Wednesday, April 05, 2017


Do you have an author you found at some point in your life, read avidly and then forgot about or did not for some reason keep track of?

Such a writer for me is Margaret Drabble. I recently read her name somewhere or other and remembered how much I had enjoyed her early books. There always seemed a little more of a connection than that—she was born a few months before I was, we sat for the Newnham entrance exams at the same time (she got in, I didn’t. In fact, she got “a starred First.” I don’t even know what a starred First is, though I can guess. I wouldn’t have come within a mile of one.) After graduation while I was studying the Philosophy, History and whatnot of Education, she was writing and publishing her first book. So I took a trip to the library, took out what they had and reserved some more.

The first book I read was The Pure Gold Baby. When I got to page eight, I came across this passage.

“Jess came from an industrial city in the Midlands and had graduated from a well-regarded grammar school via a foundation course in Arabic at a new university to a degree at SOAS. SOAS! How magical those initials had been to her as a seventeen-year-old when she first heard them, and how thrilling and bewitching they were to remain to her, even into her late middle age! The School of African and Oriental Studies, situated in the heart of academic Bloomsbury.” The whole page brings back memories of a part of London I too have such happy memories of. And while this is a sidebar  to my post, I found that this this book contained so many connections with my life: mention of Potters Bar and Waltham Abbey and the location of the “special” school she chose for her daughter Anna—Enfield, where I grew up and in particular Enfield Lock where my paternal grandparents lived and where my father grew up.

It was the reference to SOAS that grabbed me. Just a few days earlier I had been poring over my “University of London, B.A. Examination for Internal Students: 1962 Pass List”.
looking for the name of someone I knew. As I leafed through the document I noticed there were about two pages of English graduates and about two pages of French. About one page of students graduated in German, less than half a page in Spanish and six students in Italian. Each student had his college printed after his name—Bedford, Westfield, University  College, King’s College and so on. History and Geography followed the same pattern. Lots of History.

What really stood out was the one student who received a degree in Hausa, with SOAS boldly printed after his name. And the six students from the same college with degrees in Swahili. Where did these students come from? Was the one Hausa student the son of missionaries? I doubt any of the grads would have been accepted into their degree programs without first showing some proficiency in the language. SOAS also gave us one Classical Arabic degree, seven Classical and Modern Literary Arabic degrees, one Persian, four Chinese and three Japanese degrees.

The other outlier, SSEES, or the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, graduated eleven students with degrees in Russian.

So, what is my point? My strength has always been languages and no-one ever told me that it would be possible to get a degree in a language more esoteric than the four I knew. (Not to mention the fact that the mainstream college, University College, seems to have taught Scandinavian languages, Dutch and Hebrew.) Would I have been a good student of Hausa?  Swahili? I will never know, but I can’t help thinking that I would have been as excited as Jessica, for whom “SOAS  was a sea of adventure, of learning, of cross-cultural currents that swept and eddied through Gordon Square and Bedford Square and Russell Square.”

Footnote: just as I was about to publish this post, I received an e-mail from my daughter, linking to the book review she had written for her professional association. I guess Robert Frost made my point  better than I could! So did she.

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