“That Easter I made it up to Hull, furiously reading all kinds of German literature in preparation for what I had expected to be a real grilling” – Stephen Johnston on life on campus in 1968

Campus in the 1960s

As part of our series of articles collecting alumni memories of the University of Hull through the decades, Stephen Johnston (German and Swedish, 1971), shares his memories of studying at the campus as the 60s turned to the 70s. Stephen’s passion for music (including the Chapel Choir and other musical groups) and his passion for languages and learning really shine through in this article, as does his sharp memory for people and names. Our thanks to Stephen for another important addition to our archive so that life on campus will be remembered as we approach our centenary.

If you would like to read more articles on life on campus in previous decades, you may wish to start with these:

The 1950’s In Your Words: campus life as remembered by alumni >>

The 1960’s In Your Words: campus life as remembered by alumni >>

The 1970’s In Your Words: campus life as remembered by alumni >>

It was Easter 1968 when I was called up to Hull for Interview by Dr Baier, Professor of German. I was spending that academic year at The Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich having managed to gain a place to study there. I had hoped to graduate in Germany, but soon realised  that I could not earn enough to finance the wonderfully open-ended years of study there, even for a first degree, and so had decided to chance my arm in England. I knew I could get a grant if I could gain a place, which was not so easy in those days. Anyway, with considerable trepidation, I applied to Hull to read German and Swedish Joint Honours; a course which looked fascinating and turned out to be excellent – bar one thing.

That Easter I made it up to Hull, furiously reading all kinds of German literature in preparation for what I had expected to be a real grilling. I was astonished by the interview that afternoon with the Head of Department, Dr Baier, for I took him to be drunk given his slurred speech and jerky movements. After a relatively unproblematic conversation which seemed, I recall, to feature few impossible questions, the Professor said that he didn’t think there would be a problem in my matriculating and wished me a good afternoon. I stumbled out of his study into the German office, slightly dazed and utterly bemused, until the kindly secretary mentioned that he was having a bad day with his MS. I was shocked, but relieved and grateful that my immediate future seemed secure. I had liked what I had seen of the University campus and decided on the spot then to accept the offer, having only minutes before thought there was no way I wanted join a department led by Professor who had seemed intoxicated, which of course he was not.

Being a little older at twenty than other first years, I ended up, that October of 1968, in digs near Boothferry Park sharing with Michael Laurie rather than in a hall or student house. In retrospect that was the wrong choice (very nice and accommodating though the landlady and her husband were), as initially I hardly met or got to know anyone other than those on my course. I needn’t have worried, though, for I quickly struck up friendships with fellow first-years in German Alan Hook, David Smith and Glyn Williamson (with whom I have recently re-established contact and friendship) and got on well with Richard Lumley and Viv Cantrell amongst others in Swedish.

In Munich, in the Marienkirche in the Old Town,  I had enjoyed one of those rare moments of revelation a few months prior to arriving in Hull, when listening to the English Tenor, Nigel Rogers, a Baroque virtuoso, who had lead the three solo tenors though a fabulous performance of the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610; one the greatest pieces of music of any era I still maintain. I loved singing, so now at Hull I quickly gravitated to the Music Department where I spent an increasing amount of time singing, not least in Graham Sadler’s Renaissance Group (“one rehearsal and on” I recall, a very good training), where I met Judith Hartley and later Carolyn Castledene, Jeremy Jackman – later of The King’s Singers – June Prince and Martyn Smith. The standard of those singers was very good, and I was happy exploring new repertoire. I sang in the Chamber Choir, the University Choral Society under the legendary Professor Robert Marchant and also in the Chapel Choir with Douglas Hollick and David Saint, both fine Organ Scholars.  I have vivid memories of performing Graham’s edition of a sumptuous Robert White Magnificat in Selby Abbey; both Abbey and music quite mesmerisingly beautiful, which set me off exploring the fascinating world of English Tudor Polyphony, a journey I am still on.

Early in that first term, I tried to get into the Football Club, but didn’t even make it to the end of the Freshers’ Trial Match – justifiably so, as I was pretty rubbish by comparison. So I contented myself with nipping across the road from my digs to watch Kenny Wagstaff, Ian Butler, Ken Houghton and then Chris Chilton running rings round the opposition in the Second Division of the Football League with Hull City, or popping down to Airlie Street to watch Hull Rugby League FC. All great stuff. 

