Since the university first opened it’s doors in 1963, there have been five decades of Freshers’ weeks, each one as hazy and comical as the last. This momentous week is one of the few chances in your lifetime where you can be utterly reckless and totally responsibility-free. No nagging from parents, no curfews, no restrictions. You can down as many test tubes of vodka as your heart desires, jump off bridges, roll down Clifford’s Tower. Do things that a respectable employee would never dream of…
The question is, has Freshers’ week at the University of York always been the same? What has changed since its first year in 1963? Clive Emsley, who is now a Professor of History at the Open University, was one of the original York Freshers’ and explains the ways in which his experience was a little different.
“I don’t really recall a separate ‘week’. We had to set up all of the societies from scratch and make it up as we went along. There were about 200 undergraduates, mostly, I think, from single-sex grammar schools. I can’t be sure but the gender balance seemed about 50/50 so living and working with members of the opposite sex was ‘different’ for all of those of us who came straight from school. There were no halls of residence (until 1965) so everyone lived in digs, usually in the centre of York.”
“Try everything… except Morris Dancing and sodomy”
Even though it was the 60s, it wasn’t quite as sordid as you might think. “There was an air of innocence about many of us – even if it was the 1960s. Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll were still relatively new for late teenagers in 1963. That might shock the Freshers’ of today!” For entertainment, Clive wasn’t drinking at his local each night, instead he was visiting cinemas, the Theatre Royal and Saturday night discos at Heslington. “I don’t recall people being out every night or drinking heavily, even at weekends. One or two people got legless, but I don’t recall it as a regular occurrence.”
Nicholas Wapshott, an inspiration for many undergraduates at York University since working for The Times and The New York Sun, and helping to launch The Daily Beast, was a Freshers’ student during the 1970s. Nicholas’ first week was characterised by a rush to sign up for societies: “I signed up for the DramaSoc, YSTV, Radio York and Nouse and took part in all of them every year. I went to the Edinburgh Fringe twice. The radio station was a bit spotty in those days, and the Physics department kept telling us to keep the noise down, which was an inhibition. I wrote for Nouse when I knew the editor and didn’t when I didn’t. Just like real journalism.”
To this end, he urges incoming Freshers to follow his lead: “Sign up to everything you think you may be interested in and more. No one holds you to it, but the societies need the numbers to get their funding.” And what about his top tips for those crazy all-nighters? “Don’t get too intoxicated too early in the evening. There’s a long night ahead of you and some people can’t make up their minds what they want to do, ‘should I go or should I stay’, until the early hours. Then it’s best to be sober enough to act. And try any and everything. There is an old saying you should try everything except Morris Dancing and sodomy. As your undergraduate days are a time when no one much cares what you do or did – unless like Cameron and Osborne you act like prats in the Bullingdon Club and get photographed doing it – my advice is to try everything. Including Morris Dancing.”
And if drinking yourself into oblivion isn’t your cup of tea, then fear not, because Nicholas found other ways of amusing himself back in the day. In the same way that York now offers movie nights and relaxed alternatives to sweaty Ziggy’s, Nicholas “made a point of finding a nice place to live because I would prefer to hang out with people I like at home. I rented an enormous TV, which was strange for a student in those days, and we watched old movies and chilled. Jumping around at a disco was not my idea of a good night out.”
But don’t for a second think that Nicholas’ time at university was anything but fun. There was not many Freshers that had such a laugh selling ice cream outside of the film nights at Central Hall – something we are most definitely in need of now. “With my pal Ed Gillespie, now manager of Cheltenham Racecourse, I ran an ice-cream business, selling lickable treats at the film nights at Central Hall and the discos and concerts in the dining rooms. It was fun to do and highly lucrative. We used to sing out, “Whose-ah Wants-ah Tutti-Fruits” in mock Italian accents (think Chico Marx) that I guess would be considered politically incorrect today.”
Nicholas’ lasting piece of advice, “What happens in York, stays in York”, most definitely applies to Freshers’ child of the 90s, Horatio Clare. His room was on the top floor of Derwent, overlooking Heslington Hall, and he told of how he first met his fellow students in a corridor queue where they were all signing up for registration. “There was a frightening-looking skinhead called Eric who became a firm friend later due to shared interests in marijuana and women. I met my fellow English students in a large lecture theatre, where the then head of the department, Professor Jacques Berthoud, informed us that firstly, if we did not read for pleasure outside the course we were missing half the point, and secondly, we would never be more immortal than we were then. I established that there was only one really stunning girl doing English in our year and resolved to sleep with her as soon as possible. Irish Jo, as we called her, resisted all my advances, told me I was a laughable fool, and became a great friend.”
You meet the weirdest and most wonderful people at university – people you would never dare to mix with usually, and for Horatio, in the 90s, this was no different. “The best friend I made lived two doors down the corridor, a third year with big hair and massive socks, a Yorkshire man called Richard, who knew how to make tea, loved all the music I did and then some, and took a long, long time to dress in vintage clothes. He was incredibly well read, something of a stoner himself and was obsessed by Neighbours to the exclusion of his degree, which in any case he had lost interest in, since he was going to be an actor. In fact he is now a very successful and quite famous actor called Richard Coyle. I thank the Lord that we were put on the same corridor as he is one of the people I love most in the world.”
Unlike Nicholas, Horatio didn’t sign up to a single society and although he was lucky enough to be put on the same floor as Richard, one of his regrets is that he didn’t make more of an effort to go out and make new friends. This realisation came after one funny moment during Freshers’ Week: “I found myself with two friends walking by a lake over which a huge building like a spaceship hovered darkly. We were all stoned. I was delighted. ‘Wow! I cried, Look at this! Wow!’ ‘You idiot’, said my friend, ‘that’s Central Hall! Don’t tell me this is the first you’ve seen of it?’ ‘It certainly is the first I’ve seen of it’, I said, ‘Wow!’ ‘Christ’, he said, ‘you have been here a week. That is truly pathetic. You are a debauched son of a bitch.’ Reader, that was true. My advice to any Fresher would be: Do not hide in your room smoking dope.” His other advice is invaluable, too. “Do not worry if you do not make great friends in the first week, you certainly will. Everyone does. You don’t need to sign up for everything, but do sign up for something, at least. Before you do drinking, eat a fatty chop. Or eat something with carbs and fats in it – the more the better, you will still be going strong when everyone else is being sick. Before you go to sleep drink a lot of water. Eat. Don’t necessarily sleep with the girl/boy across the corridor, as you will have to live together for the next year. And if you go to university with a girl/boyfriend at another university, ask yourself, is it really, really worth it?”
“Turn off the television, grab your new friends and head down to the pub for an evening of laughter and interesting conversation with people you may know for the rest of your lives.” Listen up and make it the best Freshers’ week yet.