One of my most enduring memories of the 14 years I spent in government ('state') schools had nothing to do with anything I was formally taught (does it ever?), but rather, regarded an incident in the upper sixth when I was 17, when my Psychology teacher decided to address the topic of higher education.
"So," he said, hands clasped, and something of an earnest expression on his face. "I know most people in this room are planning on going on to university next year."
"Yes, sir," the class nodded and smiled gamely.
"But," he continued, his brow furrowing and his smile turning into a near-grimace. "Please tell me some of you are planning on going somewhere, anywhere, other than [the local universities] Keele and Staffs?!"
To give this a bit of context: I was born in Stoke-on-Trent, and grew up on the nearby Keele University campus, where my dad was a lecturer (as, indeed, was my grandfather, my mum's dad, meaning my grandparents lived on campus, too). Keele is about seven miles south of Stoke, and just three miles from Newcastle-under-Lyme, the small market town where Keele kids went to senior school and college (Keele itself only having a primary school), and where - in the little huts adjacent to Newcastle-under-Lyme FE College where A-levels were undertaken at the time - my Psychology teacher had posed this geographical query.
Himself a transplant from Essex, my teacher - like most middle-class university graduates - could not fathom the hideous possibility of not getting as far away as possible from home at the age of 18, and found the common phenomenon in Stoke - of staying at, or near to, home and going to one of the local universities - to be utterly incomprehensible.
When only a small smattering of hands (pretty much exclusively belonging to my Keele contemporaries) went up in response to his question, indicating an intention to go further afield, our teacher visibly shuddered.
"You need to widen your horizons! Open your eyes! Spread your wings! There's a whole world out there!" he decried, or other assorted idioms to that general effect.
The collective classroom mainly looked baffled.
"But, sir," objected one scholar, quite reasonably. "My family's here, my friends are here, why would I want to go to some random place where I don't know anyone when I've got everything I need right here?"
Our teacher sighed deeply, exasperation etched all over his face.
"But don't you want to see more of the world than just Stoke?"
"I do," said the scholar, stoutly. "I go to Manchester and Birmingham [the two nearby big cities] all the time. I'm going to London for my 18th. I go on holiday. But this is my home. Why would I want to leave everything I know behind and start again with nothing?"
This is, unequivocally, a reasonable position. We spend the first two decades of our lives building friendships and forging connections, often friendships as intense and important as any we will ever have - why abruptly sever them all at the age of 18 to start from scratch in an alien environment?
Nevertheless, even in the face of what should have been largely non-controversial rationale, our teacher just sighed again and shook his head. "Small-minded fools," he might almost have said, but didn't (quite).
Despite the fact that it was indelibly etched in my teacher's mind that the only option for anyone with the remotest spark of intelligence or ambition was to abandon everything they knew to move to a random location more or less picked out of a hat (having worked in university admissions, I can confirm that the way most 17-year-olds select higher education institutions is not exactly stringent, and I spent many hours patiently explaining to those who had applied to study at Keele, where it actually was) - this is, in reality, a very bizarre - and very, very new - phenomenon.
For thousands of years, the norm for the vast majority of humans who had ever lived was to be born, live, and die within roughly the same geographical area, where close communal bonds had developed over many generations, and which therefore represented a rich and sustaining network that - while, naturally, had its challenges - provided vital opportunities and support across a lifetime, and hence, was not something many people would consider abandoning altogether to go somewhere completely new - not unless there was a very powerful draw, such as opportunities that couldn't be accessed anywhere else.
Yet in the case of Stoke, as in almost all urban conurbations these days, there are plenty of opportunities for further education - two large universities in the immediate area and many more a short commute away - so there's no particular reason any 18-year-old needs to leave to get the student experience, given that that is completely identical whether you go to university in Stoke, Plymouth, or Inverness.
Every university is full of giddy teenagers wanting to have fun, and squeeze in the odd lecture between hangovers. Of course, some people don't get on with their families, or are just generally craving independence from their parents, and want to take the opportunity university presents to leave home - but "leaving home" has traditionally meant just that, leaving the house you grew up in to move into your own abode (plenty of Stoke natives moved into digs with friends whilst attending the local institutions) - not moving 300 miles across the country to a completely alien city where you don't know a single soul.
Overall, this is a UK / US phenomenon, and it's much less common in the rest of Europe and even Australia, where people do typically stay close to home and go to their local university. But the prospect of catapulting across the country to begin your adult life has become so deeply ingrained in UK culture that, to millions, the thought of not immediately abandoning your hometown upon acquiring your A-level results, is simply unthinkable - worse even than failing your exams.
