SOAS University of London

Jeremy Clarke

Old Etonian on my left, Eritrean freedom fighter on my left, and the fabulously cynical Bwana Elderkin teaching us how to greet one another in Kiswahili – I loved SOAS with all my heart right from that very first tutorial.

Until I was 33, as a matter of principle I did manual work. Then a small (in hindsight) personal crisis led to my selling my house and travelling across Africa on an overland expedition from Nairobi back to London via the Congo and the Sahara desert. I thought the four-month journey would give me time to reflect on what I ought to do next. It was the first time I’d been abroad.

Most of the other tourists on the overland truck were university graduates. I hadn’t mixed with university graduates before and it surprised me that, all things considered, I wasn’t that much less intelligent then they were. Africa the continent changed me, too, appalling cliché though that might be. I went there thinking I was one of Britain’s poor and downtrodden and returned, chastened and a lot thinner, believing that actually I was a privileged member of a material Utopia in its golden age.
Not long after returning home this mental adjustment was reinforced when I won a sports car worth £15,000 in a competition. At the same time I was awarded a grant by the local authority to study two A levels in a year. (I think I was fortunate in benefiting from a decision taken by the government of the day to expand the middle class.) Applying myself with mindless fanaticism to English and philosophy A levels, I passed both and applied for a place at SOAS with the intention of studying Africa. (In spite of seeing 13 African countries from the back of a lorry, I was conscious the whole time of having no idea what I was looking at.)

I was interviewed for a place at SOAS by Mr Gordon Jago, an African languages specialist. Instead of grilling me with a succession of searching questions he simply looked me up and down, smartly extended his right hand, and said, ‘Welcome to SOAS.’ Without regret I sold the car to finance my transition from manual labourer to full-time student.

I’ve never been as excited as I was by the prospect of studying for a university degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies. I chose African Studies and Kiswahili. Kiswahili was my first lecture. I was late. The room was full. Bwana Elderkin was not yet in attendance. The only spare seat was next to a small, diffident-looking woman with a deep scar on her forehead. As I took my seat I said: ‘Well if you can’t beat them, join them.’ By this I meant, I think, that it’s no good despising the bourgeoisie and envying them at the same time. Miriam was a recently demobbed Eritrean freedom fighter. She’d come to SOAS on a Christian Aid scholarship. My statement resonated so exactly with her own view that we immediately became the best of friends. My other neighbour was Henry, an old Etonian and ex-whipper-in of the Eton beagle pack. Old Etonian on my left, Eritrean freedom fighter on my left, and the fabulously cynical Bwana Elderkin teaching us how to greet one another in Kiswahili – I loved SOAS with all my heart right from that very first tutorial.

And that was how I felt about SOAS for three years. I just couldn’t believe my luck. It was everything I’d expected times a hundred. I used to pop over to UCL to attend the English lectures there purely for pleasure. But I was always glad to get back among the SOAS students, whose cultural diversity, age range, wealth, beauty, friendliness, intelligence, cleanliness and passionate engagement with world issues put the School in a class of its own. As well as learning Kiswahili, I studied African history, African politics and African literature. I became as familiar with the library ‘as a tanned galley slave with his oar’. When they kicked me out of there at closing time, I went across to the Birkbeck College library and at weekends to Senate House library.

Sometimes I socialised in the bar, much noisier and smokier than today, with the politics lecturers John Game and the great Dr Tom Young, who were usually to be found there in the evenings.

In the third year a UCL English student asked me to contribute a book review to a literary magazine he was starting up. I reviewed a book about ferret husbandry, something I knew a lot about. This was read and enjoyed by Dr Karl Miller, writer, editor and occupant of an honorary chair at the UCL English department. He introduced me to his literary agent, who quickly secured me a book deal, on the strength of a synopsis scribbled on the back of an envelope, worth £55,000. An editor whose bid for the book was unsuccessful mentioned me to a Sunday Telegraph features editor on a reading holiday, and she signed me up when she got back. So I went to SOAS to learn about Africa and join the bourgeoisie and accidentally became a hack. The book never got written. Everyone at Penguin who was connected with it either died or turned to religion and last year a letter arrived telling me they’d written the money off. I’m still a hack, though. My lovely boy is now 16. I’m unmarried. But I’ve been faithful. Give it another couple of years or so, and I’m off to Africa again, if she’ll have me back, to continue the love affair from where I left off.


This interview originally featured in the book SOAS: A Celebration in Many Voices, first published in 2007 by Third Millennium Publishing Limited.