UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES)


SSEES in the early 1960s

Memories of the College in the early 1960s - Martin and Anna Hansford (née Grieves) and Peter Seagrave.

Martin and Anna Hansford (née Grieves)

In the early 1960s the Cold War was very real – the Berlin Wall went up overnight in August 1961 and the Cuban Missile Crisis followed in 1963. Post-war National Service, whereby young men were called up for a compulsory period of military service, was being phased out, but many who had been selected for Russian language training in uniform then chose to pursue it further at university. When we arrived in 1961, the vast majority of SSEES’ 100 students were ex-Forces, but this was coming to an end

Martin and Peter had both learnt Russian in the RAF, gaining A level passes during their initial course at the Joint Services School for Linguists at Crail, East Fife, before going on to serve in Berlin. Anna belonged to the growing element that had learnt Russian at school. SSEES was then a small independent college of the University of London (only the Jews College had a smaller annual intake). Located in Senate House, it had the flavour, particularly at its student dances, of being very much an ex-Forces drinking club. Consequently, the new Students Union Committee, elected in 1962, set about trying to improve the dances socially and financially; important as the Students Union had been losing money for some time. The new committee had Martin as President, Peter as Vice-President and Treasurer, Anna as Secretary, Nick Wynn as Social Secretary plus Ron Stewart, John Holman and Colin Davis on the Committee. The dances they organized proved very popular, attracting students from other colleges like SOAS, Birkbeck, the Institute of Education and even Kings and UC.

To collect the booze for the dances Martin, Peter and Nick usually drove in Martin’s vintage Riley to Fuller, Smith and Turner’s brewery at Chiswick - very educational, especially the visits afterwards to the brewery’s hospitality room!

One of the significant things about SSEES was the camaraderie that existed between students and staff. As SU President, Martin spent many hours in the Director’s office hotly debating student issues with the Director (who seemed to welcome their exchanges).A major introduction at each term’s dance was a cabaret for which we wrote songs and sketches about ourselves and the staff. The presence of various staff members at these dances was very gratifying, but particularly delightful and amusing were the wonderful piano duets by George Cushing (lecturer in Hungarian) and Harry Leeming (linguistics, incl. Slavonic Philology and Old Church Slavonic). They were hilarious and usually started with a toss for ends – ‘Thanks, I’ll take the deep end!’

In the songs and sketches we lampooned many of the staff, who took the jokes very well. These included Mr. Whitworth (ex-army College Registrar, famous for walking with enormous strides), Mr. Tappe (lecturer in Romanian, famous for his tea parties with students), Charles Drage (phonetics, famous for his tuning fork, morphemes & phonemes), George Bolsover (ex-Foreign Office School Director, a dour but kind Lancastrian, who brought his daughter to the dances), Harry Leeming, George Cushing, Prof. Auty and his sister  Phyllis Auty (for some unknown reason known affectionately by students as “Naughty Nina”), Vivian de S. Pinto (a dilettante lecturer in Bulgarian) and a librarian, Arthur Helliwell, who sometimes had a crush on pretty girl students, notably the beautiful Masha Leontovitsch.

We also remember with fondness chain-smoking Georgette Donchin (a delightful lady who taught Russian literature, particularly Pushkin and Gogol, always with a cigarette hanging from her lips) and Peter Norman (lecturer in Russian and very sympathetic to students’ problems). Students invited to tea at home with Peter and his charming wife, Natasha, had to speak Russian to his mother-in-law, a formidable widow from Imperial Russia whose husband had been a philosopher of world repute

Relationships blossomed at SSEEs and some of these became permanent; Martin was attracted to Anna on day one, and they were seen by all as a couple by the time Peter was de-mobbed to join him 7 weeks later! They married after graduation in 1964, had 2 boys and have been together ever since. Colin Davis courted Ann, a pretty Russian Regional Studies student; they married, had 4 children and have lived in France for over 30 years. Roger Cockerell married Pat, another attractive co-student, and went on to teach Russian at Exeter University. Peter and Faith went out for about a year, and remained friends.

