This is an updated and I hope improved version of something I shared a week ago.
I’ve almost come to believe that Dr Chivers never existed, that he was a figment of my imagination. I have searched on-line for any trace of him but without success. The fact that it was over half a century ago when I first met him, the fact that the place I met him no longer exists except as a skeleton does make finding him difficult. Dr Chivers may in fact be dead now. However, I know that Dr Chivers did exist – if he hadn’t then I wouldn’t be sitting right here, right now, coffee to hand, writing on my mind.
All through my childhood I thought I’d go to university; however, although I lived in Cambridge, going to any of its colleges was an impossible dream. However, without being boastful or immodest, I knew I was clever enough – but my temperament let me down; lack of focus, wandering mind, weird inspiration, misreading things, unleashing my mental hobbyhorse, this would not get me the results I needed.
At school I was forced to take Latin despite being spectacularly useless at it. I wasn’t helped by having six weeks of glandular fever in the first term of studying the blasted subject. I wasn’t helped by there being a monster of a head mistress (think Miss Trunchbull without the physical violence but with plenty of other sorts of spite.) At that time, getting into university to read English depended on having an O-level in that moribund language. I slogged, until miraculously a young Latin teacher from New Zealand arrived at school in place of the dear old ninny who’d taught us before. Suddenly things made sense! Maybe I could actually get an O-level in Latin! However, vindictively, the monstrous headmistress decided I wouldn’t be entered for the exam. My chances of doing a degree in English vanished.
I changed schools. We moved from the east of the country to the west, and I continued to study English for A-level, with history and French. I passed my A-levels, although not spectacularly, but in any case, I’d had precisely zero offers of a place to study anything at any University. I could have gone to teacher training college in Matlock, in the depths of the Peak District. However I definitely did not want under any circumstances to be a teacher. Yes, I know, funny how fate conspires! I wanted to write, I wanted to be a journalist, but I didn’t get into journalism college either. In fact apart from the writer thing, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.
I realise now my parents must have been very understanding about my great disappointment, and although no doubt worried which way my future would lead, they knew that I’d get a job of some sort and work hard at it.
That summer holiday, when everyone else was starting work, or getting ready to go away from home to college or uni, I was in Cambridge, my home town. I wasn’t there to study, I was staying with family. I had a wonderful time, the sun shone, I was with friends in a beautiful city, and I fell in love – which definitely took my mind off my academic future.
I returned home and on a particularly sunny and lovely day at the beginning of September, the phone rang. Dad called me through; someone wished to speak to me.
I couldn’t imagine who it might be, and answered tentatively. A hearty and cheerful voice introduced himself as Dr Chivers of Manchester Polytechnic. He was inviting me to an interview for a place on a degree course in English, History and French. I felt as if I was standing in a brilliant shower of sparkling sunlight as I gabbled something, thanking him and eagerly accepting his invitation to come up to Manchester and meet him at the Faculty of Commerce to discuss a place to read for a degree! Thrilled, delighted and excited, I joyfully accepted – a time for the interview was set, and the date – which was the following day!
This was in the time before there were many polytechnics; in fact Manchester Poly was among the first and was brand new. I – if Dr Chivers accepted me, would be among the first students there! My granddad had been to London Polytechnic before the first war, he would’ve been so proud to think of me attempting to follow his example. I’d been to Manchester University on an English course and had loved the city; the thought of going back was thrilling beyond words!
My parents were as overjoyed, delighted and excited as I was, and probably even more relieved. They took me to catch a train in Weston and sent me north.
I arrived at Piccadilly Station in Manchester with absolutely no idea where the Poly was and got in a taxi. The driver was similarly baffled and asked if I meant the Institute of Technology. Polytechnic/technology, same thing, innit? He drove me to the Institute of Science and Technology about a quarter of a mile from the station – I could have walked there quicker than it took to negotiate the traffic and find somewhere for him to stop. I climbed the steps of UMIST; there was barely anyone about because of course term hadn’t started yet. I asked a porter and he asked his mate and they asked a passing person and no-one had heard of Manchester Polytechnic.
It’s the Faculty of Commerce, I explained. Oh the College of Commerce!! Yes, go over that crossing, turn right and it’s just there on the left, a big, grey tower block!
Within minutes, I was bounding up the steps in my brown, belted coat, a little gold orchid broach on my lapel and an excited and nervous look on my face. I took the lift up to the eighth floor, along a narrow corridor with squeaky lino, and knocked on the door which had the name ‘Dr Chivers’ inscribed. It was opened by a small man with a bald head and an exceedingly jolly face and sparkly glasses. It must have been the light reflecting off his lenses, but to me the sparkle spoke of magic and mystery.
I must have been so keen and so enthusiastic! I must have been absolutely thrilled at being there, being interviewed by him, and maybe he hadn’t got it in his heart to disappoint me, or maybe he saw something in me which convinced him I was worthy of a place. Maybe the Faculty of Commerce was so desperate for students that anyone who showed the slightest interest would have had the offer shoved into their desperate hands. Whatever, Dr Chivers asked if I would like to join them on the following Monday!
Would I, Dr Chivers? Would I? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes!
I was going to do a degree! I was going to be a student! I was going to Manchester!!
I had three wonderful, marvellous years at the College of Commerce as it was still known, Colcom for short. Dr Chivers taught us history and like all the lecturers there, he was dynamic, interesting, extraordinary. I was almost hypnotised by his cleverness, knowledge and erudition. However, I can’t find any trace of Dr Chivers now, in fact I can’t find any trace of the building which used to be the College of Commerce aka the Faculty of Commerce, in fact, it may have become a Premier Inn. There also isn’t much about Manchester Polytechnic on-line – not that I can find. The institution is now Manchester Metropolitan University. I may not be able to find it, it may not even exist, but my life was changed there.
Thank you Dr Chivers, I’m forever grateful, and will never forget you and the wonderful chance you gave me – and I forgive you the comment you made on an essay of mine, describing it as journalistic bombast. No doubt as usual I was carried away with over-enthusiasm and excitement and wrote a lot of nonsense about one of Napoleon’s campaigns.