I'm not sure of the exact date, but it was probably exactly 50 years ago today that I embarked upon what they call a "life changing experience".
At 24 years of age and with a notable lack of educational attainment, I took leave of absence from my job as a railway clerk to embark upon a two year politics and economics course at Ruskin College - whilst retaining my free passes and privilege tickets.
I had been active for nearly three years as secretary of the Easington Colliery Local Labour Party and had undertaken another voluntary role as secretary of the Peterlee and District Fabian Society.
It was the latter involvement that drew me into attending a Fabian Weekend School at Oxford at the end of March 1960. It was held at the College's section at Headington which was used mainly for first year students.
Hugh Dalton, Roy Jenkins and Tony Crosland were amongst the speakers, whilst Bill Rogers was running the show as the Fabian's General Secretary.
I had no idea what Ruskin College was about until someone else attending the week-end school who had recently graduated from St. John's College, Oxford said "you should come here, it is for people like you". That is people with an interest in politics who lacked formal qualifications. It was the first time I knew that politics could be an academic subject.
Later in the year I saw an advert for the Ruskin courses in "Tribune". I immediately applied for something-I-knew-not-what as I was unmarried and had no major commitments.
Entry was based upon filling in an application form, writing a couple of essays (one was to try for a scholarship), plus an interview and three references. My referees were Mannie Shinwell the Constituency MP, my Union Branch Secretary and a former teacher who had joined our Local Labour Party in search of a headship in Labour dominated County Durham.
I had little idea as to what a Diploma Course entailed having left school at 16 with four low "O" levels and failures in what seemed to be the most important topics of Maths and English Language. It just seemed to me to be great that for two years in my life I could read books and write essays on politics and economics. After all the reason I had joined the Labour Party was to qualify to write an essay on nationalisation in a contest run by Mannie Shinwell, where I had taken the second prize of £3.
The subject I took to the most at Ruskin was Political Theory which opened up the way to reading theorists including Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, John Stuart Mill (on whom I wrote my best essay) and Karl Marx.
The photo at the start of this item was taken by Ann my future wife after the final exams and just before we all left Ruskin. The four on the photo were all fellow students and friends. I am the one in glasses at the back. Next is Ian Pickard whom I first met at the interviews at Transport House. Ann and I have visited Ian and Beryl his wife earlier this year. Ian became a Senior Lecturer in Communications at Wakefield College. Second from the front is the late Karl Hedderwick who was best man when Ann and I married in our native County Durham. He was also a colleague of mine at Sheffield University Extramural Department and in his final years had lived just a few hundred years from Ann and myself in our home in Dronfield. The chap at the front is Doug Chewter who was the only student in our year to obtain a distinction in the Oxford University Diploma. We keep in touch indirectly via the comment box of someone else's web-site.
Ann at Christchurch, Oxford on her visit in the summer of 1962
When I moved on to Hull University as an undergraduate my studies were shaped by my experiences at Ruskin. I dropped economics where my theory tutors report said that I showed a distinct ability to think for myself but at a rather superficial level ! I added philosophy to my politics studies as political philosophy and ethics seemed to me to add to my interests in political theory. After graduation I became a tutor in Sheffield University Extramural Department teaching Trade Unionists (especially NUM) in day release classes and other adults in an environment akin to that which I had experienced at Ruskin and in the areas of politics and theory which had then appealed to me.
Ruskin was the key to what I was engaged in from turning up their 50 years ago and for the next 27 years until I went on to serve for 18 years as an MP. Even then the discussion of political ideas was still central to much that I did; whether in the Commons, Committee meetings or political gatherings. Even in retirement I organise political discussion meetings for what looks very much like classes of adult students who are also labour movement activists. The Ruskin experience of the early 1960s shaped my life and, thankfully is still shaping it.