An exam can be retaken, but the admission that you are an unambitious, small-minded, prospect-free failure (which, clearly, is irrevocably signalled by not going to university at the opposite end of the country) can never be retracted.
In many, if not most, sixth-form colleges across the land, this "fact" is clearly understood - but Stoke is a bit of an anomaly. Always at least ten years behind the rest of the country where many 'cultural trends' are concerned, Stoke has retained the close communal and intergenerational bonds that used to define most of the country, but have been largely lost over the post-war years, as society becomes more mobile and cosmopolitan.
In Stoke, people can typically trace their heritage in the area back at least seven generations, and so - even though I was born in Stoke, my mother was born in Stoke, and my grandparents arrived there in the early 1950s - I am not considered to be "really" from Stoke. (People were always asking me where I was "really" from, so I took to saying Poland. I've never actually been to the place, but multiple generations of great-grandparents hailed from there, so this seemed to satisfy the questioners.)
It's important to note, though, that there's a very sharp distinction made in the local area between Keele and Stoke (the Stoke natives were always friendly enough towards me, but I was never considered 'one of them' - Keele and its denizens were always seen as 'other').
Stoke is solidly working-class, and although it has retained many benefits of traditional working-class communities, it's also beset with social and economic struggles, with the demise of the pottery industry and the mines that had traditionally sustained it, leading it to become one of the most disadvantaged areas in the country (having the dubious distinction of winning 'Worst Place To Live in England' in the year 2000).
Keele, on the other hand - ever since the university arrived in the 1940s - is a middle-class enclave, and, therefore, those who grow up there - typically the offspring of Southern-transplant university lecturers - develop middle-class sensibilities, such as: leaving home the minute you've got your A-level results and never, EVER dreaming of resettling in the town where you were born (ugh!).
Despite the fact that those who grow up in Keele and the surrounding areas are typically very attached to and fond of them (as humans are hardwired to be of their homes), considering building on this strong attachment and affection - on the two decades of friendships and connections already forged - and founding an adult life there - is simply not conceivable as an option. You MUST go away to a random city to study (and then another one upon graduating), otherwise you might as well give up now and sign up for a life of benefits, fags, and Jeremy Kyle.
Did this attitude infect me too? Of course it did. I too believed it was a mark of abject failure in life, on a scale I found almost impossible to comprehend, not to go away to a random alien city upon acquiring your exam results (I tried to convince some of my sixth-form classmates of the merits of random city universities, and managed to persuade one or two to contemplate Wolverhampton: the next town along. "Obviously I still need to be able to get back to see my mates every weekend," I was told firmly, when I questioned why they might not consider somewhere a little bit further than a 15-minute train journey).
Yet when I myself acquired my own exam results - and they were decent results, easily qualifying me for the offer I had received from the two-hour-drive-away University of Sheffield - a funny thing happened: I was struck with an extremely strong, visceral, almost primal rush of emotion - that I hadn't anticipated at all - that I did not want to leave my home. I promptly rang Sheffield and cancelled my place.
That wasn't to say I didn't crave independence in terms of leaving the parental home, which I did age 19, but that I didn't want to leave my "homelands", which I didn't until I was 23 - geriatrically late, as far as my cosmopolitan contemporaries were concerned (who'd all gone off to study in London, Bristol, Edinburgh, France).
Instead, I rented my own little flat in Newcastle-under-Lyme, in walking distance of where I was born (a flat of which I was very proud, especially the mini orange flowery sofa-bed I had acquired from Dunelm Mill), and might still be there today, were it not for the fact that almost everyone else I knew had left, and so, eventually and inevitably, I did too. I ended up going to London, where - despite it being somewhere I had never lived for a single day before rocking up in Lewisham nearly halfway through my twenties - I knew markedly more people than I did from my own hometown, which had now more become a "ghost town".
Such an emptied out early adult life could never have been predicted from the way my life began. When I was born, my grandparents lived a five-minute walk up the road, with their three teenaged children (an older child having already moved away to study). An only child, I was very close to my cool young aunts and uncles, more like older brothers and sisters - yet, by the time I was ten, all but one had gone - and he left soon after. By "gone", I don't mean that they merely left home - I mean they'd gone hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away, scattered across various sprawling cities and scholarly spires, certainly never to return.
Meanwhile, I had many friends as a child amongst the other "Keele kids", the children of the university's lecturers, who all, like me, lived on campus, as staff and their families were encouraged to do. Of my six closest childhood friends, all of whom lived in easy walking distance of my home as we grew up, two now live in London (at opposite ends), one lives in Liverpool, one in Bristol, one in York, and one in Spain. They all left immediately upon turning 18, and I've only seen one of the six in the last ten years.
