My student days: Six musicians, actors and comedians fondly reminisce
They didn’t spend enough time in the library and struggled with lectures, but our six celebrities made firm friends, enjoyed their subjects and some even mastered spaghetti bolognese
Joseph Mount, Metronomy: Music & visual art
“I read music and visual art, but there wasn’t a great deal of reading. Now, looking back, it is very poignant. I have so many memories. University covers a period between you being a teenager and a young adult. I thought I was an adult when I went there and a man when I came out the other side. How wrong I was.
My best memories are from my second year. Anyone who has been to university will know that it’s the second year that really counts in terms of socialising. That whole year was so enjoyable.
How would I describe myself as a student back then? I cruised. I arrived at my course expecting to find lots of like-minded people and that couldn’t have been further from the truth. Most of my classmates were into music, they didn’t care so much about visual art.
So I socialised with the illustrators, graphic designers and textiles students. I worked very hard at making friends and not as hard at my course. I ended up with a 2:1 on a course that wasn’t that hard.
I took music by The Ramones, Devo and Van Morrison to university. They all won me friends. I was on a pretty tight budget, but I had part-time jobs the whole time I was there and my parents and grandparents would send me money in envelopes every now and then. I did cook, but I was terrible.
Everything I did at university was in preparation for my career as a musician. I bought myself three years to really figure out what I wanted to do. I also used the time to network. If I were to do it all again, I’d do absolutely nothing differently. I’m still very good friends with lots of people I met at university. It was probably my single biggest friendship haul of all time since primary school. Everyone I met there has gone on to work in the arts. I’m quite proud of us all.”
Metronomy go on tour in December
Sara Pascoe, comedian & actress: English Literature
“I ’d taken two years out because I thought I wasn’t going to go to university; I thought I was going to be a professional hotel singer. I was a backing singer for Robbie Williams’ dad in Nottingham, paid £100 a week, and I had no money. Then I read a book, which was set at university and suddenly remembered, “I’ve got this brain, I could go and talk to people about Byron, and drink port.” I went through Clearing and that’s how I got out of Nottingham. I went down to Sussex, but then I remember being very disappointed that there was no Byron and no port. It was like an 18-30s holiday and I found that shocking.
My best friend is a comedian. She’s been my best friend ever since so I’m always grateful to Sussex for her.
I worked when I was there, mostly charity fundraising for RSPCA. In my third year, I didn’t want to work, so I spent my student loan on living costs and now I’m paying my student fees off. I didn’t graduate at the end of university because I couldn’t afford to.
I’m a vegan now, but looking back I was the most unhealthy vegetarian in the world. My favourite pasta sauce was Philadelphia with Marmite and I loved instant mashed potato in a pot.
Back at university, I used to think comedy was for idiots – the world was very serious and full of crimes and we should be doing drama trying to alleviate those awful things. I was very sneering; I would never have gone to a stand-up night.
Going to university by the sea is amazing. There’s something about being able to walk from where you live, if you can’t sleep or need a break from studying, and just look at the sea for 20 minutes. It is so good for you.
What English literature gave me is a huge respect for words and underlying meanings and that’s imperative in script work and auditions, and everything I studied oddly seeps into my stand-up.
University gave me the practice of being able to read quickly, and taught me not to be intimidated by what I didn’t know. It’s a gateway into a life of learning if you want it to be.”
Sara Pascoe is on tour 23-29 July and 7-30 November, and she appears at Festival No 6
Rob Da Bank, DJ & festival director: French & History of Art
“French was the only thing I was good at at school. I loved being at Goldsmiths; it was an incredible university. I met Mrs da Bank, Josie, in the first term, at the Freshers’ ball, and we clicked straight away, so obviously that was quite pivotal. We’ve been together 22 years since. I had a lot of my first DJ gigs playing in the student union, I met loads of friends that are still friends, and basically got dropped into a musical hotbed – Goldsmiths is very arty.
Because we were students in south London, right from the off we were out and about having adventures. It was amazing being at university in London and having that big playground.
I already had a smallish record collection, but by the time I left I had thousands. The one record that I particularly remember is the Ragga Twins’ “Reggae Owes Me Money”. Ragga, dancehall and jungle were huge at the time and that record sums up what I remember listening to on the streets of south London.
Lucky Elephant number among the gems on Rob da Bank’s Sunday Best label
I get into trouble every year for overspending my budget at Bestival. I had £2,000 at the beginning of the term and then somehow two weeks later I was down to £200 and living on tinned beans for the rest of term, but I had a great record collection. That’s what I’d spend my money on: records, going out to nightclubs and learning about this amazing music scene.
I had some of my best years at Goldsmiths. I don’t want to hold up the university process as a way of life, but that’s how I treated it. It was quite stressful trying to juggle the educational part with the social life; I remember sleepless nights about having not done my essays. I did pass my degree and I did work – I was interested in my course, but mostly it was good to be in south London for four years.
What I gained most of all were life skills. I was an 18-year-old middle class white kid dropped into the badlands of south London and I was so naïve and obviously stuck out like a sore thumb. Within a few months I was pretty streetwise and could handle myself in situations.”
Rob da Bank has launched Earworm, a specialist music supervision company for film, TV, video games and advertising
Matt berry, actor, musician & comedian: Contemporary Arts
“I loved every minute of university. It was great because it was one of the last years where you didn’t have to pay for your paints and your materials – it was all free. I wanted to be able to do different things besides just painting and include different disciplines within the painting and the course enabled me to do that. And we had great lecturers. Most of them were inspirational.
