"This was the 1970s, and Essex was in the grip of a mini-revolution (a throw-back to the ‘68 student uprisings) with demonstrations and sit-ins galore"Patrick Russell

At the grand old age of 71 (not actually that old these days), I find myself studying History at one of the world’s best universities. How did this situation come about, especially for someone who left school at 16 with only three O levels to my name and a complete lack of self-belief in my academic ability?

After school I worked in a job I hated. A family friend had fixed it up for me and I needed to work to supplement my single mother’s meagre income. That job lasted five excruciating years until I realised one day, at the age of 21, that I simply couldn’t carry on. I had to effect a change, and I dared to imagine that I might be able to get into university one day.

I had started reading voraciously, largely as an escape from the tedium of my job, from the age of about 17. My reading was eclectic, to say the least. I read everything and anything I could lay my hands on, mostly gleaned from second-hand bookshops and jumble sales. Tolkien to Sartre, Thomas Mann to Scott Fitzgerald, Orwell to Heller and history, lots of history including: E. P. Thompson, Christopher Hill, Eric Hobsbawm, to name a few.

“I realised after many years of study that I have always loved History”

Then, one day, my life changed. I had heard about Adult Residential Colleges and how they offered a ‘second chance’ to people who had somehow missed out during their school years. I found one in Scotland called Newbattle Abbey College in Dalkeith, just outside Edinburgh. I had a very tough interview, but was offered a place. I spent the best year of my life there. Newbattle is an incredible place, a stately home where we had lectures in beautiful 18th-century state rooms full of paintings and Grinling Gibbons carvings. After five years of grind, dreaming of attending university one day, I felt privileged to find myself at Newbattle. I studied for a Diploma in English and History and this, along with a reference from my wonderful History tutor, Ian McDougall, a Scottish Labour historian, got me a place at Essex University, where, now 24 years old, I studied Literature. Ian did more than write me a great reference, he also gave me a belief in my own academic ability – something that had been sorely lacking for most of my life. Looking back, I now consider this the greatest gift I could have received from anyone.

At Essex I felt I had been dropped in at the deep end. I also felt like the ‘old man’ in my seminar groups as I was at least six years older than anyone else. However, it was here that I grew to love the world of academia. This was the 1970s, and Essex was in the grip of a mini-revolution (a throw-back to the ’68 student uprisings) with demonstrations and sit-ins galore. The Women’s Movement was in full swing too, so it was fitting that my very first tutorial was with a Marxist, feminist historian who chain-smoked French cigarettes and berated us all for being so bourgeois. I loved it! I was also taught American literature by the Black Mountain poet Ed Dorn. Ed was an extraordinary character - he looked like a cowboy but sounded like a Shakespearean actor. During tutorials he used to casually drop in the fact that he hung out with Jack Kerouac in the 50s. From that small seminar room in Essex, these interactions gave me the opportunity to travel the world through the eyes of my professors.

After Essex, I did a PGCE at London University, then secured a job teaching English, Communication and Media at Richmond upon Thames College. I also taught in the evenings at Richmond Adult College and basic literacy to adults from a nearby Open Prison, fulfilling a desire to give something back to the realm of adult education that had benefited me so much. In 1980 I also did a Master’s degree in American Literature whilst still teaching.

Patrick matriculating at Wolfson in October 2020Patrick Russell

For the remainder of my career, I moved to various schools where I taught A levels mainly in the sixth form. When I retired ten years ago, I had the usual bucket list of things that I always wanted to do; I took a course in watercolours, and one in Latin. I went on a long trip to the Hebrides with two mates, researching whisky distilleries (inconclusive, so another trip will be necessary in future!) Something, however, was still missing from my, admittedly pretty full, retirement. My son had studied History at Cambridge (Girton) and my daughter did a postgraduate teaching course (Homerton) after a first degree in Oxford. I had been exposed, as a parent, to the wonderful arcana of this place and I vicariously indulged in the rituals around the specialist vocabulary, dress code, and Matriculation and Graduation ceremonies, not to mention the collegiate system.


Mountain View

On doing Cambridge differently

Then, six years ago, by chance, I discovered Cambridge’s very own Institute of Continuing Education at Madingley Hall. I decided to take an undergraduate Diploma of Higher Education in History of Art (another life-long interest). I am now pursuing an MSt in History. I realised after many years of study that I have always loved History – some of my earliest brushes with the academic world had been through reading various influential historians in the 1960s, back when I first read books just to escape my job. It felt right that I now had the opportunity to read those books as my job! After matriculating at Wolfson back in October (where Jet Photography took me for a Fellow), I still have to pinch myself that I am actually a student in Cambridge. I can’t wait for the day that we have our first formal hall.

Part-time study works perfectly for me as I work two days a week as a House Guide at Syon House in Middlesex. At Syon, I am surrounded by beautiful art, architecture (sumptuous Robert Adam interiors) and nearly 500 years of English history. I consider myself to be extremely blessed to be where I am today, and I hope that I have given full expression to my love of and commitment to the concept of life-long learning.