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Graduate life opened my eyes to whole new world I never thought possible


Geoff Beattie

Geoff Beattie

Geoff Beattie

I grew up in Legmore Street in north Belfast but went off to university in the 1970s, first to study psychology at the University of Birmingham and then to the University of Cambridge for my PhD.

Of course, university changed my life and opened many doors for me. But if I hadn't passed the 11-plus and gone to Belfast Royal Academy I suspect the idea of university would not have been so obvious a move to me.

There was nobody in my family, no relative or friend, who could have advised me on what lay ahead.

But even though the idea seemed natural enough, negotiating the reality was always going to be tougher, especially because my father had died when I was 13 and my older brother had left home to become a professional climber. It was just my mother and me.

"What are you going to do with your wee degree?" my mother would ask. "What use is it going to be?"

I had no ready or obvious answer to these sensible enough questions. But I suspect that in more middle class families the silence between question and answer, or between question and mumbled hesitation, would not have been quite so troublesome, nor damning.

"Your Geoffrey hasn't a clue," her friend Ginger said. "I think he just wants to be a professional layabout across the water."

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But that's one of the drawbacks of cultural and psychological distance - you have no idea as to what happens over there, wherever that is, in one of those ivory towers where you are not invited.

My mother, of course, stood up for me. "He's a proper worker. He washed cars when he was a boy when his dad died, he's worked on building sites every summer, he's not going all that way just to sit on his a***."

But Ginger had already made up his mind about me - and I could see it in his look. Then, as the day to set off to university got closer, there was this terrible feeling, which I could never quite shake off, that I was abandoning my widowed mother to life on her own in Ligoniel in the Troubles.

She made me promise that I would come home when I graduated, but even before I got my First I realised that there were other academic peaks to climb - a PhD, a first lectureship, a Chair - that would take years.

She always said afterwards that she knew that I was lying about coming home after university, she could just tell.

Of course, she was very proud of me as she sat in the Senate House in Cambridge watching me becoming a Doctor of Philosophy. "Your dad would have been very proud of his wee man," she said and cried so loudly that all the stiff upper lip, middle and upper class families stared at us.

But they didn't get the point. I could have cried with pride as well, so proud of her, working in Ewarts Mill for all those years to support me.

"But one thing," she said, as we left.

"I couldn't understand a bloody word they were saying in there." "That's because it was in Latin," I replied. "Thank God for that," she said. "I thought that I was becoming hard of hearing for a minute."

And we both laughed so loudly that the crowds of proud and very posh parents parted to let us through.

  • Geoff Beattie's memoir Protestant Boy is published by Granta

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