Higher Education [a poem for the University's centenary]

photo of the author Philip Lyons

And who are you? my supervisor said
as I was handing him a chapter from
my PhD. So much already read
yet so much still to read, I almost fled
but stayed to find myself in what I wrote,
the university a home from home,
the fate of Europe’s Jews my raison d’être.

The eighties. Thatcher and the miners’ strike.
Fallout from the Falklands War. CND.
Unemployment. (Tebbit: Get on your bike.)
I kept my head down. Death camps came to life,
filled both my waking dreams and dreams at night,
reminding me with each atrocity
that darkness is much more than lack of light.

Bristol seemed a million miles away:
the tree-lined streets of Clifton, peaceful docks,
the view from Brandon Hill, where I would stray
when vexed and restless from an ill-spent day,
my thoughts unfocused, looking for a raft
to help me navigate this sea of books.
I argued with the wind; the wind just laughed.

Somehow I finished writing up and passed.
I took a short-term job in an asylum,
the patients giving me a masterclass
in irony. For them the world was glass
that shattered and kept shattering, the real
too real, with no one able to say why.
Their suffering helped teach me how to feel.

I put my feelings into words that rhyme,
bring order out of chaos, give it form,
believing I would find a way in time
to say just what I meant. I couldn’t climb
the ladder so I’d have to sweep the floor,
the lesson being it would keep me warm.
I little knew how long this would be for.

From time in mental health to time inside,
from franking post to teaching in a school
then teaching adults, done with civic pride
if not complete conviction, I defined
myself as working for the common good.
The uncle who had once called me a fool
could go to hell. This much I understood.

And now two decades later I reflect
on who I am, on what I proved to be,
the mind a little dusty from neglect,
though one thing I have learned is self-respect,
a scholar manqué and a gentle man,
still orbiting the university.
My name is Philip Lyons. Here I am.

image of small symbol
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Dr Philip Lyons has had links with the University of Bristol for over 30 years. He gained both his first degree and his PhD (on Literary and Theological Responses to the Holocaust) at Bristol, and has long served as a tutor in literature and creative writing. A published poet, he has also given readings in a variety of settings, including arts festivals in the South West. This poem was specially commissioned for 100: A collection of words and images to mark the centenary of the University of Bristol.