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  • Alun Howkins:Ruskin 1968–70
  • Sally Alexander (bio)

Alun and I met as students at Ruskin, the trade union college in Oxford, in September 1968. First Year diploma students were gathered in the main hall at Headington, Ruskin's first-year residential building, by Vi Hughes, who taught literature (and was married to John Hughes, Ruskin's vice-principal), who asked us to sit in desks, in rows, and to write in silence for twenty minutes on the meaning of the word 'concept'. I wasn't sure what a concept was. Afterwards a young man approached me smiling in sympathy. Tall, slender, with yellow hair and a slight stoop he wore corduroys, canvas jacket (pockets stuffed with books), open-neck shirt, knotted kerchief, old leather boots and his eyes scrunched into a smile. Some people, Dostoevsky wrote somewhere, suddenly, in a moment, before you know anything about them, will stand out for you. Alun, who had read 'all of Dostoevsky in the toilet' during one of his several jobs since leaving school at fifteen (for which 'idling' he got the sack) was – for me – such a person.

Alun – or Doll as I called him, and he called me – fitted into Ruskin, its seminars, libraries and bars, as I did not. He was a man. Ruskin students were miners, engineering workers, draughtsmen, PO workers, long-distance lorry drivers, clerical workers. The few women taking Vi Hughes's literature course, or studying social work, were nurses, clerical workers. The several black students at Ruskin in '68 included exiled socialists, or freedom fighters. The times were intensely political. Most students were shop stewards, as Doll had been at the Pergamon Press in Oxford where he'd started a branch of ASTMS (Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs), as he did also at Blackwells Bookshop from where he stole many books. Most students were in the Labour Party or Communist Party; the smaller Trotskyist groups (International Socialists, International Marxist Group, the Socialist Labour League, which later became the Workers Revolutionary Party) were avid recruiters, but sectarian politics never made much headway at Ruskin. Anti-apartheid was strong there in the shape of the campaign to 'free Dave Kitson' (a former Ruskin student); in 1969 Alun participated in the anti-Powell demonstrations (during which Raphael Samuel was arrested), the picketing of Annette's in Cowley Rd who would not 'do' black hair. He supported Civil Rights in Northern Ireland, and from late summer 1969 'Troops Out' – for which Ruskin students Jack and Ita Gannon were outstanding organizers. Inspired by hearing [End Page 314] Anna Davin speak about the student occupation at Warwick – 'open the files' – Alun was one of those Ruskin students, undergraduates and others who occupied the Oxford Senate. He was never sectarian, few Ruskin students were. He supported the Women's Liberation conference held at Ruskin 27 February to 1 March 1970.

Ruskin was live-in so most students left wives and children at home. A difficult situation. Doll and I were allowed to live out because we both had very young children. Doll lived in Oxford with Vinnie his partner and their son Ben, aged one. Mid-divorce I too lived out, my daughter in nursery. We became friends. Doll – often with Ben – would seek me out in one of the libraries, inviting me for a 'coffee Doll?', and lead me to a bench or the coffee stall in Oxford market which tolerated children.

Doll talked to everyone. Billy Hughes, Ruskin's Principal, every tutor and student who interested him (and those that didn't), Ruskin's cleaners – his mother's family had been College servants. I was self-conscious. Doll swears he remembers me in the Kings Arms, whisky in hand, but I scarcely entered the Ruskin bar. His conversation was magical to me – and not just to me, to Raphael Samuel too, Tim Mason (who became his tutor at Oxford), to Gareth (Stedman Jones), many others – he'd read so much, knew so much. He made me laugh always. Phrases and passages from Louis MacNeice – 'It's no go my honey love, it's no go my poppet' – John Clare, Pilgrim's Progress, the Book of Revelation (King James...


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pp. 314-317
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