I re-read the card on the pin board. In large clear block letters, it said: "No politics, philosophy or religion before midnight."

Sound advice, I thought, based on the principle that, after midnight, everyone is likely to be too tired, or too drunk, to really care about the outcome of any discussion, and therefore there was no risk of genuine offence being given or taken. Certainly, this room had seen more than its fair share of energetic late-night discussions, and we had all managed to stay friends afterwards.

The topic on this particular evening was re-incarnation, something which has been the subject of disputation since at least the Ancient Greek period. The usual gang was just settling in for the regular debate with, it had to be said, the usual relish.


We were all living at the same student hall of residence on the outskirts of the University campus. This was one of those dormitories with individual rooms for everyone, but with shared bathrooms placed at intervals along the corridor. Most meals were taken in the Great Hall - a large refectory for communal eating of breakfast and dinner, and there were little communal kitchens, again placed at intervals along the corridors, for the preparation of hot drinks and midnight snacks.

The hall of residence had separate blocks for boys and girls, but - very sensibly, I have always considered - no real enforcement of the division between the sexes. The corridors ran together from one block to another, with only fire-doors standing between visitors and their destination at any time of day or night.

This little group of friends tended to gather in Tom's room. Why this was habitually so I never really understood, although it was conveniently opposite one of the little kitchenettes that dotted the blocks. Perhaps us gathering there was just an accident; more likely it was the host's amiability.

For all his size and bulk, Tom himself was perhaps the most gentle and unthreatening individual one could hope to meet. A naturally tall and big-boned individual, although with a lot of softness in his form, he exuded genuine bonhomie and was always willing to put himself out for the benefit of others.

Whatever the reason, the corridor party would tend to congregate just outside and later inside Tom's door. The regular core of the party was a group of six friends who were, for very different reasons, not really romantically entangled - or at least, not with each other.

One of the girls, a tall and bony young woman named Jan with a serious demeanour, had a steady boyfriend back at home. He was an older man who was determined to marry her as soon as she had finished her studies and had at one time been her school music teacher.

Suzanne was determined, for quaintly old-fashioned religious reasons, to remain a virgin until she was married and perhaps found the unthreatening nature of the group reassuring. Despite her oft-stated position, she was a compassionate and rather physical girl, always ready with a peck on the cheek or a friendly hug for those in need.

The last of the girls was Steph – a student in the Computer Science Department and a really pretty girl who, perhaps in protest at always being regarded as a dumb blonde, had styled her hair unfashionably short and aggressively spiky. She always wore jeans and shapeless oversized black sweatshirts. I had known her for months before I realised that she had a truly terrific bosom concealed under all that baggy clothing.

One boy - I confess, it was me - was just too shy to have anything very much to be with the opposite sex, while Steve kept the girls he was "going out with" - in that modern sense of "staying in bed with" - quite separate from the friendships he entertained within the group.

As for Tom himself, well, he never seemed discomforted by anyone's presence, male or female, but I got the distinct impression that he was waiting for The One, the right person to fall in love with.

Sometimes one of our number would be conspicuous by their absence, perhaps having taken up with a new girlfriend, or perhaps suddenly immersed in some new project, or fad, or diversion. Inevitably, they would eventually re-appear, looking variously tired, or heart-broken, or perhaps just relieved at being able to return to an unthreatening and non-judgemental environment.

All this took place several decades ago, in an era where the bars and public houses were required by law to shut at 10.30pm, and the ringing crying of "last orders, please!" was familiar to drinkers everywhere. In any case, few students could afford to drink to excess every night, and the ritual of a Last Pint was well established with impoverished undergraduates.

At the time, I was an undergraduate student in the Department of Physics. After dinner in Hall in the evening, I would return to my room to work, writing up notes from that day's lectures, revising earlier notes, writing experimental reports, working on maths exercises for the next tutorial - even reading the textbooks, if all else failed.

Occasionally Tom, also a student in the same Department, and I would work together; with hindsight, I now understand that Tom was not a particularly gifted student, and I often ended up helping him out with revisions or reports.

More often than not, there would be a knock at the door around 9.45pm. It would be Steve, or perhaps Tom, suggesting a quick pint before Last Orders - an invitation which all understood to be a mere formality. Someone would say "Shall we round up the girls?", or something semantically equivalent, to which the answer was invariably yes, and always resulted in a detour via the females block to collect Jan and Steph and Suzanne, or some subset of the ladies' contingent.

Typically, we would fetch up in the Mawson Arms, which had a genuine spit-and-sawdust pub ambience, something which seemed so irredeemably exotic to one brought up a long way away from inner cities. The Public Bar had walls tiled floor-to-ceiling, giving it only a very slight resemblance to a late Victorian urinal, and worn and blackened wooden floorboards. A huge old-fashioned bar-top dominated one end of the room, to which had been bolted the hand-powered beer engines necessary to pump the precious brown fluid from the barrels in the cellar.

This particular pub was renowned for entertaining an eclectic mixture of locals and students - Town and Gown, as the expression is. An additional attraction, for the aficionados of Real Ale, was that the publican would occasionally during the winter months serve a dark and heavy ale from a cask stood directly on the end of the bar.

We rarely had money for a second pint - the girls always drank halves, of course, and the boys always paid - and so one of the boys would suggest a coffee back at the dorm, meaning of course cheap instant with white sugar and sterilized milk. Again, this invitation was a formality, and we walked quickly back to the boys block for the corridor party, inevitably congregating first outside - and shortly after, inside - Tom's room.

All this was standard practice for weekday evenings only. Most of the group would go home at the weekend, perhaps to see that mysterious boyfriend or perhaps just to get their socks washed by Mum. But, four nights out of seven, the same six people would stay up late and natter about nothing in particular well into the wee hours.

Introduction Part 2