In October 1984, as Freshers’ Week was in full swing and Edinburgh’s newest crop of students were beginning to acclimatise themselves to their new homes, a piece of graffiti was discovered on a desk on the upper floor of the Main Library. It’s content remains shockingly relevant: “even if you gave the Scots independence, they’d probably try and drink it.” It’s a shame the desks currently used in the library aren’t an ideal surface for such flagrant expression.
The aforementioned quote about Scottish independence comes straight from the pages of the October 3 edition of The Student – then called Student – in 1984. The digital pages in fact, since the University of Edinburgh’s Centre for Research Collections has begun to digitise each issue from 1984/85, releasing them in ‘real-time’ week by week in tandem with the 2014/2015 editions.
According to former Student editor Iain Cameron, archival newspapers are fascinating time capsules, since they often capture the present with little consideration for what future readers will consider significant, unlike history textbooks, which instead tend to edit out the bits they may not want people to remember. This yields as close to an objective portrait of the times as there can be had.
Just days after the issue was released, IRA members attempted to assassinate Margaret Thatcher with a long-delay time bomb planted inside The Grand Hotel, Brighton. The Falklands War had ended just a year previous. Undoubtedly, the 80s was a turbulent time to be living in the UK. With a Tory government enacting polarising reform, Ireland struggling to maintain order in a country divided by religion, and Scotland dealing with a recent repeal of its referendum for devolution (despite having a majority ‘Yes’ vote, not enough voters turned out to the polls for it to be representative of the population), being a politically-minded student at Edinburgh must have been an exciting time indeed.
“Imagine the antagonism generated by the referendum campaign,” says Cameron about the climate of the time. Has Scotland ever not been on the brink of political turmoil? The Soviet Union still had about a decade left in its respective clout, and Scotland was still up in arms about Trident’s role in the UK. If only they knew the burden we currently face of having £30 billion worth of effectively useless nuclear bombs floating offshore. Perhaps this is why humans try so hard to obfuscate the past – it can be quite frustrating to learn how little progress we’ve made in certain areas.
In addition to The Troubles, the focus of world concern at the time was the issue of acid rain in Europe and, increasingly, Scotland. A quote from Enviropaedia claims that in the 1980s, the UK was described by Scandinavian countries as “the dirty old man of Europe.” This title has cropped up as well in 2003, 2010, and again last July. The reputation points towards the UK’s relentless emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere above the North Sea, where it eventually settles in the pristine, frigid landscape of Scandinavia and North-East Europe. Acid rain does not respect international borders, claims Norway. The UK is a member of the EU, but not really, so they don’t have to comply to the same sort of environmental standards that Europe works hard to uphold. Even still, England and Scotland are very proud of the fact that since then, emissions have decreased substantially, although the problem is nowhere close to being written off.
Europe wouldn’t even know what acid rain was if it wasn’t thanks to Scottish chemist Robert Angus Smith, who studied atmospheric pollution in 1852. This article was written by Dr J Mark Percival, who was earning his BSc in Geology at the time. Percival has twice served as a member of the Mercury Prize judging panel, in 1999 and 2000, and serves as chair of the UK and Ireland branch of IASPM – the International Association for the Study of Popular Music.
Some of the other writers for the 1984 Student have traced interesting paths through Edinburgh in their adulthood. Bill Williamson, who interviewed Tim Roth at the dawn of his career, is now listed as working as the accounts manager for Johnston Press PLC, which publishes The Scotsman. Tanya Woolf, the editor of the paper at the time, is now a counselling psychologist for Efficacy. Ian MacGregor, who handled the ‘back page’ of the paper, is now the weekend editor of The Daily Telegraph.
2,300 people attended Fresher’s Week in 1984, so it’s no wonder that the lines of first-years stretched around Bristo Square, down to the corner of George Square and on past the Hugh Robson Building. An editorial column by Jo Boag-Thomson criticizes the self-aggrandising nature of the University of Edinburgh’s first year opening ceremony. I recall my own Fresher’s opening ceremony with similar scepticism.
Most of the articles in the October 3 Student’s Freshers Guide offer a humorous glimpse into many (understandable) student frustrations of the time. Many will probably grimace at the Main Library’s book rental policy – checkouts only allowed on the weekends and short loan books only available for half the day. Students may be equally shocked to learn that pubs in 80s Edinburgh hardly ever stayed open past 11pm, not including Teviot and Pleasance. Pubs closed earlier on Saturday night to0.
Those who know King’s Buildings like a second home – as there appears to be no middle ground in-between never going there and succumbing to its gravitational pull – will appreciate Mark Percival’s confused explanation of the satellite campus in a remote location “as socially useful as a hole in the head.” Pollock Halls is not spared a good roasting either, and multiple comments are made about the state of the Pollockian diet. I will personally never forget sitting outside the JMCC dining hall as my self-catered friend leaned over and said “they look like zoo animals in there.”
Two humorous social commentaries are also provided by John Hodge. In one, he compares reporters on drugs to junkies themselves. Heroin use in Edinburgh was huge in the 80s, as well as the 90s (and arguably, today). His style of prose eerily predates the similarly manic hand of Irvine Welsh, and also predates the drug-obsessed documentaries of Vice, whose self-indulgent gonzo reporting takes them all across the world in search of opium, cocaine, marijuana, and heroin.
Hodge could not be reached for comment, since he is currently “out of the office on holiday.”
A holiday. It’s relaxing to know we Edinburghers have something to look forward to when we get that degree.
If you’d like to read any of the back issues for yourself, they are available at: http://libraryblogs.is.ed.ac.uk/