Student generally did not have cars but Peter had a VW Beetle bought during his RAF service in Berlin. This and Martin’s ancient Riley were very popular for ferrying other students home after parties (8 in a Beetle is not impossible!). One day, when Peter was driving Nick, he cut in in front of a large lorry. At the next traffic lights, the lorry drew up alongside and the driver poured torrents of abuse onto Nick’s head. Meantime, Peter who was the driver of the left-hand drive car, sat feigning complete innocence! In 1964, Peter and Nick Wynn worked as Mr. Softy ice-cream sellers at the start of the summer vacation before embarking on a six-week camping tour in Eastern Europe in the Beetle. All the necessary visas had been obtained, but in Slovenia, on the third day out, they had a crash with a locally made Fiat Zastawa five-ton van. This put them in the Polyklinika Hospital in Ljubljana for eight days and ended the holiday. Peter sent his mother a reassuring telegram from the hospital, but its English was hilariously corrupted in transit and it took her three hours to decipher it. Nick and Peter shared less dramatic holidays since then, camping in Ireland in 1966 and visiting Sicily in 2011.

Because of the Cold War climate, it was not easy to visit the USSR at this time, but Anna and Martin joined a small group led by her former teacher’s daughter that was due to visit Leningrad and Moscow in the summer of 1963. They arrived in Leningrad by boat, but their leader became worried by the close attention its Russian captain had shown her and so asked Martin to stay visibly on hand. He joked that he would then be seen as the group’s ‘political commissar’, so was not too surprised to find himself allotted a room quite remote from the rest of the group at their Moscow hotel. One cocky young member of the group did pursue unauthorized contacts with Russians, which caused the friendly Intourist guide to be suddenly replaced by a veritable ‘dragon’ and the group to be re-routed prematurely from Moscow to Minsk! But on the return train through Poland Martin enjoyed buying refreshments for all with otherwise worthless East German marks left over from his RAF service in Berlin.

During vacations many got jobs to earn holiday money. Nick went to an Israeli Kibbutz in 1963, while Peter went to Poland for 6 weeks, including 3 weeks work on a state farm with foreign and Polish agricultural students, where he learnt some very useful Polish - including ‘to drink till we meet under the table’.  Peter, being a lazy devil, failed his degree in 1964 but successfully repeated his final year in 1964/65, kindly helped by George Bolsover. In 1964 he was, however, the first recipient of the Old Students’ Association award for the student who had made the greatest contribution to the life of the School by fostering good relations between staff and students. That summer he worked for three months s as a labourer on the Barbican site in London but broke off for three weeks to take 38 students by train to Poland, Ukraine and Russia for the NUS!

After graduation in 1964, Martin went on to join the Foreign Office and completed foreign tours in Vienna (using his Russian on UN work there) and Johannesburg, before transferring to HM Treasury. Anna joined the British Council, but resigned to look after their children. She was later tempted into teaching (French and Russian) at school and university levels. Peter chose a career in export sales, starting with an East European focus at Perkins Diesels.

Other memories include the Masaryk Hall (named after Thomas Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia, the new state created after the 1914-18 war) which was the hub of the college. Larger tutorials & lectures and, of course, the dances were held there. We also had, for a short time, a Slavonic choir, directed by Harry Leeming. We learnt Czech and Polish carols and sang these in local hospitals, much to the patients’ amazement.

Memories would not be complete without mentioning our compulsory Old Church Slavonic studies and having to spend 8 guineas (£8.40 in new money) out of the then grant of £215 p.a., on its grammar and reader books. Of course, this proved very useful in subsequent life, as Peter found when doing an OCS blessing at business events!

We remember other students, particularly bright ones like Gerry Smith and Derek Humphreys. Both were ex-RAF; Gerry got a 1st, Derek a 2:1, in those days a minority achievement. We were envious of Gerry as he was also a fine jazz alto-sax player. He had to choose between jazz music or academia for his career; he chose the latter and became Professor of Russian at Oxford! Derek later successfully ran, with his Russian wife, the Russian courses at RAF North Luffenham.

June 2011