Here is the story of how two men well placed in the academic world set my life into a downward spiral.
It was the seventies. I had entered the undergraduate course in Architectural Studies at the University of Newcastle Upon Tyne.
I was still a naive girl going straight from my school days to this far Northern city, and I fell deep into a variety of difficult experiences; placed in a hostel away from my colleagues with whom I studied, my room mate, a local girl, rarely spent time in our room; choosing instead to commute nightly to Sunderland to be with her beau. Those nights I first learnt about loneliness.
But I made friends with some of my course colleagues, so although away from the immediate social circle in which most of the boarders could indulge at their Halls of Residence, I enjoyed the company of those who joined me in our breaks at the Union bars and cafes.
As a group, our student intake shared one large studio space. Our first assignment was to design a bedroom curtain. I was not a conventional designer. My curtain comprised a pattern of spider webs in white against a maroon background with the occasional spider traveling over his web.
My tutors were taken aback at my design decision, but in my naivety I did not withdraw my unconventional ardour.
In fact it took full flight in the next assignment; to design a sculpture for an airport lounge. Inspired by the lectures in classic Greek temple architecture, I visualised a space into which the waiting passengers could wander. Ruins of Greek temple columns were tastefully strewn before the viewer, a translucent blue sky above, and distant Greek scenes graced the three enclosing walls. Then there was the twist; the insides of the stone blocks were daubed with swirls of psychedelic colours; shocking pink, electric blue, fluorescent green, purple, yellow, orange excited my eyes as the creator of this architectural theatre.
My tutors and professors seemed shocked at the audacity; the implied suggestion that the hallowed temple stones, bleached white over their years of abandonment could be so sacrilegiously treated by this young student.
I continued in naive innocence to shock my academic superiors. When we had to create a model of a simple hut, I incorporated real mud as a roof cover complete with the odd live earthworm accidentally carried in my bucket.
Nevertheless some of my design ideas which were severely criticised at our feedback times, I have spotted in the years since coming to successful fruition; such as the flexible plastic tubes for children to crawl through as part of a portable playground structure. “too claustrophobic” commented the professors.
A grass roof on a chapel. “Not normal, strange” said they.
Asymmetry in a luxury home. “That is not right” commented my conservative superiors.
Oh, I have seen all these design features displayed in buildings and social designs in the years since.
In my academic work, I could barely be criticised, passing all my examinations from history to mathematical calculations for structural design, and my written work had competence, but when left to chose an essay subject on a building type, my analysis of squatters’ huts around Mexico City left my professors looking somewhat bemused and when after being complimented on my efforts, I was asked to produce a piece geared more on contemporary design, my subject choice was totalitarian architecture in Russia.
Oh yes, no doubt, though I lacked no enthusiasm, I suffered great naivety which eventually cost me severely.
One of our lecture courses was on the theory of architectural design. It was presented by Doctor B…He was also the proud broadcaster on the BBC of an Open University course on that subject at that time.
Initially my hand would occasionally shoot up to suggest a different viewpoint on his various theories, and then, later in the course, when I would sit listening quietly, he would turn to me and ask “Miss G, what is your opinion?”
I did not know my opinion was going to hurt me as much as it eventually did.
The degree course was reaching its conclusion. The work had all been done; exams passed, dissertation admired, final design submitted.
The day of reckoning arrived. I was not expecting a good degree. I knew there was some consternation about my design methodology.
On the appointed day, I went to view the paper that was due to be posted on the board under the arch that led into the courtyard where the department of Architecture was situated. I could not see my name anywhere. My tutor Derek was approaching. “I can’t see my name” I told him “They’ve forgotten to put my name up”
I remember even after all these years how he flushed awkwardly from his neck up into his face. “Go and talk to Doctor B and Professor C” he advised.
I knocked on Professor C’s door. Both these gents were sitting in their comfortable armchairs, watching me with smug expressions.
“Miss G” Professor C addressed me in his supercilious manner. “We do not think your designs are practical and thus we do not consider you suitable to be a member of the Royal Institute Of British Architects. You can, however resit the year”
How could I after these years of producing designs which resulted in mostly consternation from these men, suddenly find a way to curtail my creative individualism? All my academic work was good. How could they tell me my designs were impractical when I could back my plans up with proven ability in structural design, and knowledge of materials which were subjects amongst the exams we took.
I was so shocked. I felt so stupid. Not to have seen this coming. In all the time I had been at University, I had never had a personal tutor to support me, unlike other student friends; and no friend to guide me. Friends in other faculties knew how well or poorly they were doing. I had been totally unaware of the impending disastrous situation.
Eventually I went mournfully back to my London home. Dad had died only a few months before, so it was just me and Mum there. We wrote a letter to the department objecting to the decision.
Some months later, I received a one page document from the Union, stating all my passes, and this for many years sufficed as a degree equivalent, although for the first period of years, I did not see the piece of paper in such a positive light.
The fact that I had not seen it coming weighed me down heavily. Still, I got work in an architects; I did rehab of old houses; redesigning, costing and going out on site.
I had other plans though. I had long dreamed to travel around the world; to see how people survived amongst the planet’s troubles and pains. I wanted like Puck ‘to spin a girdle around the earth.’
Working in a friendly architect's office for a year, living in humble surroundings, I was able to save enough to set off on my adventure.
And adventures I have had. I fell in love with a man in America, stayed with him four years until death took him from me. I came back to the UK, looked after my Mum in her waning years and in my spare time, concentrated on a music career.
Success there was minimal, so I thought at last it was time for me to retrain as a teacher; do something practical and earn a reasonable income. It was then I discovered my degree equivalent was not worth the paper it was printed on. For many years I was pushed from pillar to post, trying to be accepted on a qualifying course. Then I tried to do another degree but could not qualify for adequate funding.
I wrote to my MP, who approached the University. The then acting director of Architecture, sent a letter in which it was claimed that I never presented a final design. This was untrue, and illogical considering that I submitted all previous design projects as I had always completed all other requirements of the course. However in those days we did not have the luxury of photocopies. Technology has developed in 'quantum leaps' since those days!
Later I attempted to sue the department for prejudice, and more recently for loss of earnings but my actions have been thwarted.
What were the particular prejudices? What could I prove? The one I could prove was not something recognised by law, I was informed.
This provable prejudice was ‘class.’ Most of my colleagues came from wealthy families. Two of my colleagues had been at the same school as one of our Princes. They were not unpleasant young men, but that was the characteristic pedigree of most my colleagues. They had wealth behind them. Recently I thought how they had presented their work on the best quality paper. Mine, as a poor person was on poor quality paper. Perhaps my professors were too embarrassed to present my work to the Royal Institute Of British Architects.
The fact that I was a Jewish girl albeit an unconventional one, may have also contributed to my downfall, but there is no proof.
And so these many years later I sit in my humble abode, reviewing my failings in life. When I called some legal entities recently, I was informed my case was far too long ago; although I did hear news that some Americans just recently have been awarded their degrees after more than fifty years, so I was holding out some hope.
And so I resort now to telling you my story. The betrayal of my professors did not only affect me, the poor little maverick girl of non British heritage, who gained her scholarship to University at the time when only eleven per cent of the U.K. population were so privileged, but also prevented me from becoming a fully fledged contributor to British society. It was the first step of my mental disenfranchisement.
Perhaps there is someone out there who can help bring me justice.