“The level of homelessness in Liverpool now is on a par with what I remember in the 1980s. I get this terrible sense that we’re going through a period of disenfranchisement and social atomisation that should have ended”

For the third instalment of this series, I spoke to French and History lecturer, Kate Marsh. I first met Kate this academic year, and she may be the most fiercely intelligent tutor I’ve ever had. No other tutor has made me think in tutorials quite as hard as Kate does. Coming into my MA, I was used to tutorials, as I’m sure a lot of other English students found as well, being filled with awkward silences; punctuated by tentative suggestions that barely scratched the surface of whatever topic we happened to be discussing. However, in a tutorial with Kate, there’s no hiding. If you make a point when Kate is taking your tutorial, you should be prepared for that point to be interrogated, and if you like the sound of your own voice as much as I do, that’s going to happen quite frequently. Though Kate may claim to be a cliché, I would argue she’s anything but.

First and foremost Kate, where in Liverpool did you grow up?

K: I grew up in the north of Liverpool, in leafy suburbia, between Crosby and Formby so I did not witness the Toxteth Riots but as with anyone on Merseyside I, even at the age of seven, was aware of the fallout and their legacy.

How much did Liverpool change during the years you were growing up?

K: What I remember is stagnation. My mum was a teacher, and my father worked in education, so I have a middle-class bourgeois background I suppose you could say. Neither of them are from Liverpool which I suppose explains my lack of an accent. I should say that I got skitted mercilessly at school for not having a scouse accent which is one of those ironies because, when I got to Oxford, one of the first things that somebody said to me was that they could tell I was from Liverpool because of my accent. But returning to the question, Liverpool went through different cycles. In 1982 the economic crisis hit the docks and the shipyards particularly hard – many of my friends’ fathers were made unemployed, so there was an entire class made unemployed. Going to Liverpool on a Saturday morning, we’d go along the dock road, and my recollection is that there were just abandoned piles of stuff. There were just entire areas of desolation. Not that I would have viewed it as desolation as a child, but that’s what I thought cities were like – cities were where you saw rusting cranes that didn’t work, and people were unemployed. Queues at the dole office were what you expected. I was lucky I wasn’t affected, but everybody around me was. It wasn’t until the European Regional Development Fund started targeting Liverpool, by which point I was about to go off to university, that changes really happened. My mother stayed on teaching in Toxteth all the way through; she was at a primary school that she absolutely adored, and sometimes when I take my mother back up there now, people remember her because she taught generations of children. She’d come home with appalling stories of children turning up at school without having had their breakfast or whatever because their families were so poor. I know that sounds terribly vicarious because I got it via my mother, but to hear that children were coming to school without having had their breakfast in the 80s was horrific.

Going to Oxford University, what were the reasons behind that decision?

K: I had a really good history teacher whose daughter was two years ahead of me, and had gone to the comprehensive I attended. Her daughter had got into Oxford, and the history teacher told me that if she can get in, you can get in. She really helped in terms of preparing me for the interview, but what struck me when I went down to Oxford was that there was still an entrance exam to get in at that time. I was applying to do History with Modern Languages as well, and it appeared rare for a state school person to do that, interestingly that’s still the case today. Modern Languages is one of the subjects in Oxford where the student cohort tends to come from the private sector, and this was particularly so in 1993, where I think it was something ridiculous like 80% of the people doing it had been to a private school or a big public school. I remember that all the people sat around me in the area to wait for the interview had been to not only private schools, but they’d been to places like Eton and Winchester. There I was in a pair of dungarees, Doc Martens, with pink hair. It wasn’t entirely pink hair; it was a streak of pink hair. The dungarees definitely gave off a certain vibe, as did the Doc Martens. I know it’s a cliché, but there was definitely that feeling of being a fish out of water.

Which college?

K: Balliol. I went to it because it’s generally top of the academic league table and, as a state-school girl, I was told I should apply to St. Hilda’s. There was a widespread belief, it seemed, that you could get a state-school girl into St. Hilda’s, which was the only women’s college left – Somerville voted to admit male students in 1992. I thought ‘sod that, I’m not doing that’ so I went to an overtly masculine college where the students were once described as possessing ‘the tranquil consciousness of an effortless superiority.’ I deliberately applied because someone had told me to apply to the women’s college. I was that contrarian when I was younger.

Well, no one can really blame you for backing yourself like that.

K: My thought was that I’d rather they accepted me for what I did rather than who I was. It’s funny, a lot of my friends who stayed in Liverpool, and got married and now have children who are in their teens about to go to university, ask me to talk to their offspring about applying for Oxford. Their children tell me what the school has told them, and there still is the myth that if you’re female you should apply to St. Hilda’s.

