Peter Davison: Mature Student

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Part Two: Mature Student

Although there are academics quick to criticise Neville Coghill’s modernization of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, as we huddled in our cold, tiny flat, my wife and I lapped them up. We looked forward to each instalment and, in due course I decided to study for the then equivalent of A Levels in English and History. I did not really think of going on to take a degree in English at that time but took the precaution also to study Latin. It is a mark of the difference between then and now that I was able to study Latin at night at Kilburn Polytechnic. A little to my surprise I passed the equivalent of A Levels in these three subject and that, I think, was instrumental in my being appointed Assistant Secretary and Overseas Liaison Officer to the International Wool Secretariat with which I worked from 1952-1960. This is not the place to go into any detail on this part of my career but I recall with particular pleasure having a small part in the organisation of the first International Fashion Sketch Competition and attending the results in Paris – a competition won by Yves Saint Laurent with Karl Lagerfeld a significant prizewinner. Later I would be responsible for much of the organisation of a men’s wear fashion show in Athens.

Two incidental aspects of my appointment at the International Wool Secretariat might be worth mentioning. First, I was given the task of sorting out the failed applications for the post to which I had been appointed. There were some 625 of these and I could not but be astonished that many were very much better equipped than was I for this appointment. It struck me that there was such a thing as being too well qualified for an appointment to such an extent perhaps as possibly posing a threat to those already in post. Secondly was the good fortune that can arise from the unlikeliest of coincidences. It so happened that I had studied some New Testament Greek in the 1950s and, despite the difference, that modest acquaintance proved highly beneficial when I was coping with Modern Greek for the Athens show. This would crop up again when I was seeking an appointment after the débâcle in Sydney, to which I shall come shortly. Whilst at Sydney I did a little work on Ancient Greek Comedy. This involved a nodding acquaintance with an Ancient Greek theoretical work, the Tractatus Coislinianus. An article I then wrote was published in a distinguished American academic journal and that attracted the attention of the Director of the Shakespeare Institute at Birmingham University, Terence Spencer. As a result, I was offered a Fellowship there when I was desperately in need of an academic post.

Whilst at the Secretariat, I decided to formalise my interest in English and work towards a degree in English Literature. I found that I could cope with a correspondence course simultaneously with my work at the Secretariat that would prepare me for the external London University degree examinations. In 1954 when I sat the BA examinations – nine papers in a week – they were also taken by London university colleges that have since become universities in their own right. The cost of the correspondence courses and the examination came to a mere £49. That, of course would be something like £1,250 today but it is in stark contrast to the debts today’s students pile up. . In those days early morning travel on the Tube was very cheap – ‘workmen’s tickets’ were available until, I think, 7.30 am. That not only saved money but provided an added incentive in that I arrived in the office in Lower Regent Street early and could get a couple of hours’ study done before the day’s work began. And I became adept at memorising Anglo-Saxon vocabulary standing in the Tube for the journey home. I worked every evening and at weekends in an unheated room and managed to keep up with the demands of the courses that dropped relentlessly every fortnight through my letter-box. I completed the course in slightly less than would a full-time university student and managed a 2:1 degree. I think there was only one first awarded for anyone studying ‘privately’ as it was called in the official literature.

[The Marlborough Arms, where Peter Davison had to meet his supervisor]

But now the bug had bitten and I went on, whilst still working for the Secretariat, to prepare for an MA in Bibliography and Palaeography at London University College. Although in theory I had a supervisor, and a distinguished scholar at that, he was more noted for his presence in the Marlborough Arms than his study. Indeed, I only saw him once within the College precincts. It so happened that my experience editing that little journal on railways now came into its own. I had become fascinated with type and had learned to set it. One of the problems then engaging a few scholars was the identification of individual pieces of type and tracing the passage of their imprints in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century texts. At this I proved reasonably adept and having been awarded the MA (for an edition of an anonymous play, The Fair Maid of the Exchange, later published by the Malone Society) started on a PhD whilst still at the Secretariat. I needed for this work microfilms of books in libraries not readily accessible to me and was awarded a research grant of £60 towards their purchase. It is ironic that this, the only grant I have ever received for academic research, proved a waste of money. Having obtained a goodly number of microfilms and launched on the project it was discovered that a full-time scholar was also working on the same project and it was decided that I should seek another topic. I decided on the dramatist James Shirley and the microfilms were found another home.

However, the proposed research on Shirley also – for me – bit the dust. Returning home from the British Library one Saturday evening I called in at the Marlborough Arms where, as I expected, I met Arthur Brown (my supervisor) and A.H. Smith head of UCL English Department. To my astonishment I was asked if I would be interested in an appointment at Sydney University to teach what the department there called ‘Scholarship’ but which was what I called Bib & Pal. My wife was reluctant and her anxieties would be proved well-founded but we agreed to go.

It was arranged that I should start by teaching ‘Scholarship’ and then a first-year drama course but only after I had had three months to settle in – finding somewhere to live, for example. The Orcades in which we travelled arrived on a Sunday and we were met by the acting head of the department. I was asked whether I could start teaching on the Tuesday. I asked for a little longer so Thursday was agreed and so goodbye to those three months for preparation.

[Part Three Follows]