Who’s That Girl?

This weekend I visited my old university, twenty-three years after I last walked through its gates. Even though I live in London, mere miles away from the location, I’ve never gone near the place, so when an alumni reunion came up I thought it would be the perfect opportunity.

Roehampton University (or Institute, as it was back then) is arranged around a number of Grade I and II listed buildings in leafy west London, not far from Putney and Wimbledon (where I lived). When I first arrived there – a slightly scared and very naive 22-year-old in 1989 – the leafy beauty of Froebel college, where I did my dance and English classes was slightly lost on me, because I was from leafy beautiful North Wales.

Grove House, Froebel College

Grove House, Froebel College

Just walking through the Froebel gates two days ago made me realise I’d been so lucky to study there. Grove House, the main building, is an 18th-century villa once owned by a Parisian ballet dancer (and courtesan!) and her husband. I’d had no idea of the history of the place until this weekend’s historical tour – I just did classes there and sat in the Portrait Room for lunch (it popped up in the first episode of Strictly this weekend, when all the dancers met for the first time…)

The Portrait Room at Froebel College - used to be the bar, now saved for Strictly...

The Portrait Room at Froebel College – used to be the bar (via the little door to the right of the fireplace), now it’s hosting Strictly dancers.

I’ve known for a long time that the young woman I was at university is not the woman I am now. In fact, I barely recognise her, and there are very few pictures of me at that time. I tried to access my ‘story’ as I walked around the grounds with friends who recounted unrequited loves, Fresher’s Ball shenanigans and dorm parties, but I couldn’t really remember much of it.

I’d thrown myself wholeheartedly into studying Dance and English (it was a two-subject degree), and can remember myself sitting in lectures or at the back of class in the dance studio, but the person I was?

I’ve got no idea.

It feels like I was literally a blank page waiting to be filled in. I think that’s why I eventually got the urge to do a degree, after four years of teaching ballet. My brain was craving the experience and the information.

I didn’t drink or have boyfriends at university. I know, I know. This is the time you’re meant to do it, meant to get it all out of your system – make the mistakes, sleep with the wrong guys, wake up in someone else’s student accommodation and stumble hungover into the cafeteria for a burger and chips. But I didn’t. I was such a ‘good’ girl. I danced hard, I studied hard, I had crushes on guys at a distance, I didn’t notice the guys who were trying to make a move on me. It was only later that I realised a few of them had tried. They even tried to get me drunk and I resisted all their attempts. I seriously was No Fun At All.

That time for me was about becoming someone. Filling my brain with information and opening it up to possibility. Strengthening my body and expressing things through dance (and yes, we did run round a room and slap ourselves across the face – it was fashionable in contemporary dance back then).

It would still take some years after to actually Become Someone. I don’t really recognise my current self until around six years later, when I was living in Brighton, working in publishing and still doing dance classes. I was twenty-eight. In many ways, I’m still her.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

Me dancing at Merton Abbey Mills just after uni.

I often laugh with friends who were at Roehampton at the same time about our different experiences of the same university. They did all the things you’re supposed to do (well, most), I did none of them. Except study. At one point during the reunion, we listened to a lecture by Professor Nicola Humble on Modernist Fiction and food and I was transported back briefly to the Girl I Was Before, listening to Professor Humble talk to me about women in the eighteenth century.

She’d just started her teaching career at Roehampton in 1992 and I was in my final year. As she spoke so articulately and academically this weekend I remembered how I loved being in that world where thinking about things and drawing conclusions about them dominated my life. I look back at my old dissertation on Behind the Mask: Masculinity in Shakespearean Tragedy and wonder who the hell it was that wrote it. My voice is completely unrecognisable, but I sound so sure of my subject. (It makes me smile that I’m often pre-occupied with male behaviour today – this pattern of observation definitely started at university.)

I wandered around the old dance studio and remembered the young woman with a terrible body-image problem who couldn’t look at herself in the mirror, but put her heart and soul into learning contemporary dance techniques. I was fit as a fiddle, doing a two-hour class (or more) every day, but had no idea my body was so strong – I just took it for granted.