My parents went their separate ways when I was young and neither now lives anywhere near Keele, and after my grandfather died in the early 2000s, my grandmother moved off campus too.
The corollary of this is that, despite the fact I was born and grew up in an extremely peopled, close and interconnected tight-knit community, I now no longer know a single person in my own hometown.
I consequently have a very bittersweet relationship with Keele, the place where I was born and grew up, and which I used to love so much. It's a beautiful campus with many treasured memories (a bit of a perfect idyll for childhood, really), but that's all that's any longer there, memories - echoes and ghosts - and consequently, there's something about revisiting it that feels almost eerie, almost moribund, because, for somewhere where I was once so well-known and well-connected (as I got older, I had many student friends, too, but of course, they've all long since moved on), to now know no-one, just feels distorted, dysfunctional, and wrong.
This is because, I have come to inevitably conclude - it is.
My feelings when I revisit Keele are akin to the sense a very elderly person might have revisiting their hometown, where everyone else has got so old they've died, but in this case, almost everyone I knew and grew up with, is still very much alive. In fact, apart from my grandfather, who died in his seventies, and a childhood friend, who died tragically young a couple of years ago (a hideous shock, as it always is), they are all still alive.
That I feel my hometown is now a "ghost town" - that I feel almost in mourning when I walk around it, grieving a generation of people still alive - seems to me a stinging indictment of modernity and "progress". Is it really "progress" to break up all our families, our treasured friendships, our close communities, at the age of 18? Or has this social trend, like so many of them, been developed and foisted upon us for nefarious reasons?
Of course, this kind of community decimation happens all over the country, but there's a particularly bitter irony in this specific case, in that the "Keele experiment" - a new and innovative approach to higher education, devised by idealistic social architects in the 1940s - was primarily founded on the idea of integrated community - that, rather than have students secluded off in their stuffy digs, whilst lecturers lived out in the leafy suburbs, all students and staff should live, work, and play on campus alongside each other - and, for a few blissful decades, this worked wonderfully well.
I grew up on the campus, as had my mother and her siblings, and my parents and grandparents both had many friends amongst the students, with one of them even becoming my godfather. The strategists behind Keele put such an emphasis on community because they had learned that it was this - and not education, career, or other dislocated forms of 'success' - that ultimately really mattered to and sustained people.
Now, please let me be clear that I'm all for people having access to every opportunity in life, following their dreams and so on and so forth, and if going to university in a random city is someone's dream, then they should be supported to fulfil that, and they shouldn't be guilt-tripped into staying close to home if they don't want to (which I'm aware can happen in some communities). Yet, this middle-class ritualistic obsession that everyone has to do it - that everyone must leave home instantly upon the legal acquisition of adulthood to have an identical student experience to the one available to them at their local university - doesn't seem to me to be an example of a freely chosen 'dream' or carefully constructed 'choice', because if it was, literally every middle-class kid wouldn't do it. There'd be some variation and some different choices.
There isn't any such variation, though, or barely, because it isn't a free choice, it's a deeply embedded dogma that has been forced into the culture as 'the norm' because of the huge benefits the ruling elites accrue by breaking up families and communities at the earliest possible opportunity (literally within months - and sometimes even weeks or days - or someone becoming an adult) and isolating them from their family and friends (isn't that what all good abusers do?).
Yes, some people are lucky and have the time of their lives at faraway universities, being socially confident and outgoing and easily able to make new friends - but this is certainly not so for everyone, and university mental health services are typically overwhelmed with suffering, struggling, lonely students not coping with the stresses of being a long way from home in an alien city where they have no long-term bonds. There's nothing pathological about their responding like this: human beings are not built to be ripped out at the roots at the age of 18, abruptly losing everything they've ever known, and it's not surprising that many react badly to it.
Yet to many ambitious middle-class parents, it would be the mark of abject failure as a family if a struggling student were to come home and complete their studies at the local university, maybe even - the shock, the horror - going on to build a life in the town where they were born and where all their roots and connections are.
Why this is such a hideous prospect to middle-class families really needs to be examined more closely, because if they simply desire educational and career success for their child, then that is more likely to occur in an environment where that child already has support and connections - it's not what you know, but who you know, and all that. You are simply more likely to get a decent job in an environment in which you are connected and a known quantity, rather than somewhere where you know no-one and must compete with thousands of equally anonymous strangers - especially if your confidence and emotional wellbeing has been undermined by chronic loneliness, as is the case for very many young (and not so young) adults.
The reality is that there is no evidence whatsoever, of any sort, that the modern, middle-class trend of going far away to university - and then typically moving cities again upon graduation - has made society as a whole happier, more successful, or more fulfilled. On the contrary, in fact.
