From booze to books

Four famous York alumni look back on their first weeks at university

Anthony Horowitz

Author of Alex Rider series


God – it feels like about thirty years since I rolled up for my first day at York University. Actually, it was thirty years…that’s even more sickening. I even used to write for Nouse… not that they were so keen on publishing my articles then. And now, there’s all of you about to have the most fantastic three years in a majorly good university, not to mention a really nice town – while I’m just getting old and resentful and forgetting that I ever had a beard and a motorbike and an extremely pokey room in Vanbrugh College.

So on that rather sour note, let me say at once that York had absolutely nothing to do with my success as a writer… or indeed as a human being and if you bother to look up the result of my degree (English and Art History) you’ll discover that they woefully under-rated my contribution to academic life. On the plus side, I enjoyed almost every second of my time on the banks of the world’s biggest artificial duck pond and hope you will too although, all in all, it might be advisable to do a tad more work than I managed.

Am I meant to give profound advice in this sort of article? All right. Never forget that the first six people you meet in Fresher’s Week, you will spend the rest of your university years trying to avoid. This may not be a universal truth. Also remember that the winters in York are cold. Not London “put on a jersey” cold. York “you just died” cold. And Betty’s tea-shop is over-rated. What more can I say?

Oh yes – I want to pass on my best wishes to young “HS”, a friend of my son who begins at York this term. I know you’re nervous, “H”. I wonder if you’re reading this. It would be so great to embarrass you horribly by naming you. But I’m not going to spoil your first week even though I’m so jealous of the experience that lies ahead for you that I feel only enmity and ill-will. Have fun. I certainly did.

Jonathan Stroud

Fantasy novel author


In the early hours of my first night at York I lay in my little Vanbrugh room listening to someone drunkenly singing Bohemian Rhapsody down by the lake. This ranks with the howl of the timber-wolf and the lost-soul cry of the peacock as one of the most eerie, desolate sounds on God’s good earth. To a nervous, pasty-faced southerner, out in the wide world for the first time, it was also a wake-up call. All around me in the darkness, I knew, were several thousand other silent, sleeping forms. So far (apart from a bloke called Dave who I’d met in Vanbrugh Bar, toured the campus with and never saw again) I didn’t know any of them. It was time to get out and meet some people. It was time to get involved.

I went down to the Fresher’s Fair. It was held in the space-ship thing in the middle of the lake. Afterwards, apart from (a) a couple of exams and (b) Graduation Day, I never set foot in that building again. Rumour had it that its foundations were unsound; rock concerts had been held there in the early years of the University, but hundreds of moshing feet had threatened to send it sliding into the lake, so it was never used for an entertaining purpose again. But on that particular Fair day it resembled nothing less than an Istanbul bazaar, jam-packed with little stalls and booths, and the sweatily milling mass of my fellow students. Wan freshers stumbled about agog, while big, hairy, and above all confident second- and third-years roared and supplicated like hucksters, thrusting pamphlets, society rule-books, freebies, maps and fliers into our trembling hands. The energy was palpable: all things were possible. Clearly the decisions I made there and then would shape and guide my social life for the next three years. In a whirl of commitment I joined a dozen societies and departed – light-headed, but with a definite spring in my step. I had begun to shape my York University destiny!

Only it doesn’t work like that, not really. Of those dozen societies I probably only ever attended half of them, and most of those only once or twice. Because in those first few days I hadn’t really got more than a hazy clue about what I wanted to do or achieve – in essence, what I wanted to be. The answers to those questions would take months and years to evolve, and they did so through much more organic means – through the neighbours on my corridor, through the friends on my course, through chance encounters in bars and lunch-halls. It was with friends that I went along on spec to a Creative Writing group; with friends I subsequently joint-wrote a play for the Drama Barn. It was with friends that I took up acting, tried editing a literary magazine, wrote pieces for this newspaper. Some of these ventures were successful, some (it must be said) were dire, but they all existed in a curious intermediate space, midway between my course (I was doing English Lit) and my purely social life. This space, I think, is where you ultimately find out who it is you really are. I wasn’t a great playwright. I wasn’t a great actor. I wasn’t going to be a journalist either. But I did like writing: that was where the joy was.

