just for his reputation (The school judged itself on entries to places like Imperial and Oxford) but for the reputation Lancaster had for militancy (the Craig affair), which my generation went on to enhance. My lecture was given in the same building where a tribunal expelled me from the University in 1975 following what we called The Great Occupation which was ironic to say the least. We were of course (and as planned) reinstated thanks to the British Legal System and the threat of the Privy Council ruling on a matter of Natural Justice.

In any event, the lecture went (I think) reasonably well. Some good questions, in particular about the language of complexity in human systems. We went out for a great evening meal and a renewed acquaintance with one of the best brewing areas in the country. Three of us were of an age and had been at the University as students or young lecturers together. Former members of IMG had now moved to the far right (well they always were extremists), the neo-stalinists still don’t really believe in democracy (that was me) and we are all a lot older with children and grand-children. However during the course of the evening we still put the world to rights. Lancaster was as ever a bounteous mother.

al•ma ma•ter |ˈälmə ˈmätər; ˈalmə |

noun (one’s Alma Mater)
the school, college, or university that one once attended.

ORIGIN mid 17th cent.(in the general sense [someone or something providing nourishment] ): Latin, literally ‘bounteous mother.’

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