NR30 to PO4: Attending the University of Life

Daniel Malice recalls how his eyes were opened to the world after becoming a student at the University of Portsmouth.

Growing up next to the sea in Norfolk, I assumed all coastal towns around England must be the same. But until I came to live in Portsmouth and study at the university, I had no idea how different they could be.

As a part-time resident of Portsmouth, several things came as a shock to me. For example, I discovered a mosque between Wetherspoon’s and Asda. Where I come from, there aren’t many brown faces around at all. In fact, I didn’t have personal contact with a black person until I was 22, odd as that may sound if you come from a multi-ethnic city like Portsmouth. But this encounter didn’t happen in Norfolk, it was on a trip to Manchester, and very nice it was too.

I attended first, secondary and high school with largely the same people. For 16 years I saw the same 300-ish faces. Only one of them was non-white, a mixed race boy called Ben. When people would make dubious comments about race or culture, they’d use him as a “get-out-of-jail-card”: ‘Honest, I’m not racist, I’m friends with Ben.’ Even people who didn’t know him claimed to be his friend just to cover themselves.

During year eleven, a PE teacher of mine was fired for referring to a Portuguese lad, who’d only just joined our school, as ‘chocolate boy’. This happened in a lesson I was in. Up until that point I hadn’t witnessed racism outside of television and when I first heard the teacher’s slur I couldn’t believe it: I thought he was making a fat joke about another boy.

When I was applying for university I had no trepidation about cultural differences. Admittedly, visiting the Universities of East Anglia and Derby didn’t really give me much insight into diversity because I knew people at both institutions. Familiar faces again.

In 2012 I accepted a place at Portsmouth and, as I was crossing the bridge into the city, I thought it did resemble where I had grown up. It’s flat, next to the sea, has all the same shops, plenty of people on bikes. But then I’d see Muslim men in gowns, a woman in a Burka and young black guys strolling together. This was different.

‘Do I have anything in common with the people who live here?’ I wondered. My life up to that point had been a series of familiar locations and familiar people. Those days were over

Langstone Student Village was a genuine melting pot of creeds, cultures and nationalities. It had a great communal vibe. I stayed in Flats East, right at the back of the building near the sea. I shared with six white males and two black males, and we were all very different in our tastes, habits and personalities. One of my white flatmates was heavily autistic and I couldn’t really have a conversation with him. Later on, though, myself and two other guys persuaded him to go out with us. He was great fun when he felt up to socialising.

Quite often I’d hear one of the black guys physically abusing his girlfriend, even though she used to make him dinner every night. One time, another flatmate and I knocked on his door in order to break up a particularly savage event that the whole building could hear. I had a straight razor in my pocket in case things got ugly. Luckily they didn’t. He and his girlfriend are still together, from what I’ve seen of them around town.

In that eventful first year I myself got trapped in an abusive relationship. During the orientation week I was chatted up by a girl, which is rarely an unpleasant experience. She tried to start a conversation with me outside the Burnaby building because I had a sticker on my shirt with my name on it. This was a conscious strategy to make myself approachable during the induction period.

This particular girl, or I should say woman (she’s thirty years old now), just so happened to have signed up to a society I joined and was on a similar course to me. It was a relief to connect with somebody like that in the first few days.

We went to a social organised by this society at the Isambard Kingdom Brunel pub and sat slightly away from the main group. She offered to buy me a drink, and I specified a cranberry juice as I didn’t want to get inebriated that night. When she brought it to me, the taste wasn’t quite right.

‘Are you sure it’s just a juice with nothing else in it?’ I checked.

‘It is only juice,’ she confirmed.

The rest of that night was a blur and has only come back to me since in the form of fractured portraits and nightmares. All I can say for certain is that I woke up in the morning next to a twenty-seven-year-old hard-line feminist and that whatever had occurred between that cranberry juice and me waking up was not at all right.

In the film 500 Days of Summer there’s a scene where Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s character thinks back to all the ‘red light’ moments in his relationship that he failed to notice at the time. I had several thousand of those while dating that woman. Most of them were triggered by her admission that ‘they wouldn’t let me progress pass a desk job when I worked with the MOD because I failed the psych test.’ I should have stopped it there and then, I now realise.

To cut a long, thoroughly depressing and perhaps even disgusting story short, I continued to see her after that first night, which I wrote off as a momentary blip of sanity. Nine months later, at the end of the academic year and several further abhorrent incidents later, I confronted her and asked if she put something in that drink.

‘I can’t believe you’d ask me that,’ she said.

I decided not to pursue my line of questioning for fear of what she might go on to say.

When I came back for my second year, I strove to begin anew. I moved into a terraced house in Southsea with one of my old flatmates from Langstone. There I met a Cornish guy who, within hours of knowing me, asked how large the ethnic population of Norfolk was. I think I said either ‘Probably the same as Cornwall’ or ‘Not as big as here.’ He hummed in agreement while raising his eyebrows. I knew he wanted to say ‘Portsmouth is not what I expected.’

It must be a rural thing. None of the people from London, Coventry or Southampton I met ever asked me anything like that. Then again, on a recent episode of Question Time from Southampton, one audience member said immigration was a big issue and that ‘There’s too many of ‘em.’ So I suppose it depends on who you ask.

Although Portsmouth was quite a culture shock for me initially, I don’t think I’ve changed in any measurable way. I still feel the same as before, I still have the same number of minority friends as I did before: pretty close to zero. I don’t see that as bad nor do I see it as good.

Even so, I think I’m pretty tolerant. Given the attitudes of some of my family members and the fact that I grew up in an insular environment, it’s a wonder I didn’t end up a BNP voter. I’ve never shared my dad’s political views. He once said of an Arab-looking family who were moving in across the road, ‘They’ll probably turn that into a fucking bomb factory.’

By my third year I was well used to Portsmouth’s cultural climate and had met a lot of interesting people. Through an elective course I made friends with two Chinese girls called Ling and Hazel, whom I spent a lot of time with. I also moved a Polish friend of mine into my house on the sly. Don’t tell the landlord. These two things made my third year more bearable because academically I wasn’t making much progress.

In fact, my academic career had been in decline from the beginning. It was as early as the third term when I officially gave up trying to achieve good grades and decided to complete work simply because it needed to be done.

My last day in Portsmouth was dire. Shortly before my exit, the only one of my housemates awake wished me farewell by shouting, ‘Good riddance you fucking cunt!’ This came as a small surprise given his history of being only passive in his aggression. My mother picked me up and we got lost in the Fratton maze. We drove past the house of she who had ruined my entire first year. Mother got further lost and we ended up driving past that house a second time! Having erased all that relationship horror with university-sponsored counselling in my second and third years, I didn’t want reminding of it all again.

I was recently accepted for an MA at Portsmouth University conditional on a grade I expect to achieve. Funding is attached to this offer. But I declined because I’ve had it with education for now. I thank Portsmouth for opening my eyes to a number of things, though.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.