Festival 39! Alumni Weekend: ”I was suffering with University pride-overload!”

Jane Bennett-Powell (June, 2018)

Fortified with slices of pizza, 50 or 60 of us sat down to listen to Inspired in Hull, how one of the great rock impresarios happened to have started his career at the University. Ed Bicknell, former manager of Dire Straits, was opening the 2018 alumni reunion weekend,
entitled Festival 39! after the number of students admitted for the first classes and tutorials when the university college opened 90 years ago.

Ed played drums as a child and was invited to play in a band as a teenager. (‘Do you want to play in band?’ ‘How many musicians have you got?’ ‘Two – you and me.’) So with his paradiddling skills honed, Ed arrived at Hull, and was invited to run the Ents committee. From 1967 onwards, “the best time”, says Ed, he booked bands which went on to stardom.

The union had been hosting groups which played two 45 minute sets in the East refectory. The Moody Blues said, no, they’d be doing 75 minutes and students would be sitting down. Which they did. Ed realised he was staging music people wanted to listen to. Many other top bands followed.

He embarked on a career in London management, including a long association with Dire Straits, especially Mark Knopfler. Mark called him up one day to ask what publicity could Ed generate to try to recover his stolen garden gnomes. Ed queried the effect on Mark’s rock reputation if he became known as a gnome owner. Nothing was done.

Ed was instrumental in re-energising Tina Turner’s flagging career after her battles with Ike. Mark Knopfler left one of his songs off the album he was recording and Ed was to hold the tape of a draft version with a handful of instruments for safe-keeping. Tina’s agent happened to ring searching forsongs and Ed remembered he had one to offer: it was Private Dancer.

Day 2 of the alumni reunion kicked off with Wonders of the Universe. Prof Brad Gibson’s first slide was Winnie the Pooh, explaining that we shouldn’t confuse the children’s author with the local scientist, E A Milne, after whom the Astrophysics unit was
named. This was a foretaste of the way Brad makes science accessible, for which this arts graduate is very grateful.

Ask children what interests them and they’ll say, according to Brad, space and/or dinosaurs, the great STEM* subject enablers. He speaks regularly to children about the massive high-powered computers he and his staff use to explore and interpret the signals from space, as well as the Stephen Hawking computer project in Cambridge in which Hull has a 20% share.

In case anyone should doubt the value of the search for black holes in the universe, it’s led, he said, to the invention of WiFi by Australian scientists, GPS, scanners and the CCDs in smart phones. The Centre is currently mapping areas in the galaxy which might support life, ie contain carbon and water, the most likely molecules to be found in living organisms.

The Allam Medical Building contains research and training facilities to benefit the NHS, as well as placing an emphasis on wellbeing in the centre of the campus. Dr David Barratt, academic manager of the faculty, showed us round. There’s a maternity section, complete with a mannequin which “gives birth”, an operating theatre (already used for filming), an intensive care area, a four-bed ward and a pop-up ambulance and a 70kg bean-bag man allowing paramedics to work in confined spaces with realistically heavy bodies.

By then, four Drama students were ready to perform their unsettling play Philomela and her Sisters. They worked on and around a mirrored stage in the Gulbenkian Centre, telling a harrowing story of woman’s struggle with sexual violence. One of their fellow students was electronically looping their live sound, which amplified and extended songs and chants to heighten the dramatic effect.

By the time we reached HIVE, the Hull Immersive Visualisation Environment, I was suffering University pride-overload. If ever yesterday’s graduates like me needed to feel proud of what the institution is doing now, the day is amply fulfilling that demand.

Dr Jon Purdy explained and demonstrated how animations such as Lara Croft are designed and realised. The character, invented in Derby, will never be truly realistic, as we ordinary women know, but the graphic effort that has gone into making her ‘live’ is phenomenal (more than 30,000 individually movable graphic triangles at the last count). We were also shown 3-D wonders through our stereoscopic specs and watched one of the visitors apparently walking through a massive ‘molecule’ back-projected on the screen. And VERT, the 3D virtual trainer developed by University computer scientists working with Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals, is already used by every trainee radiographer in England and the system is installed at 110 locations in twenty countries across the globe. And it has earned money for the University.

The Gala Dinner was excellent, served in the refurbished Staff House, now named in honour of Barbara Canham Turner (English, 1942). My table was named after fellow Hull graduate, artist and printmaker Olivia Lomenech Gill, who has illustrated the recent JK Rowling Book ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them’ and Michael Morpurgo’s ‘War Horse: Only Remembered’.

I’m a great admirer of the catering department’s ability to deliver three delicious courses to dozens of hungry diners so beautifully. If I used Instagram I’d have photographed the dessert, which included a cube of Yorkshire Parkin and a scrumptious rhubarb and lemon posset.

We were entertained by Alan Hudson going from table to table, the best (and local) magician who’s ever pretended to steal my ring in a trick (it reappeared on his key fob taken from his back pocket).

Local comedian and playwright, Lucy Beaumont, gave us a taste of her award-winning story-telling routines, before the band The Cover Notes took to the stage for the rest of the evening, The guitarist is one of the Alumni department staff, giving us a grand rendition of Money For Nothing, in tribute, I imagine, to the ex-Dire Straits manager sitting across the room.

*Science, technology, engineering and maths – you knew that. FYI the British Science Festival (Sept 11-18 2019) will be held in Hull this year. Tickets on sale 20th June.

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