Between 1988 and 1991 I was a student at Lancaster University. Note that I say I was a student. I am not a graduate. I was an appalling student, and please excuse my lack of modesty but it wasn’t through a lack of ability. I was a combination of immature and unhappy, and I drank. I drank a lot. Far too much. I would be lying if I claimed that in those days my gender was a significant issue. It was there, I knew I had urges in that direction, but they were not being acted upon and if I thought about it at all I was just a latent transvestite. But mostly, it was suppressed. If it was the underlying cause of my unhappiness, that wasn’t apparent to me at the time. It’s tempting now to use my relatively recent realisation of my true inner gender as an explanation for every problem I have ever had, but that would be a huge oversimplification and probably just not true.
Early on in my first year at Lancaster, I fell hook, line and sinker for a girl called Jane, a farmer’s daughter from Yorkshire. As was the case a few years later with Mrs K, she made all the running. Kind of. Like many MTF trans* people with whom I have discussed these things, I (in male form) have never “chatted up” a woman in my life. I just wouldn’t know how. So one night Jane drunkenly threw herself at me and I drunkenly reciprocated. It was the first time I had ever kissed anyone in a sexual manner. And that’s all it was. A big snog. I was eighteen years old. I couldn’t sleep that night, in love for the first time. My first ever girlfriend, I was completely smitten. We were together for eleven months until one day, out of the blue, she finished with me. I was devastated. I think ever since that day, I have been a more cynical person.
The next two years were a cycle of sleeping late, missing lectures, staying up late drinking, then sleeping late, missing lectures, repeat ad nauseam, quite literally in some cases. Somehow I managed to pass my second year exams by the skin of my teeth, but third year was a complete write off. I think the only reason I wasn’t asked to leave due to repeated non-attendance was because nobody could ever find me. If it was during daylight, I was probably asleep. Looking back at my lifestyle now, it is clear that I had significant problems. At the time it just all seemed normal.
There wasn’t another girlfriend after Jane for a long time, and really there were only a few brief dalliances until I hooked up with the future Mrs K. Even for the few years between returning to Northern Ireland from Lancaster, and getting involved with Mrs K, things pretty much continued in a similar vein to what they had been in Lancaster, and this only got worse after my parents died and left me rattling round an empty house. That same pattern of sitting up late, sleeping in, opting out of normal society continued. Goodness knows how I held down a job. I was late, hungover, disinterested, and I didn’t really care. It was only with the arrival of Mrs K in my life when I was 26 (and yes, she made all the running) that I began to turn things around. I owe her a lot.
Since I left Lancaster in 1991 with no degree, I had only returned once, just a year later, for the end of term parties in 1992. I had a few friends who had been doing language degrees, so were graduating a year after I left thanks to their year abroad, so I went over and slept on their floors for a week while getting roaring drunk. Again. But since 1992 I have never set foot in the place. There were a lot of memories there, some pleasant, many not. A lot of feelings of inadequacy. Of being surrounded by people but feeling very isolated. I don’t think about it very much these days, but feels now like that was somebody else. A different time, a different place, a different person.
Fast forward to 2015, and when Andrea and I were in the planning stages of our trip to Leeds (to visit Ruth) and Hull (for novel research) she asked me if there was anywhere I would like to visit. The answer was obvious. The time had come for a return to Lancaster. And not just a return, but a return as Kirsty. As myself. I can’t help but wonder how different the Lancaster years would have been had I realised these things about myself back then, if I could have been my true self from my teens. Coulda woulda shoulda. I am where I am, and I am who I am. Anyway, there was no chance I would have admitted to myself back then that I was TS. I was cursed with a religious upbringing, and a Catholic education that drummed homophobia into its pupils from an early age. Transgenderism was so beyond the pale that it didn’t even warrant a mention. And I bought into this wholeheartedly. I was such a horrible little homophobe, capable of stunning compartmentalisation and doublethink that allowed me to both think that “the gays” should have their genitalia removed (not GRS or even chemical castration, just cut them off as a punishment and a deterrent) while still going home and putting on my mum’s dresses and heels when I had the house to myself from time to time. I am not proud of this, but I was a product of the time and the education I was put through. I suppose if there’s one good thing that came out of my student life it was that the homophobia disappeared along with the Catholicism. By the time I returned to Northern Ireland I had been on a couple of gay rights (anti-clause 28) marches, and was agnostic bordering on atheist.
Andrea and I pulled off the M6 at the junction for Lancaster South at around 4pm, probably a couple of hours later than we had hoped to be there. The price we paid for a late start after Ruth’s cooked breakfast, and our unfortunate visit to thoughtless-moustache-bloke’s café in Haworth. But we were close and there was still plenty of daylight. Just past the motorway exit and before the university campus is the village of Galgate. There was a pub there called The Green Dragon, where I went for Sunday lunch several times with Jane. We would have walked the two miles from the campus to the village on a nice day, had some scampi and chips (it was the late 80’s!) and a pint of Thwaites, and then stroll back up to the university. I was quite looking forward to seeing it again. But it wasn’t quite as I remembered it. It was closed, boarded up, for sale, redevelopment opportunity. It wouldn’t be the last missing piece of my past.