You’ve talked about the unlikeliness of a state-school child doing Modern Languages, so what was it that sparked the interest? Personal passion?

K: It was actually. We were sent on an awful French exchange when I was fifteen. Everybody has traumatic exchanges-from-hell stories. It was to Auch in the Gascony region, and it was absolutely appalling. I arrived there in the middle of the night because we went during an Air France strike and it transpired that the parents of the girl with whom I was staying were divorced – I’d been given this girl as my exchange partner because she lived in the centre of town. I have chronic asthma, and a lot of the people lived on farms, and the school was worried that if I was on a farm surrounded by livestock, I’d have asthma attacks all the time. So while the mother lived in the town, the father owned a farm. Needless to say, we weren’t spending the two weeks with the mother; we were spending the two weeks with the father on this farm in the middle of nowhere, where from the edge of the land you could see no other buildings whatsoever. Her father lived with his mother and three brothers, all of whom I remember had strange workshops with pictures of naked women stuck on the walls. They didn’t speak a word of English either so I had to speak French. But I started reading what the girl I was staying with was reading for her school work – Maupassant – and this was a revelation. Beyond that, they were all militant socialists as well, and their political conversations, which I couldn’t follow, were absolutely fascinating because they got so excited about things and took politics so seriously.

 

Was your passion for French fostered at all within the school or did you pursue it on your own?

K: I kind of pursued it on my own. That was the great advantage of being in Liverpool actually, a city with one of the first redbrick universities to get a permanent named chair in French. It was the one of the first provincial towns to set up an Alliance française after London, and when I was growing up in the 1980s, there was the Cercle français. It met in the Central Library and one of the people I heard talk there was, I discovered years later, Richard Waller who was about to retire as a lecturer when I started here. A talk of his sparked my passion in Voltaire, and I would never have guessed that I would end up working with him later at the University. There was a real sort of cultural community, and there was a cinema called the 051 Cinema which you can still see the remnants of at the junction of Brownlow Hill and Mount Pleasant, they showed French films every two weeks – what my mother would call ‘strange foreign films.’

More generally, what were you like as a university student?

K: I played the bassoon – back then Merseyside had a very good Youth Orchestra. I was in the Oxford University Orchestra, so I did a lot of music. I was a member of the Left Caucus as well, which was a very left-wing group. I did volunteering for an organisation called KEEN (Kids Enjoy Exercise Now), and we went out and did widening participation stuff, particularly games and activities for disabled children.

A change that Alan McCarthy in a previous interview pointed out was that politics is no longer at the forefront of student life. He went to university in the 70s, was it in a similar state in the 90s?

K: I went to a college that prided itself on being left-wing and radical. Balliol was the first all-male Oxford college to appoint a female fellow, Carol Clark in 1973 before it accepted female students, and she was my inspiration. She was my French tutor, she died last year, and her death has left me bereft. She was delightfully eccentric, fiercely intelligent and incredibly supportive. She was a female role model; she would disarm, particularly male students, by giving the impression of being a genial aunt before going for the jugular with her astute literary criticism. Although I would have been horrified if you had said this in the 1990s, I realise now that she has influenced how I teach today. I worry that I have become the clichéd eccentric academic (laughs). The college was left-wing, so I suppose I was in a very left-wing milieu that was very politically active. I went on a lot of Take Back The Night marches, and I’ve noticed that they’ve come back now, which I find very interesting and depressing. Interesting that feminism is no longer the bête noire that it was – although I’m not sure that all discourses which claim to be feminist these days are actually feminist – but depressing that sexual violence is still the scourge that it was. I was at university when Labour brought in tuition fees, so obviously, there were marches against these. Several people, I was at university with have gone on to be Tory politicians – Robin Walker, Charlotte Leslie are two names who spring to mind. Of course, Balliol had had Boris Johnson before; he used to come back on a regular basis.

Did you ever meet Boris?

K: I did. I think I was his notion of a clichéd female left-winger. But he was disturbingly charming. His buffoonery is a carefully cultivated persona. But returning to university, looking back on it, okay it was JCR (Junior Common Room) politics, but the point was that politics were an essential part of the conversation. You saw these things that mattered and because of the kind of atmosphere, there was, it demanded a political engagement. It was also part of fostering the identity of being a student. Now, whether that was performance or not, it was what you did, and I think I was lucky to be there in the 1990s.

Do you think that was a feeling particular to the early 90s?

