Now the University of Northumbria, it was just plain old Newcastle upon Tyne Polytechnic back then, and “home” was room no.9 in the Monkchester East Hall on the Coach Lane campus, situated a few miles (or a few Metro stops) away from the city centre.
Although I was only there for those nine short months—an insignificant period given my age—my time at Coach Lane had a lasting impact on me.
I was an immature and naive eighteen year old, who wasn’t really prepared for student life; and it took me several weeks to settle into my new surroundings, and begin to properly integrate. I had never had to fend for myself, and I soon learned that I was as bad at cooking and washing as I was at managing money. Obviously the main reason I was there was to study, and I’ll never fully understand why the course I chose comprised French, German, Politics and Economics. I was a reasonably good linguist, but had very little interest in Politics, and absolutely none at all in Economics. I had zero ability in the latter as well, so as far as first year exams were concerned, the writing was on the proverbial wall from an early stage in proceedings.
(As it turned out, the Economics paper was the only one out of twelve that I failed—although I failed it by a distance; and with that I was forced to bid farewell to further education.)
From an emotional perspective, it was certainly an intense time. Being on my own in a relatively small room, with just my collection of tapes and vinyl 45s for company, offered far too much time for reflection and introspection, and there were periods when I felt incredibly low—and lonely. That said, company was never far away and over time, I made some good mates, most notably my Rush and Toto-playing neighbour Stephen.
I did have a couple of close friendships, both of which were important to me. One was destined to end in tears (all of which were mine) as the girl concerned already had—and ultimately kept—a boyfriend. The other was with Ruth, with whom I got on really well. We went out, she dumped me, but I’m not bitter... in fact our paths crossed a couple of years ago (via a Valentine’s Day blog of all things) and it’s genuinely lovely to be back in touch.
My overriding feeling about that year away is that it’s something of an unfinished chapter in my life. I realise that sounds strange given that I’m going back more than three decades, and it’s also really hard to try and explain, but some of the memories (both good and bad) that I have are still incredibly strong, and somehow become more vivid around this time of year.
Perhaps I have never fully come to terms with the abiding sense of failing, I honestly don’t know, but those months at Coach Lane had a such a profound effect on me that parts of the campus (as I remembered them) form the setting for my recently finished debut novel; so, much as I visited my first home in the ultimately unfulfilled hope of getting a sense of the past, I wanted to see my old room to give me some sort of “closure”—if that’s the right word.
Apologies if all that makes little or no sense....
Anyway, back to yesterday morning, and it was pretty miserable when I arrived, to be met by the Project Officer Gary Wilson. He explained that all the old buildings on the far side of the campus that had formerly been Halls of Residence now lay empty, in varying states of (dis)repair, waiting to be sold off as a housing development.
Until very recently, I had no photographs at all from my year at Coach Lane (the albums sadly ended up being dispatched the same way as all my old newspaper cuttings: still not happy but there’s nothing I can do). On approaching Monkchester East Hall, the grass and hedges may have been slightly overgrown, but outwardly the building looked exactly the same as I remembered it.
Gary unlocked the outer door and there, on the left as I faced along the short corridor, was room no.9.
In reality, all I was about to do was enter an empty room, but it was the weirdest feeling....
Surreal... but briefly wonderful.
The shared toilet and bathroom were still directly opposite my room, with bedrooms rooms once occupied by Brian, Stephen and Paul leading to the kitchen... food lockers empty, but ready to be padlocked, if only I’d brought some cheddar spread with me.
I had my camera with me, so at least I won’t have to rely on my memory for my final ever visit to my old student accommodation. If I’m honest (and without wanting to be unnecessarily over-dramatic), it might take some time to completely get my head around what today meant, but for now, I’m just happy that I was allowed to return, and spend just a few minutes in a place that holds so many memories.