Comprehensive happiness and fulfilment studies, involving millions of people, have been carried out across the Western world in recent decades, and the findings are always the same: the more mobile and transient society has become, the unhappier its people (especially women). The modern expectation that people will have little stability in their early adult lives, moving all over the place for education and career, all too often translates into increased feelings of loneliness, atomisation, and isolation, which, obviously, is a very poor foundation upon which to build a meaningful life.
Human beings do not thrive on constant instability and flux, they thrive on robust communities and supportive networks, and these, obviously, do not develop if everyone is moving around every five minutes. I remember house-sharing in London in my twenties and it was absolutely farcical how often people came and went, to the extent it was not unusual not to know the full names of all your flatmates, or even - as one friend of mine reported when his then-flatmate passed him in the street and blanked him - to even always recognise them.
I don't think anyone can reasonably argue this is a better, more fulfilling, and more human way to live than staying in your local community where you actually know the names and faces of those around you. (And once house-sharing with 'randoms' becomes unsustainable, as it nearly always does once 30 looms, many people promptly leave those cities and new fledgling networks anyway. Of the four flatmates from those days I'm still in touch with, one is in Brighton, one in Kent, one in Germany, and I'm in Huddersfield - only one remains in London.)
On the subject of transient travellers through London, it's also worth mentioning that the phenomenon I am describing here exists on a much larger and more dramatic scale with young Australasians. The UK runs a reciprocal scheme with Australian and New Zealand governments whereby its young people (18-31) may acquire a two-year "working holiday" visa, enabling them to come over to the UK for up to two years, enjoying all the same rights to live and work in the country as UK citizens. This scheme seems to be a veritable rite of passage for large swathes of Australasians, and while they typically don't leave their hometowns for university, many do leave their country, continent, and hemisphere to come to London when they are in their early twenties.
They, typically, have the absolute time of their lives over here. There's a huge ex-pat network for them to tap into, enabling them to easily access housing and job opportunities. They love the culture. They love the nightlife. They have amazing experiences, make best friends, fall in love... and then, bam! Their two years are up and they have to go home. "Home" isn't a short bus journey away where they can still keep up with new friends and connections, it's thousands of miles and a hugely expensive long-haul flight away.
I saw too many times this sudden and abrupt severing of the lives they had built up absolutely destroy people. Two years is a long time in your early adulthood and a lot can happen - as it typically had - and so to suddenly have to leave it all behind to go back to, often, next to nothing (no job, no partner, no bustling social life), would often devastate people.
One friend described how she spent the whole flight back to Sydney in floods of tears and had to pretend to her parents when they picked her up at the airport they were tears of joy that she was "home" - even though Australia no longer felt like home, London did. (This friend consequently spent the next five years doggedly determined she would return to London and eventually managed to get a job at a company with a London office who agreed to transfer her back.) Other friends would illegally overstay the terms of their visa, taking whatever dodgy cash-in-hand work was available, so utterly desperate were they to hang on to the lives they had built here - and loved (you'd be amazed at what a huge throng of illegal Australian labour there is in London for precisely this reason).
When they did eventually have to return home - as almost all of them eventually did - this would often be shattering to those left behind, too, to go from seeing a close colleague or best-friend flatmate every day, to, realistically, probably never seeing them again, once they had gone back to the other side of the world.
I reflected deeply on this phenomenon at the time, and thought: why do governments do this? Australia and New Zealand are modern, safe, first-world countries, there are plenty of opportunities for young people there, they don't need to go to the other side of the world to find them (any more than UK youngsters need to go to the other side of the country for a decent education).
Of course, people should be free to travel and explore other countries - but to live there for a period of years is an entirely different experience to being a tourist, as it means powerful bonds are built (especially in the 18-25 age-bracket when social energies and relationships are particularly intense) - which are then - as per the terms of the visa - brutally severed, very often causing profound pain to all who this affects.
So why, I asked myself, do governments make available this non-essential scheme when the results for so many are inevitably so brutal and painful? I see my friends from those days, still - more than ten years later - suffering the effects, mourning their London lives as "the best times of their lives" and seeing the return to their homelands as a bitter consolation prize. Wouldn't it therefore have been better for them simply to visit London as tourists, never settling there, never putting down roots, when it was always inevitable they were going to be ripped out like this?
Equally, are we helping or hindering native young people by sending them to random cities for university - where they once again build up communities and then lose them - and then other random cities for work, where the same often happens? Is this the optimal way to begin your adult life and the best way to secure a strong foundation for the future, because it sure doesn't look like it to me?
