The original York student

1960s alumnus recalls campus activism and a student-run boutique on Stonegate

Coming from South Africa in the early 1960s, from a family implacably opposed to the apartheid government, I found British politics very dull. The differences between the main parties were not as dramatic as in South Africa: the Tories were in hock to the CBI and Labour to the unions.

They both looked very conservative to me. The Liberals took the clearest and strongest line on South Africa, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and Defence and Aid (which was funding the ANC), so the Liberals were where I pledged my support.

Image courtesy of Julian Friedmann

With a number of others, we set up the Anti-Apartheid movement in York which included both University and town members. When the Premier of Rhodesia,  the lamentable Ian Smith, declared Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), we became very busy.

Then I received a summons from my philosophy tutor. Expecting to be reprimanded for spending so much time not studying, I was very pleasantly surprised when he handed me an envelope and with a grin told me that he didn’t expect to see me in lectures for the rest of term. The envelope contained money donated by members of the staff!

The debate about banning certain radical speakers from campuses reared its head back then but the pressure came from the students not the administration or indeed the government (as we now see the Tories trying to curb Islamist and any other race-hate speakers). The left wing wanted to curb the National Front from sending speakers.

Image courtesy of Julian Friedmann

What did surprise me was the high number of apparent student breakdowns. The Students’ Representative Council did felt we needed to try to understand why so many students couldn’t cope with what was supposed to be the best time of their lives.

I don’t recall any conclusive evidence except that many students who had been to the same school for the previous ten years, who knew where they stood in the pecking order in the class, found it hard to be mixed with students from varying backgrounds and often when marks were not given for work so one didn’t know how one compared to others.

There were even protests from some students when told to choose the topic for an essay as opposed to being told what to research and write about. I had taken a gap year and felt that a gap year should be compulsory since many students seemed lost and out of their comfort zone.

But it wasn’t all student politics (or academic work). My girlfriend at the time didn’t think there were any good clothes shops in York. She frequented shops like Biba in London so together with her mother we set up CHICK, a trendy little boutique in Stonegate.

Image courtesy of Julian Friedmann

Not having capital, we never had any stock other than what was on display in the shop. Our policy to encourage conservative York burghers to allow their daughters to shop there was to let them take clothes home to show their parents and return them if they were not deemed acceptable. This worked very well.

We also realized that with the University Ball and the Teachers’ Training College Ball there was a market for the kind of dresses Biba sold: stylist and trendy on the outside, unfinished inside, but costing well under a tenner and meant to be worn only once. We counted over 100 of our dresses at one ball!

Every Monday morning (Saturday being the big day in the shop) we went to London to buy new stock which we took back on the train the same day. I don’t remember what happened in lectures on Mondays!

My overall positive memory of the University of York is a very liberal and laid-back institution. I am not sure how much this was the influence of the apparently benign VC Lord James. On the negative side, in the early years it was tiny and from time to time it felt claustrophobic (I think in my first year there we fewer than 800 students in the University). But I never regretted making York my choice of University.