The seventies, the University of York: a strange era, a stranger place, and a setting Linda Grant has been waiting to write about for a very long time.
On a return visit to campus to collect her honorary doctorate, Grant found inspiration for her sixth novel, Upstairs at the Party, set in the Palaeolithic year of 1972. “I was completely shocked at the expansion of the University,” Grant tells me on the book’s release. “The old buildings were like a fossil from another era.”
Like the campus buildings – one described in Upstairs as being “like a docked spaceship”- there was a ferment of experimentation at York that would make a lasting impact on Grant as a young woman. Two new societies launched on her first week: the York Women’s Group and the Gay Liberation Front. “There was this sense of ideas which had never happened before, which were terribly important for us. There was this marvelous sense of ‘wow, we can do what we like here.’”
This youthful wonderment characterises a young Class of ’75 in Upstairs at the Party. The novel is narrated by Jewish Liverpool-born Adele, reflecting on her younger, eighteen year-old self as she arrives at this “concrete utopia” . It’s a place of awakening, of new radical politics after those of the sixties, with the freedom to “go to hell” without parental interference.
Grant does concede a feeling of claustrophobia that pervaded the small campus in 1972 with its population of only 2700. “Clubs? What would you do in a club? Students existed either in people’s houses in parties, or on campus, in gigs and discos. That was the atmosphere.” Yet the freedom of the seventies was “unprecedented”, and is something she believes will never be repeated. “It’s completely gone. We passed through university with these generous grants, we weren’t saddled with these huge awful debts, and we didn’t have to work as hard.”
“Oh god, ambitions! Ambitions! What a horrible word!”
I venture a question about her ambitions when she was a student. “Oh god, ambitions! Ambitions! What a horrible word!” She laughs, with a hint of exasperation. “We didn’t have any ambitions. You have to understand that however rich your parents were the government still gave you a minimum grant. There was no such thing as work experience or internships, and wouldn’t be for a good 20 years later. I don’t remember anyone in the arts department who left university to a job.”
Where the uncertain future might occupy students of today, Grant’s classmates were concerned only for the present. “I was actively involved in the York Women’s Group,” she says. “We would sometimes have joint meetings with the Gay Liberation Front. Homosexuality had only been legalised four years earlier, and boys were coming out with a political context to do it in.” These boys were in what Grant calls “the eye of the storm” – they were in their early twenties, with an AIDS pandemic fast approaching the UK.
“Very sadly some of those early members of the Gay Liberation Front would die, so I don’t think we realised how lucky we were.”
The character of young Adele – impressionable, an eager recruit – strikes me as a semi-autobiographical figure, who shares a past with the author herself. How does Grant go about forming her characters? “Adele has some of me in her, but only some. I think there are characters based on people I knew but not the same gender, background or history. They were a general idea of a type of person, a sense of a person, and it’s how the characters interact with others which forms their identities.”
Like her protagonist, though, further study wasn’t always a given for Grant. Straight after school she started work at a local paper in Liverpool while her friends went off to occupy various student unions. It was watching their fun which then spurred her application to York. “I think I arrived like Adele, feeling like I wasn’t part of that A-Level conveyor belt, though I didn’t lie my way into university like her!” She laughs again. “But I did feel like I didn’t quite belong, like they were going to find me out. I became immersed in a very middle class world, and it stopped me writing for a long time. I’m not exactly sure why but I felt partly intimidated.”
The word “cynical” is one Adele uses to describe her older self throughout the novel; while a recent Telegraph book review used it to describe Linda Grant’s own writing. Grant doesn’t think this particular parallel is entirely fair. “I wouldn’t describe myself as cynical. I think that when I went to get the honorary doctorate [the novel] came out of that. It was only when I went back and I was talking to Greg Dyke and the then-Vice-Chancellor that I really understood the founding principles of the University; about [founding Vice-Chancellor] Lord James, and his idea of defeating totalitarianism through the arts and humanities.”
In any case, she doesn’t give critics much time. “The problem with critics, I’ve discovered, is that a few people will hate your book, and you’re writing for the person who will love it.”
Grant can’t stand D.H. Lawrence or Henry James herself, she says, due to the treatment of women in their writing; but that there’s no need to make a fuss about it. Both authors do crop up again when she ruefully recalls the strong influence of the critic F.R. Leavis over English at York in the seventies. “The faculty had been students of Leavis at Cambridge, and the D.H. Lawrence influence was very much there. My rebellion against D.H. Lawrence and Henry James has lasted a lifetime.”
And what about the writers she likes? “Oh, there are lots. I don’t write anything like him, but Dickens for me remains the greatest writer. But I also love a completely different stylist, Jean Rhys. Her books are barely 200 pages long and are really intense. Those are the two greats for me.”
Grant’s return to York was clearly an important moment for her. The campus sets the stage for an insular and personal retelling of recent history, which could only have been written with the space for reflection allowed by the novel form. Sexual politics, a traditionalist curriculum, and absent parents made it a complicated home that would change you. “It was a place that I had not understood. Over the course of 40 years you look back at a person at the age of 18 and you look at what they become. The circumstances in their lives can now make them look very different.” M