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The professor who had mentored my dissertation, Kim Reynolds, went on to found the MA in Children’s Literature at Roehampton and it makes me smile that I once bumped into her in the kitchen at Scholastic Children’s Books where I was the Publishing Director. It felt like a circle had been completed, but this time, Kim could meet the real me, the one who had blossomed later in life.

It was also a source of pride that author Philip Pullman had praised Roehampton so much at a dinner party I attended for The Golden Compass, when I was dreading admitting where I’d studied. And this weekend, author Dame Jacqueline Wilson, Chancellor of the University, commented on its excellence in her alumni speech.

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Dame Jacqueline reading from Four Children and It

Wherever I go, my world circles around between children’s books and Roehampton, but I didn’t know that they would back then.

Some things are just meant to be.

Part of me wishes I could go back to Roehampton knowing what I know now, to really get the most out of it. But part of me is glad that Roehampton is where I started to become someone, even if I was a bit late to the party.

I’m making up for that now. You can’t be a good girl forever.

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Elizabeth Pamela Mary

It’s funny how the day that A-level results are out is the same day as my late mother’s birthday. Elizabeth Pamela Mary – ‘Pam’ – Edwards would have been 86 today.

It’s funny, because she was someone who was a teenager during the Second World War, who aced her School Certificate at the age of 14 in 1942 (it was meant to be taken at 16 and was like a set of GCSEs) but couldn’t carry on into further education because the War forced her into work.

As far as I’m aware from family lore, one of her jobs was as a telephonist in Hawker Siddeley, North Wales. Hawker was a founding member of British Aerospace and it made Hurricane and Spitfire aircraft that were instrumental in the Battle of Britain. Her telephone voice earned her the moniker ‘The Girl with the Dark-Brown Voice’. Or maybe it was just my dad that said that, I’m not sure.

Anyway, I grew up with a mother who was clever. By the time I knew her properly, she was a housewife who helped my father run his newsagents in our town, Holywell in North Wales. But my early memories of my mum include her racing through the hardest cryptic crosswords, doing my maths homework backwards to prove that the answer was right (!!!) and being annoyingly good at shouting out the answers to University Challenge or Mastermind before anyone else could.

Gah. She was good.

When it came to my O- and A-levels I struggled with the pressure. She never pushed me, never put me under any further pressure, because I put myself under enough and she could see that. I did well at O-level but fell down at A.

I don’t know what happened – I was getting good grades in coursework but tried too hard to learn everything by rote for the exams. I could practically recite Hamlet from memory, but it did me no good.

I needed to think for myself.

I then spent the next four years teaching ballet and tap in what is still an amazing dance school in North Wales – the Whitton Morris School of Dance. I forgot about academia as I plunged myself into technique and tutus, thinking I’d end up being an examiner for the British Ballet Organisation. My mum supported that path I’d decided to take, and I think she enjoyed having me at home.

But something switched in my brain in year three of that time. It seriously felt like a cog had inched round in my head, and the message was loud and clear – Go To University. I found a dance course at Roehampton, which I paired with English Lit because you had to choose something, and that was it.

But that wasn’t the whole story. I started to do much better than I thought I would in English essays. I remember phoning my mum from the halls of residence telling her that I’d got an A* for my first essay. Then another one. And another. She was so delighted, and I felt delighted that I could do what she hadn’t been able to do.

Back when I’d done dismally in my A-levels, my mum had told me that ‘there is always a time in your life that is right for studying, and it’s not necessarily when you’re at school’. How right she was. And when I got my first-class degree, majoring in English, I was on the phone to her straight away, and she was joyous.

And my career in publishing started back then when I started the Roehampton Arts Review magazine with a couple of friends. I caught the bug and never looked back.

I only ever look back at Elizabeth Pamela Mary and say, Mum – it’s all for you and it always will be.

Happy birthday.