We drove on through Galgate and soon arrived at the right turn up to the university campus. Even during my time there, the university grounds had won a Britain in Bloom public building award, and if anything they have improved further in the last 25 years. Or possibly at the age of 44 I am better placed to appreciate the horticulturalist’s art. As we went up the driveway I felt like John Major in that old Party Political from 1992, announcing “it’s still there!” every few seconds like I was somehow expecting a building to have got up and moved.
During my time, and as far as I knew right up to the present day, Lancaster University was divided up into eight colleges, each named after an area of northern Lancashire or southern Cumbria, or in one case the county of Lancashire itself; County, Cartmel, Lonsdale, Bowland, Furness, Fylde, Grizedale, Pendle. The colleges weren’t quasi-independent establishments like the colleges of Oxbridge, in reality they were little more than halls of residence with a bar attached, and an excuse for inter-college sporting competitions in which I took little interest. But Lonsdale was my college, and so it was there where I wanted to visit most of all. There had been talk in my final year of setting up a ninth college for postgrad students to be called, imaginatively, The Graduate College, but if it was there it would be of little interest to me.One of the things I noticed immediately was that there were a lot of new buildings, which gave the place an odd air of being both familiar and unfamiliar. Most bizarrely, I parked right up next to where I knew Lonsdale College to be located, but I could see no signage for it. Perhaps the new buildings were causing me to lose my bearings, so Andrea and I headed for the centre of the campus, Alexandra Square, a large quadrangle surrounded by the administration building, library, and various shops. The colleges and educational departments are all located on a walkway running north and south from Alexandra Square, known as the Spine. Lonsdale was on the North Spine. We walked through reception in the admin building and came out in the North West corner of Alexandra Square. Suddenly I remembered everything. It was the oddest feeling I have had in a long time. Somewhere that I had visited just about every day for three years, but where I hadn’t been for over 20 years. Lots were the same, but the little things were noticeable. The steps were still there where I had sat out in the sunshine on many days, almost certainly with a beer in hand. Birkett’s bakery is now Gregg’s. The student union shop is now a travel agency. But they are pretty superficial changes. Largely, it was familiar and the feeling that it engendered in me was not what I was expected. What I expected was either a Proustian rush of melancholy for lost youth and lost opportunities, or else downright misery at putting myself back in this place where I was basically miserable for at least two out of three years. Neither was going to be great. But what I got was different. What I got was this: As I stood there in Alexandra Square while Andrea took my picture for posterity, I just thought “I am so over Lancaster.” It really doesn’t matter any more. I have been liberated from my past.
We walked up the North Spine in search of Lonsdale College. We went past Bowland College on the left, little changed from my day. Lonsdale should have been next on the left, but it wasn’t. Instead there was something called “Bowland North”. What??!? My old college doesn’t exist any more, swamped and swallowed by its neighbour. The porter’s lodge entrance is bricked up, the college bar The Crook O’Lune is gone, and the space it occupied is just a glass-lined corridor, but the outlines of the buildings are still there. Familiar, yet unfamiliar, that same feeling again. Gatsby was wrong, you really can’t recreate the past.
We moved further north along the Spine to discover a similar fate had befallen the neighbouring college, Cartmel, now renamed County South. Then on the left I saw Lonsdale annexe, where I had a room for four of nine terms. In fact, I was able to pick out the window of my room. It meant nothing to me. I felt nothing for it. Just a nondescript student room in a nondescript student hall of residence.
We walked as far as County North, what I knew as County College proper. There were a lot of new buildings further north, none of which existed during my time there. A map of the campus stood near to us, so I looked at it. Apparently these new buildings were Lonsdale College and Cartmel College. Lonsdale still existed, in name at least! Kind of. In fact, it was the Graduate College that had been proposed during my time, grown so large that it was twice the size of the undergraduate colleges, and now split into two colleges with names purloined from the undergrads. From my past. So the Lonsdale buildings that I knew still exist, but it’s not my Lonsdale. There is a Lonsdale College, but it’s not my Lonsdale. My past is gone.We strolled around for a while longer. The chippy is still there, the Spar has mutated into something altogether fancier, but after a while I had seen enough. I don’t need to see any more to know that the person who went here wasn’t me, he was someone else from another life. And he doesn’t mean anything to me any more. All in the past, all gone, no regrets.
The plan at this point was to drive on to Morecambe and look at the two off-campus houses in which I lived for the five terms in which I didn’t have a room at the university, but sadly our delayed time schedule meant that we arrived in Lancaster City Centre right in the middle of the rush hour, so the plan was quickly abandoned. Andrea asked “Are you sure?” I think fearing that I was missing out on something important to me so that we weren’t too late for our hotel in the Lake District which was our ultimate destination that day. But yes, I was sure. Completely sure. I don’t need to visit those old houses to know they have nothing for me any more, and anyway what could I really do? Walk along a terraced street, point at number 30, then get back into the car and drive off? Not much of an enlightening trip, is it? So we turned back off our planned route and set the satnav for Windermere. I was glad to leave Lancaster behind.
As I think now about revisiting my old haunts, I am reminded of a scene from Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ” where Harry Dean Stanton’s St Paul encounters Willem Dafoe’s alternate uncrucified “human” Jesus. Paul says “I’m glad I met you, because now I can forget all about you”. I know exactly how he felt.