Belfast Telegraph

John Wilson Foster: Like Seamus Heaney, I was a product of the 1947 Education Act, my privileged vantage-point funded by the English taxpayer and successive Westminster governments... why not give credit where credit is due?

One of Northern Ireland's leading obstetricians and gynecologists, Professor Jim Dornan, says he could live in a united Ireland outside the UK, despite his British education. John Wilson Foster couldn't.

A portrait of Irish poet Seamus Heaney
A portrait of Irish poet Seamus Heaney
Professor Jim Dornan
John Wilson Foster

It is morning in Mexico, on the Pacific coast hours south of Puerta Vallarta, and I'm on a patio shaded by hibiscus bushes with caracaras and magnificent frigate birds floating overhead. Fittingly, I'm reading the English writer D H Lawrence's Mornings In Mexico, which combines his familiar intensity and eloquence.

I have not read Lawrence for years, but he was an early inspiration whose restless life in sunny climes and writings in such dazzling colour were an escape from the grey provincialism of Northern Ireland that caged the upstart crow of a student that I was.

I intended to write my Master of Arts thesis on Lawrence under the supervision of Philip Hobsbaum, the English teacher at Queen's University who encouraged Seamus Heaney and other poets, and without whom the poetry scene in Northern Ireland from the later 1960s would look very different.

Like those poets, I am in debt to Hobsbaum.

Like Hobsbaum, Lawrence was fearlessly outspoken, a virtue in short supply among our educated classes, especially in the matter of how our lives and our politics (which too often means the exchange of predictable volleys from fixed positions) interact, usually to the detriment of our lives.

Lawrence was a fierce individualist who detested group-think of the kind that dominates our rancid political scene. But this morning I'm reflecting more on how I ever got to the privileged vantage-point of choosing at university whether or not to study the writings of D H Lawrence. In the end, I chose not to.

In the beginning it was thanks to English taxpayers and successive British governments. Why not give credit where credit is due?

Like Lawrence, I came from a working-class family. My mother and father left school in east Belfast at 13. But my father, through the apprentice's exertion of going to night school, eventually became a draughtsman in the Sirocco Works. Working-class women, for their part, could hope only to be housewives.

In those days, night schools who awarded the lower and higher national certificates were the old mechanics institutes and opened no highway to the humanities, which meant my father unhappily never developed his natural inclinations.

I would not have had Lawrence's brilliance, or tenacity, to graduate out of the working class without the possibility of going to grammar school and then - miraculous in hindsight - to university, where I was exposed to some remarkable minds.

I gratefully recall Harold Roxbee-Cox, a shy young English lecturer (they were almost all English in those days), teaching us philosophy simply by conducting an argument in a seamless monologue while gazing out of the window.

I was being shown how to think.

Basking in the examples of W B Gallie, Philip Hobsbaum, Sri Lankan lecturer Gamini Salgado and the social anthropologist Rosemary Harris, I unfolded like an hibiscus flower - at least in my own imagination.

None of it would have happened without the English conservative politician R A Butler and the Education Act of 1944. I thank him and the Northern Ireland politicians who extended the Act to the province in 1947.

They changed my life forever. And the lives of my generation, as well as the social and political life of Northern Ireland.

My cohort at Queen's included Catholic and Protestant beneficiaries of the Education Act who became leaders of the civil rights movement of the late-1960s. That particular form of group-think was a liberating good under the circumstances.

But what a pity that many individual voices fell silent once the curse of the gunman and bomber was cast on us and even afterwards when it was still important to speak out.

Higher education has apparently not emancipated thought as it is supposed to. More than ever, alas, higher education is about accessing credentials.

But I hope there is still the excitement of discovery on the campuses today.

English poet John Keats unforgettably likened his discovery of the world of poetry and learning, while reading in his room, to the "wild surmise" of the conquistador Hernan Cortez when he encountered the Pacific Ocean for the first time. That was how I felt, too, when a student at Queen's, in the library, or the lecture room.

But I had experienced the thrill of discovery even earlier at Annadale Grammar School while being taught by the impressive D B Erskine and bolting down the marvellous green-bound Pageant Of English Verse, with 'Property of the Belfast Education Authority' stamped on its title page.

A powerful Lawrence poem called Snake uncoiled from its pages. I tip my mortar-board to the old BEA.

Unlike Keats's, my discovery eventually took me literally to the New World when I graduated from Queen's and lit out for Oregon to pursue a PhD. Poetry and the Pacific became one.

Keats was a working-class boy, too, and didn't have a teacher to correct him in his history. It was not Cortez, but the traveller Vasco Nunez de Balboa who was perhaps the first European to stand on the shore of the Pacific (Keats's sonnet loses nothing of its magical power with this error). Cortez was the conqueror of Mexico where I sit this morning.

Keats was indebted to George Chapman, the English playwright who translated the Greek Homer.

I sit in Mexico equally indebted - in the first instance to the English lawmakers who expanded the education system, and then to the teachers who tuned that system to the development of more young minds.

Gratitude costs nothing, except, it seems, in our corner of the world where it might be misconstrued by the tribe as the wrong politics. So whatever you say, say nothing.

There is also obligation. Keats felt obliged to return the gift of his discovery back to the world as published verse.

Education and identity are intimately entwined. I am Irish, certainly, but I am British courtesy of my liberating free education, among other things.

I simply cannot envisage life divorced from the society that enabled me to sit here in Jalisco, making the re-acquaintance of one of my early emancipators and role models, the wandering Lawrence who nonetheless England made.

John Wilson Foster is author of The Achievement Of Seamus Heaney (1995). The Nobel laureate was an early beneficiary of the Education Act (NI) and by state examinations in English won his way to Queen's

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