Soon after arriving in Hull, I started serious singing lessons with Alec Redshaw, a brilliant musician and Conductor of the Hull Choral Union, who knew and revered an earlier singing teacher of mine, the great English tenor Wilfred Brown. The city, I was  discovering, had so much to offer, both outside the University as well as within. Don Roy’s  Drama Department in the newly opened Gulbenkian Centre was another delight, through which I found myself auditioning for and performing in a German play (Kart Wittlinger’s “Seelenwanderung”) directed by Jacquie Ilett, where I played opposite a Research Student called Mike Maconochie. He would later offer me a job as his Assistant in the German Department of a school where I would teach pretty happily for nearly thirty years, following after him as Head of Department. I have much indeed for which to be grateful to Hull. 

There were some memorable lecture courses in both the German and Swedish departments plus some very stimulating lecturers (e.g Hamish Ritchie, David Turner, Alan Best, Rex Last, Phil Holmes, Gavin Orton). Yet one of the Language Department’s great, unsung achievements was the Swedish Language Lab course. I still cannot work out how they managed to teach us so successfully and so relatively quickly to speak fluent, accurate spoken Swedish, from scratch indeed; so much so that when the Swedish First Year students decamped for a magical summer course in Lund, Scania, we could follow and contribute to virtually everything, in Swedish of course, that we were being taught or introduced to. And a weekend across the water in Copenhagen was unforgettable too, where I discovered the music of The Doors and Jim Morrison. Oh no, it wasn’t all classical music.

Not everything was wonderful, however,  I was still battling against continuing, very disturbing news from home which had emotionally numbed and bushwhacked me for the last three years at school and had made me unable to concentrate properly. I desperately had needed that year in Munich to get my head straighter, and break the thrall of pain, I came to realise. I still required some stability, I now see, but I found the fall-out from the famous 1968 Student Sit –  In of the previous year to be disruptive, as it introduced uncertainly into the structure of courses.   I represented the year in discussion with the staff over course changes (a final German exam on an Outlines Literature course was exchanged for three dissertations; a good move I think), but no changes were made to the exams in Swedish. I became a bit disenchanted at that, but delighted in listening to Tom Fawthrop’s great demagogy.  To add to this there was one especial downside (see first paragraph). The Swedish degree had dropped its Norse Sagas course, one of the things I had been especially hoping to study, and didn’t replace any final exams by dissertations. Yet even joining Beverley Minster Choir for a period, plus singing the role of Bunthorne in Patience with the Gilbert and Sullivan Society couldn’t really shake me out of the disenchantment which had crept up on me.

However there was an intriguing bridge course (unique at the time, I believe) with the German Department on Romanticism. I learnt, and still enjoy, so much about the art and literature of that period. By the end of the second year my head seemed better screwed on again and I woke up from my self-centred lethargy to spend a year abroad, studying again in Munich, enjoying new and old friendships and discovering, amongst other things, The Munich Opera, the Kammerspiele – and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper. Back in Hull, the Midsummer Music Festival, which in my time featured one summer all six Bartok String Quartets performed by the Allegri Quartet, was often a place of revelation, as was attending remarkable Hull Chamber Music recitals in the Middleton Hall, organised by Peter Sproston, who became a good friend. Hull was definitely doing me good overall. 

The final, fourth year seemed to flash by, during which I much enjoyed the company of my girlfriend then, Anne Bourton, in her smashing house in Hardy Street. I continued to make as much music as possible, not least continuing with Graham Sadler’s Renaissance Group. There was also much singing with Robin Wells of the English Department, and with Peter Sproston, a brilliant pianist and Maths Lecturer, with whom many lovely recitals of English and German song were later performed and enjoyed. Academically I worked as hard as I could to catch up on what I had slummed through in that second year. It seemed to work, for I ended up with a decent Upper Second degree in Joint German and Swedish, despite the fact that the old gremlins of stroppiness had still not set me free. Stupidly I deliberately marred one paper in the Swedish Finals, plus set out to antagonise the visiting Professor in the Swedish Viva; a very stupid thing to do. So quite rightly I didn’t get the Double First some had expected for me. Phil Holmes, wonderful Swedish Lecturer and human being, even came round on Finals Day to collect me to see the results and to explain that if I hadn’t been so ruddy confrontational things might have been different. However, I was offered a grant to do research in German with Rex Last, gladly accepted, but that is another story.

Later in 1978 when I returned to Hull to teach at Hymers College, I was invited back into the musical fold to join up in the Hull University Singers (later Voices in Concert) with Janet Kelsey, Derek Scott, John Murray and Julian Savory, directed by the immensely talented Mark Levy in some thrilling concerts.. It was another splendid period, not least the week’s concerts at the Edinburgh Festival, where Graham Sadler joined us. Looking back, it was another very happy and fulfilling Hull period.

Stephen Johnston June 2021

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