In our first week, one guy showed us a load of paintings and said, “One of these is a red herring.” Some of them I recognised; there was a Picasso. Then he pointed at one and said, “That’s the red herring.” He said, “That’s the one I did when I was at college and that’s the last time I ever painted. Make the most of it.” He was saying make something of yourself. That stuck with me.
He really frightened me with that. That was a day when he stopped being an artist and stopped doing stuff for himself like that and I thought, “I hope that never happens to me, I’m going to make sure that it doesn’t.” I knew then that I just wanted to do what I wanted to do. That man saying that on that day I think is part of this ‘I’m not content to sell my art’ type thing. I painted the album cover for my new album Music For Insomniacs and a cover for the Record Store Day single, so I haven’t really stopped since college.
I was really happy to be there; I didn’t want it to end. It was right in the middle of Britpop, so the whole focus of the country in the 1990s was on people my age. This whole scene was bursting and it was a kind of celebration of people our age, so it was a really good time to be there and to be a student. I lucked out with that.
I was a nightmare, I imagine. I don’t think I had my trousers on for much of the first two years from what I remember. I’d most often be found in a pub called The Arboretum, which was £1 a pint. I didn’t have any money. I had a sister who was at law school. My poor parents had to fork out for two kids at university at the same time, one of which was working a lot harder than the other. Everything I ate was orange. Baked beans, fish fingers… and that’s it. And that pretty much continued up until the late 1990s. I didn’t have any money until the last 10 years, really.
If I were to do it again, I’d have done more paintings. I’d have spent more time in the art studio as opposed to recovering from a hangover somewhere.
University is like a breather. Not to sound naff, but you work out who you are and what you want to do, and you do need that. You meet people that you wouldn’t meet in your home town, and you find out what they’re into. It’s all of that I reckon.”
Music For Insomniacs is out now. Matt Berry is filming a new series of Toast Of London for Channel 4
Jan Ravens, actress & impressionist: Education Studies & Drama
“It was a compromise. I really wanted to go to drama school and be a proper actress, but my parents thought I should have something to fall back on. My drama teacher at school had been to Homerton College and told me how marvellous it was, and I knew about Footlights and university drama societies. So I thought it was a good option.
University is probably the most formative time of your life. I was very naïve when I went there, a grammar school girl from suburban Merseyside. I was overawed by it; everybody seemed so posh and confident, particularly in the university drama societies. Everybody seemed very clever and well read.
I couldn’t believe I was there. Very quickly I was in university drama productions, Footlight productions, and writing and directing shows at college. I directed the university’s Gilbert and Sullivan, bossing everyone around, so I don’t know how I went from, “Oh my God, what am I doing here” to this person who was suddenly president of Footlights. I always felt you can’t say no; you’ve got to grasp the opportunity however terrifying it is. And I did find it terrifying. I had a period in my life when I was the first woman this and first woman that. First woman president of Footlights, first woman to direct Footlights Review, first woman comedy producer.
The thing that I really fell down on was the teaching practice because I was always involved in the Footlights pantomime or other stuff so I just didn’t have the time for it. I got told at one point to pull my socks up or I’d get chucked out.
The first year I lived in a college house, and shared a room with three other girls. It was mad. I didn’t know them, we just got bunged in together. A rich friend’s dad bought a house so I went and lived with her.
I didn’t spend a lot of time in the library. When I think of it now I think , “My God, that university library and those lecturers.” It was a waste and it wasn’t a waste. I read and read and read, but I didn’t go to many lectures to be honest.
I can’t begin to tell you how university changed my life. It made me realise that anything was possible.”
Dead Ringers is on Radio 4 on 30 July
Tim Key, comedian & writer: Russian
“I had a nightmare. I only realised what I wanted to do a week or two before I had to start doing it. I’d inexplicably gone to live in Kiev over the summer and very belatedly got inspired to study Russian. I did all sorts of terrible things after that. I pulled out of my course in Newcastle, I pulled out of Ucas and then I just phoned around looking for someone that would take me. I lucked out. Sheffield was great, and the Russian department was fantastic. I worked hard, because my subject was too hard. But beer was still cheap because it was the North and 15 years ago.
Overall, it was a good experience. I grew my hair long at one stage. My best memories are playing football with my Russian goons.
Quite a lot of what I did at university prepared me for my career. I did acting, which I still do a bit of now. I’d decided I wouldn’t and then had a crack at an audition while under the influence on freshers’ week. I got it and liked it.
Worst memories are exams. I overslept for one and ran down Wakehurst Road in my slippers. Christ, yes, that was stressful. I wasn’t a model student per se, but I was certainly canny: I couldn’t do exams so worked hard at coursework – lot of instant coffee and candles and nailing essays, backing up marks so I could screw up my exams a bit– some flair for the Russian accent, not backed up by any real solid Russian words.
I remember my room cost £35 and I got a grant. I took out maybe two student loans, but really not much. I was lucky. It was all on a plate back then. I cooked. I quickly mastered spaghetti bolognese.
I ended up having a lot of luck in the 12 months after I graduated. So university was just a chance to pick up some experiences and learn how to toil with little obvious reward. I’d maybe advise other people to get organised more than a week before going, but that’s just illustrative of a more general problem with my personality. Most of all I benefited from tasting independence with a lot of people around me doing the same thing. And I can speak to a Russian taxi driver in his own tongue. Or could do – I haven’t tried it in 15 years”
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