From the archive: getting ready for university in 1985

Ian McEwan, Rose Tremain and Peter Whalley reveal what they really thought about going to uni and how it prepared them for life

Like a great many young people, Ian McEwan didn’t graft much at university. ‘In my first year I handed in a few of my sixth-form essays with the comments rubbed out,’ he says, indifferently, in the Observer Magazine’s 6 October 1985 issue. ‘And in the second year I did hardly any work.’

McEwan is recalling events in a back-to-school feature about the UK’s new wave of modern universities. He’s one of several notable graduates asked to share their experiences. Responses are candid.

Who found essays ‘quite demanding’? That was the novelist Rose Tremain, who read English at the University of East Anglia, where she would later become chancellor.

‘I went to university thinking I’d be sitting up half the night talking about books,’ McEwan says. He never did. ‘Instead we went driving about in battered cars to parties where thousands of people were squashed into a small terraced house drinking lukewarm plonk out of soggy paper cups.’ Me too, Ian! But why? ‘I was afraid that if I didn’t go I would miss something extremely important.’ Even Man Booker winners experience Fomo.

Up next: Peter Whalley, the great Coronation Street scriptwriter. He went to Lancaster. ‘I lived in Morecambe in boarding houses with bottles of sauce on the tables and gongs at the bottom of the stairs,’ he says, with more than a whiff of pride. ‘I was far too young to appreciate it.’ Whalley enrolled to read English. ‘The course was deadly,’ he says. ‘We spent hours crouched around tape recorders trying to distinguish between Australian English and Yorkshire English.’ Not for him, that. ‘I swapped to philosophy after six months.’

More than 2m people will be enrolled in higher education in the UK this year. For many, first terms begin soon, though it’s unlikely many will remember everything about their opening weeks. ‘Those were the days,’ says Tim Chase, who read industrial chemistry at City University before climbing the ladder at the Chase Manhattan Bank. ‘I suppose it was the time of my life.’

Contributor

Alex Moshakis

The GuardianTramp

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