Across the Decades: Life in Uni with Alex Mawson-Harris and Alison Frater

Alison at 18

Alison at 18

In the first installment of our series of MA student interviews exploring the exhilarating spirit of learning, awakenings and a rich diversity of routes to the Professional Writing MA careers in writing, Alex Mawson-Harris interviews Alison Frater about her story of university in the 70s.

Alison, would you please take us to university in the 70s, and tell us about your first day?

It felt like a really big step, because I came from North Yorkshire originally and so it was a long way from home. But there was also a very strong sense of being left with myself. In those days the full grant meant that you were very independent.

I was so excited about leaving home and taking a step into the world. I think I’m somebody that’s always taken risks and travelled. I have a great excitement for new things.

I met some people on the first day who I became very close to, and they came from London. I think that was really helpful to me, to have people who had a completely different level of sophistication.

You mentioned a feeling of independence with the full grant. Do you feel like there are differences across the generations?

I’m certain there are and I saw it in my own children. There’s a lot more anxiety because of the loan and so I wonder whether we had a stronger sense of freedom back then? Although I think there was a downside to that as well, there wasn’t so much self-determination as students have now.

I think if you’re paying for it, you want to set the standard of teaching and I think we just took what came really.

Do you feel that there are any pros for people who are at university now?

I do think there’s probably a better engaged relationship between the students, as they try to influence how things are done.

And the kind of support given to people who may have mental health problems. I knew a lot of people who weren’t really supported in the way they are now, or they could potentially be, so things have changed for the better in that sense.

It was a different experience for me the first time round because I went to university in London and that was a huge world for me and I loved that, exploring everything that was on offer in the city. In Falmouth it’s completely different, but also wonderful.

What’s brought you to study Professional Writing now?

I think I’ve been a writer throughout my career in the health sector. I’ve done a lot of research and written for lots of different audiences, from reports for researchers and academics, to public health advice for local communities, including immigrant populations and young people. So, a wide range of writing.

I’ve also been really excited by the arts, so for me it felt like this was an opportunity to develop my writing in a different way and use storytelling as a way of communicating some of the richness I’ve found in life. Particularly around issues where it’s really important to tell people’s stories so they impact on policy and the way that we organise our society.

I’ve done a lot of work on women’s health and found that women often put everybody else’s health before their own and don’t talk about their experiences. Storytelling is a way of sharing experience and I’ve found that very valuable.

My inspiration comes from a combination of loving literature and writing, particularly women's’ writing. Feminism became central to my thinking and shaped my politics. My time at uni as an undergraduate was characterised by the rise of feminist thinking in books, politics, music… equality was no where in sight. This and a belief that there are lots of fascinating stories out there that haven’t been told influenced me then and ever since.

Alison a little bit later with the signature hairstyle she wears to this day

Alison a little bit later with the signature hairstyle she wears to this day

How has feminist writing changed since the 70s?

What happened to me at university really was a great awakening, a political awakening. I came to understand the world. I became a socialist – a member of the Labour Party – but I think my understanding came through feminism and an awareness of the inequality that was around at the time.

Women were just beginning to really reach out and grasp a sense of independence, moving away from an inevitable career around being married.

In my mother's generation if you got married you had to leave the job you were doing , it wasn’t anticipated that married women would work. Women didn't really have access to the means to control their fertility, those things were just beginning.

It was the second wave of feminism, where women were writing about these experiences and wanting equality with men. But there were so many areas where women weren’t equal, even at university, where it was a very male-dominated environment. I think that’s different now, it’s much more equal, in fact I think it’s slipped the other way.

I was hugely influenced by feminist writers like Doris Lessing and Simone de Beauvoir as well as writers from the US, including Marilyn French and Erica Jong – women just really excited about a new future.

It was also there in music. At the time, I loved heavy rock music but I also loved Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, women who were grasping issues around equality. I was hugely influenced by music and still am. It definitely inspired me to become a writer and it’s also informed my thinking about the world, other populations that are oppressed – people on low incomes, immigrant populations and people living in marginalised communities – or people who are severely discriminated against in our society, still.

I think that resonates very much with the way women used to be treated and to some extent still are, certainly across large parts of the world.

You mentioned a few artists there. If you had to pick a song to define the time, what would it be?

I completely adored Led Zeppelin and I loved Robert Plant. I think one of my favourite songs of all time is probably A Whole Lot of Love, along with Stairway to Heaven. I’d like A Whole Lot of Love to be played at my funeral, if that’s the measure.

And what about a book from the era to define the time?

It would have to be The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing as it was just such an enormous influence on my thinking and that experience of coming from the North East and none of my family had ever been to university, so for me, even then, escaping into books and the kinds of things women were saying in those books really resonated with my growing feeling about my place in the world and it was inspiring.

If you would like to see the original format of this interview where Alex highlights phrases and experiments with layout, please download this pdf.

by Alex Mawson-Harris and Alison Frater