It took me years more to figure out that what I might truly be was a Young Adult fantasy novelist, but it was York that gave me the necessary momentum, that turned me to face roughly the right direction. And that’s the beautiful thing about three years in this vibrant, intimate, chaotic and creative community. It gives you the time and space to suss things out a bit. Plus, if all else fails, you can always sit by the lake in the company of waterfowl and serenade the night with some choice Queen songs.

Have a great time.

Christine Hamilton

Television and personality author


I arrived at York in 1968. The streets worldwide were an ocean of protest. There were barricades and tear gas in Paris as students rampaged through the city, full of revolutionary zeal and fervour, the sons and daughters of the privileged shoulder to shoulder with the poor, paralysing the government of General de Gaulle. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jnr were assassinated and London witnessed violent anti-Vietnam demonstrations. Students everywhere were revolting against authority. But the event that year which had the deepest and most lasting impact on me was the self-immolation of Jan Palach, who set fire to himself in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I was in awe of his courage, but deeply shocked and moved he could sacrifice his young life in such a horrific way.

Politics were rampant on the York campus and it was not easy being a student right-winger when the world was under-going a cultural, social and sexual revolution. Tory Central Office contrived to make life even harder by naming their student wing the Federation of University Conservative and Unionist Associations. These were more innocent days, before FCUK. Fortunately, the penny dropped and it became the Federation of Conservative Students, with more user-friendly initials, FCS. Amazingly, we were the largest political group, with Labour second and the far left splintered into innumerable sects like Spartacus, Trotskyites and Ice-pick (anti-Trots – Trotsky was murdered with an ice-pick). By their in-fighting, the left allowed the Tories to be the largest group, although we were massively outnumbered when they united.

I originally wanted to study economics, having so enjoyed ‘A’ level, but eventually decided on trendy new sociology. Broadcaster Laurie Taylor was a junior lecturer and the only person who could get students out of bed on a Monday morning. Rumours abounded of how many he got into bed as well but I could not possibly comment. He was magnetic, charismatic and his lectures were always full. Sociology was a wonderful way to idle away three years. As long as you mugged-up on basic facts, it seemed largely opinion and interpretation. While Chemistry undergraduates sweated in laboratories every day, I breezed in and out of three lectures and two tutorials a week. That was it.

Having a good time and dabbling in politics absorbed most of my energies. York is a noble city, always providing plenty of diversion. In my first two years I lodged with a local solicitor and his wife in Burton Stone Lane. They were heavily involved with the Arts Theatre and I spent many a happy hour helping behind the scenes, suitably star-struck by young actresses like Judi Dench and Francesca Annis. The race course was a popular haunt, the surrounding countryside glorious and I enjoyed long days out in the Dales, walking, pubbing and just being young. Oh, and while at York I met my husband-to-be, Neil Hamilton, who was then studying at Aberyswyth. We met at an FCS Conference and conducted a long distance relationship much to the detriment of my landlord’s telephone bill and to the benefit of the Royal Mail. Oh, happy days before the mobile!

My advice? Enjoy yourself, enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think!

Graham Swift

Booker Prize-winning author of Waterland and Last Orders


I don’t think I’m in any position to offer the fruits of my experience to new students of York University—though I wish them all the very best—since my own years there (1970-1973) were spent in a thoroughly bogus fashion, pretending to study for a PhD, which I never took, and using the time (and the government’s money) to teach myself, by the sloppy method of trial and error, to be a writer. Such a shameless abuse of the educational system would be quite the wrong model to set before today’s conscientious students, but if they should still be interested in my unexemplary behaviour, I suggest they read the pages on my time at York in my new book, Making an Elephant. They make a full (and fond) confession. [Image Credit: Ekko von Schwichow]

Other famous faces from York

Oona King
British politician, studied Politics at York and became the second black woman to be elected to parliment in 1997.

Greg Dyke
The former Director-General of the BBC studied Politics at York and is now Chancellor of the University.

Dr Han Seung-Soo
Prime Minister of South Korea, recieved his doctorate in Economics in 1968.

Bryan Elsley
Co-writer of Skins studied at the University of York and lived in Derwent, where he met, and would later work with, Harry Enfield.

Linda Grant
The award-winning journalist and author completed a degree in English at York.

Jung Chang
Chinese biographer of Chairman Mao and author of bestselling Wild Swans studied Lingistics at York, graduating with a doctorate in 1982

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