Thursday, 25 September 2008

A journey through education 5

The city of Derry in 1978 was still at war. It was here that the Institute of Continuing Education was based at Magee University College, the oldest part of the University of Ulster. Whilst waiting for the time for my job interview, I took a walk around. A bomb exploded as I walked past a shop. Fortunately it was only an incendiary device, of the kind with which I had become familiar in London during WW2. Many shops were boarded up and this beautiful city looked sad and forlorn. I spoke to some of the British soldiers, I had once been one of them myself, in another foreign place. They asked me questions about what I was doing there and I deduced that this was a part of a low-level intelligence gathering procedure. I visited the Free Derry wall in the Bogside. Later I was to go there many times, to watch the Saturday afternoon riots.

Of course, being English in Derry was a strange experience at that time, but, like others, I quickly became defined by my politics. This was a university setting and I was not constrained in the way I had been in the very different environment of Peterborough. The students were all mature and I had a great deal in common with them, whatever their politics.I made many friends. I could walk into the centre of the city, after a few years and would have to stop several times to chat to people I knew. I would go into a bar on my own and would shortly have friends coming over bearing drinks. I miss that.

On my interview day I asked a police person where the cathedral was. The Catholic or Protestant cathedral, he asked ? A divided city, but not divided equally. The nationalist community was, and is, in the large majority. Despite this the unionists ran the city for many years, because of gerrymandered ward boundaries. The old Church of Ireland cathedral was fascinating and full of history, but cold and unwelcoming somehow. The catholic cathedral was more modern, but glowing with warmth and candle light. Strange that I should feel more at home there, than in the cathedral which belonged to the communion into which I had been baptised. Not that I was tempted to convert. I had long since been an atheist. Now I think of myself more as an agnostic, whatever the disapproval of Dawkins may be. I feel that his stern rationalism leaves scant space for human emotionality.

Teaching in Derry was full of emotion and the political temperature was high. I had to decide at the beginning how to deal with my own political commitment. I adopted the simple expedient of explaining what my views were and telling students that they should make their own judgements. I would do my best to draw their attention to all the contending views in a debate. I was keen on heuristic learning and went in for some role playing. People were likely to find themselves in the situation of having to persuade their fellows of the validity of a political position opposed to their own. What fun.

I lived in residence for a while, before my family joined me. One day a detonator went off on campus, but the bomb itself failed to explode. Apparently there was a 'secret' RUC meeting taking place. The bomb disposal squad was called for, from my old corps, and we had to wait in the common room while the bomb was dismantled. The housekeeper, a stern Protestant woman whose cousin was a very senior RAF officer, played the piano and led us in a chorus of old wartime songs. Surreal or what ? Some years later when I was crossing the border at Strabane a bomb exploded in a shop, showering my car with glass. My young daughter was sitting in the back. Perhaps it was time to start thinking of returning home.

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