D is for Disability

I’m grateful to Charles Coventry  (1962-66, 1977-8), a sufferer of Cerebral Palsy, for sending me his memoir of the particular difficulties he faced in the 1960s and 70s and of why  St. Andrews was a special place for him.  Despite his previous ‘grudge against sport’ I hope he’ll forgive me for linking it to the start of this year’s Paralympic Games.

Charles writes:

St. Salvator's Hall St. Andrews
‘Sallies’

St Andrews University was my only choice.  The town was already  familiar from holidays at Kinkell Braes Caravan site.  First degree
started in 1962, staying in Sallies.  Because I had a disability I spent  my entire period there in a single room, in first year looking over the
lawn to the quad, and from second year across the passage looking out at  the castle.  I had the  benefit of the freedom  of university life.  At school I lived with the stigma of “non-sports” but here I developed my own form of physical exercise, a regular system  of walks, sometimes down Kirkhill to the end of the pier and back up Pends  Road, at other times the other way, and going to and from classes, tutorials  and societies was also on foot.  My main problem is partial vision which  rules out driving, and before the push-button crossing made crossing  city streets very difficult.  This would have made getting around in  Glasgow and Edinburgh a problem, but St Andrews was ideal with very  little traffic and everything within walking distance.

Undergraduate meals weren’t of very good quality, but full board meant
that I didn’t need to cope with gas cookers, and the residences were
being converted from gas fires to central heating.  Sallies had already
been done when I arrived, but there was still one barrier to full
participation in social life.  I couldn’t invite people in for coffee
because it still meant using a gas ring, which, with my partial vision I
couldn’t manage.

Old Union Building
Old Union Building

My main leisure activity was centred round music. Apart from the musical side and
subject societies I met friends in the Union beer bar on ground floor of  the Old Union building, the two historic houses on the corner of Butts  Wynd.  In my first few months there were separate men’s (the Admirable  Crichton’s House) and Women’s Unions (the adjoining Georgian  terrace). Something that no longer seems to exist, although it still  happened in my first year in Edinburgh (1983-4) is the Charities Day  collection, visits to places down the coast and then the actual procession
in St Andrews. Although never a participant in it, I always turned out for
the Kate Kennedy procession.

I was indoctrinated at home with political theories and anti-English
prejudice.  I was ordered to join the Liberals, but as soon as I got to
St Andrews all that was forgotten.  I got into trouble back home when I
couldn’t tell my father where the university tobacconist was and
couldn’t remember how many “coloured” students there
were.  It was always a relief to get back away from the tobacco culture and
the political indoctrination which I couldn’t understand.  Of course there
were political societies and Union debates, but nobody at home was to
know that I wasn’t going to them.
Once back on the right academic course, classics, I discovered my
real interests such as oral composition in Homer as Sir Kenneth Dover
said  when we met up (this was after I had come to Edinburgh and was on a vacation
course in St Andrews).

Despite this I didn’t get  get Honours, partly because of poor school  teaching, and also on account of  the  compulsory philosophy subject  – a far worse experience than my  original learning difficulty with number which I discovered extended to problems with abstract ideas. All the Scottish universities had this [compulsory philosophy] regulation, but I was lucky being at St Andrews because with the small size of  the phiolosophy department the staff questioned  my exceptionally poor  performance in Moral Phil .  A tutor with a disability (he was deaf) wondered about this and contacted Frederick MacNeilly who took over and having had experience of a cp student before in South Africa who was a brilliant philosopher, was interested in my form of the disability and my extreme difficulty with the subject.  When they  couldn’t arrange an exemption he fixed up extra tuition and I got through at the autumn resit.  I met the deaf tutor again in quad the next session when he stopped me to congratulate me on getting through, realising just how difficult it had been.

It took a while for attitudes learned at school to wear off. I soon lost my grudge against people involved in sport, but art ranked very low in the school syllabus, and an interest in architecture was regarded as “queer.” Gradually, through being in St Andrews and meeting with people from outside Scotland who hadn’t seen Scoittish architecture before, this  attitude gradually wore off, and I found the knowledge was useful in my  first library job in Perth when I was put on to Local Studies.  I am a  life member of St Andrews Preservation Trust.  With drawing and painting  it was the same.  Although it actually started in Perth, I got interested in exhibitions with the setting up of an art society in the university, the beginning of the Fine Art department in the rectorship of Sir John Rothenstein.

At the end of vacations, going back to  university was always my real homecoming.  At the end of my one long  period of employment, a damaging experience, I was lucky enough to
return for a postgraduate B Phil and was in Dean’s Court.  It was  pleasant to get back to the cosmopolitan atmosphere of a university  hall, and this period is mentioned in my notes on my involvement in music.

Once into library work, my ambition was always to get back to St  Andrews, but things went wrong. Even if I had been able to  in Perth or get something else of the right kind permanently, I would have been able  to retire back to what the librarian in Perth and Kinross County library realised was my “spiritual home” of St Andrews.

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About Ali Bacon

Writer
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