So why has living this way now become so common - the norm and the expectation for so many?
In understanding why this phenomenon has developed, why it is seen as a mark of ambition and success to move to random cities (and even countries) where you don't know anyone, and of small-minded failure to stay at home (even if staying at home means you are more solvent and with better personal and professional opportunities), we have to remember what the "ideal" citizen is to the ruling elite - a rootless, atomised, worker-drone, who lives only to work and consume, with no loyalties to any entity beyond their employer and the state.
Community, culture, family, these are all competing loyalties and therefore, threaten this "perfect" citizen model - and that is why the ruling classes have waged war on these things in recent decades. They have shattered innumerable communities by dangling the enticing carrots of "career and success", "opportunity and adventure" in front of ambitious young people and their families - and many middle-class parents have vigorously - sometimes aggressively - supported their children into following this path... Only to find themselves utterly alone in their twilight years, since all their children and grandchildren followed their advice and now live in all four corners of the country (and even globe), too far away to see each other often. My friend, who came back to London from Australia, how often can she see her parents (or they their newly-born grandchild)?
Maybe some are okay with these choices, those who are active and have retained good social lives - but I know that very many are not, especially as their health declines in their later years - and that loneliness and isolation is a terrible epidemic for the elderly, including those with large families - because - yes, some families don't get on - but in so many cases, families don't see each other much because everyone lives so far away.
I have been thinking about this phenomenon recently, because I think it is now the velvet glove is well and truly coming off the iron fist that we will see the full devastating effects of this devious social experiment, to sever families and communities so that many people are, in essence, very much on their own.
I think of my childhood friends, once part of the close and connected "Keele bubble", where there was always someone on hand to help, now scattered in their random cities - many of whom now have young children to care for, and not all of whom have a supportive partner to help out. If crisis hits, as it currently is in so many guises - job losses, bills hikes, "mystery" illnesses - how will they cope? In a traditional community - in the community they grew up within - they would be surrounded by lifelong friends, parents and grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles - somebody is going to be able to help out.
But in the city they only moved to 18 months ago and have just a fragile network of friendly acquaintances made over small-talk over the watercooler (if they actually go to an office at all, and don't work from home - another community-decimating trend that can have tragic consequences) - what then?
Yes, some are lucky enough to have sturdier networks than that, who can and will help in a crisis. But not all are. Not by a long shot. In fact, modern Western cultures are the most lonely and disconnected they have ever been. And it's all by design.
Devious social engineering initiatives have been hard at work these last 50-odd years to make millions of people effectively stranded - that, in an emergency, they don't have that complex tapestry of long-term, intergenerational community to turn to, and so they are - and here's what it all comes down to - forced to throw themselves on the mercy of the state to survive.
THAT is why the elite has so incentivised the decimating of traditional communities and extended families (whilst remaining very well-connected and family-oriented themselves). That is why they're so fixated on sending a country kid to a big city university, an Australian sun worshipper to cold and rainy London. They don't care about broadening anyone's horizons or giving them additional opportunities - of course not. Those are just the marketing slogans they've used to encourage people to break up their communities and atomise themselves, at the earliest available opportunity. And it's worked, devastatingly well.
The fact is that - while we must all of course endure losses on an individual level, death and tragedy having always been with us - we are not adapted to lose whole communities - everyone and everything - all at once, and the more this happens to us - at 18 when we go to university, at 21 when we move to the big city, at 30 when we're craving a quieter life - the more damage it typically does, and the more likely it makes it that our later lives will be lonely and insufficiently peopled and connected. And that's the point. That's why the ruling classes invented this bizarre social experiment and that's why they push it as "normal" (at least, for anyone with any spark or ambition, not like those small-minded failures you left behind, as the relentless messaging goes).
I am going to add the tedious disclaimer that, obviously, leaving one's hometown works out really well for some people and that opportunity should always be available as an option. But that's just what it should be: an option, not a mandate, and the alternative - staying in the town you were born and building your life there - should not be so deeply stigmatised that entire generations of people refuse to even consider it, meaning that the biggest concentration of people I now know in my own hometown, is in the graveyard.
In conclusion, and to return back to my baffled Psychology teacher in that sixth-form social science hut, all those years ago, he never could understand why so few hands went up when he asked who planned to leave the area to go to university. Similarly, I couldn't understand it at the time, either, as me and my Keele friends excitedly ruffled through prospectuses for Bristol, Liverpool, London, Leeds - anywhere sufficiently far away from home.
But - I guess rather needless to say at this point - I understand it now. They say you can "never go home", but what they don't say (because they don't want you to know) is that some of the happiest and most fulfilled people in the world, are those who never left.
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