K: Yes. People were convinced that there was going to be a Labour government in ’92, and then John Major won. That was a real jolt to people on the left. It was that strange period between the ’92 election and Tony Blair winning in 1997 and there was kind of a sense that something needed to be done.

Coming back from university do you have any abiding memories?

K: When I came back to Liverpool and got my job here in 2005, Kensington was suddenly gentrified. By that, I mean students were living there. Smithdown Road particularly struck me as well because I remembered Smithdown Road being littered with empty houses, suddenly there were student residences, and the impression I got was that there was a wholesale buying up of properties at the beginning of the 2000s. I could be wrong, but this was just the impression I got. This is what I find so frightening actually because now when I get the train into Liverpool Central station, because I still live in leafy suburbia, I always walk up Bold Street The terrible thing is, although Bold Street has been completely renovated, the level of homelessness in Liverpool now is on a par with what I remember in the 1980s. I get this terrible sense that we’re going through a period of disenfranchisement and social atomisation that should have ended – and many naively believe did end – years ago.

In terms of Liverpool as a university, I’ve perceived that we’re currently witnessing a change in University periods, as in we’re coming to the end of a period that began in the 60s. All the buildings put up in the 60s are either being torn down or refurbished, new halls of residences are being built with en-suite bathrooms and every luxury.

K: En-suite bathrooms were not available in my day (laughs). Being in halls is about solidarity, the shared discomfort of one shower between fifteen people. The student halls experience always makes me think of Philip Larkin’s poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ where he’s travelling on a train down to London. In it, he observes people getting on the train as it progresses from Hull to London and he talks about the shared experience of being in a train carriage – people thrown together by circumstances, seeing the same things, and then going their different ways. That’s what being a student is about. It’s the shared experiences that are important for forging friendships, even though you go different ways, you still have that point of contact to which you return.

Are you still in touch with the friends you made?

K: I am. I am godmother to two of my female friends’ children. People’s lives take different courses, and I’m going to use another Philip Larking poem as an example, ‘Dockery and Son’, which is about him returning to his old Oxford college and then, as he travels back to Hull, he looks down at the railway lines coming together and then parting from the platform at Sheffield, which I think is a beautiful metaphor. Okay, so now our lives have taken different courses but I’m still in touch with them. When my Oxford tutor died, in the summer we had a memorial service for her, and lots of us got together, which was really important.

Returning to Liverpool as a university, would you say it has changed?

K: It has, I think it’s changed since I came here in 2005. Part of that could be the changing face of higher education. We know that different agendas have come in, we know that tuition fees have gone up etc. Physically it has changed, in terms of all the building that has happened on campus. It’s also changed in terms of its outlook to a certain extent.

What would you say that outlook is now?

K: Part of it is determined by the changing nature of higher education and the overt emphasis now on employability. Employability after a degree was always there but we articulate it differently now, and it is important in subjects like mine that we stress what studying French can do for everyone. The skills that students develop, aside from linguistic and cultural competence, allow them to think critically, to challenge and question. More particularly French Studies fosters interdisciplinarity, and one thing I love about Liverpool is that I’ve always been on the cusp between History and Literature because it’s what I do. It’s how I was trained, and Liverpool gives me the ideal opportunity to do both.

How have you seen the direction of the university change with each new Vice-Chancellor?

K: Given the management structure of how a university works, people are contributing at different levels, but the Vice-Chancellor sets the tone for the type of priorities with which the university is going to engage. Harold Newby was very big on internationalisation, and Janet Beer has maintained this but also stressed the educational experience of students as being vitally important.

How important do you think it is that Janet Beer is a woman and have you seen any improvement in the opportunities afforded women at the university while you’ve been here?

K: I find myself in a difficult position here because I’m well aware of there being a paucity of women if you look at the university sector overall, just as there is a dearth of people from BMEs (Black and Minority Ethnic communities) and certain socio-economic backgrounds but, at the same time, I personally don’t like to be essentialised as a female academic by others – even if I joke about me being a cliché. Though, look at what we have now – we have a female Vice-Chancellor, a female EPVC (Executive Pro-Vice-Chancellor) for the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and we’ve got a female Head of School. Put like that you’d say the situation has changed dramatically. I was struck by the inequities that persist in 2014 when I was promoted to a personal Chair. At the time, one of my colleagues told me that I was the first female Chair in French that there’s been at the university. I was very taken aback by that. While I may teach students about gender constructions and hierarchies of power, I had not personally reflected on the situation in academia impacting on me in 2014.

As always Kate, it’s been a pleasure.