You May Now Turn Over the Paper

There was a discussion on the radio recently about the value or otherwise of university. One woman put the case against very well: you might make friends and you might deal with great minds but a lot of students don’t do much work and miss half their lectures: and, even if they learn anything, most of it’s completely useless and doesn’t teach them any real-life skills.

A harsh judgement, perhaps. However, nothing better sums up the time I spent studying Medieval History at Cambridge, a combination that provided, I freely admit, a double insulation against the real world which was then dominated by the winter of discontent and the first rumblings of Thatcherism. All problems are relative, of course, and ones own usually more important than anyone else’s. My problem, on my third day at Queens’, was my first supervision.

The supervision took place in one of the oldest parts of the college with a man called Jonathan Riley-Smith who was the leading expert, the go-to man as he would be called today, on the subject of the Crusades. I’d met him at my interview for which event he’d made some effort to smarten himself up. For the supervision he made none. Yes, he had a suit on but it seemed to have been designed for someone of a completely different shape. He was constantly shifting his position, giving the impression that at least one item of clothing had been put on back to front. His hair was standing on end – this we both shared – and his tie was creased and stained and poorly knotted. But it was the pipe that really cemented the impression of academic central casting. It was always either belching evil-smelling smoke, or being held upside down and scattering cinders and ash, or going out altogether. Books and papers were piled up everywhere. The armchairs were of the vague, faded colour that is found nowhere else apart from in don’s studies. The early autumn sunlight angled through the grimy mullioned windows illuminating the clouds of smoke that rose whenever Riley-Smith managed to get his pipe going and the clouds of dust whenever he shifted in his seat. The room, the man, the atmosphere – all were exactly what I had expected them to be.

None the less, I was apprehensive. Was he about to ask me some piercing question, laugh at my stumbling reply and then vow never to teach such an imbecile again?

His next remark, though possibly well-meant, was even more disconcerting.


• The rest of this story is now available in a paperback book (as are 25 others) – Unaccustomed as I Am (RRP £9.95).

It is stocked by the Hungerford Bookshop and you can place your order here.

Copies are also available at the White Horse Bookshop in Marlborough, the Mad Hatter Bookshop in Wantage and through an increasing number of other retailers.

You can order it from any bookshop: they will need to know that the ISBN is 978-1-8382580-0-9 and that it can be ordered from Gardners or Central Books.


Brian Quinn
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