My father rings to tell me about his days as a student in the English department. There was a lecturer there, he says, who really taught him to study. My father is proud of this. But after a moment he hesitates. We had our lectures in School 6, he says. I tell him I know it, the raked lecture theatre that I stood in not so long ago with Claire Whitehead of the Russian department, and where I talked about the graphic novel I’m making, based on one of the nineteenth-century Russian crime novels that Claire has spent many years researching.
He asks me if I saw a small room at the front of the lecture theatre. Like a bothy, or a confessional? No, I say. Why?
When our lecturer had marked our essays, my father said, he would invite all the male students into his little office at the front for a one-to-one consultation. But he’d throw the women’s essays in a pile at the front of the lecture theatre. The female students had to get up and search through the pile for their essay, and they were never invited into his office for a consultation.
I think of the talk Claire and I gave last year, two professional women, to a small group of students and staff and even a best-selling crime writer. As I spoke, it never crossed my mind that I was a woman, or that Claire was, or that there could have been a time when my father would be invited into an office just feet from where I spoke, while my mother and her friends waited for the moment when their essays would be thrown in a heap before them. I remember the smirk on the face of a man, a professor, long ago, when I told him that I intended to study writing by women for my PhD, and then I think of our talk, about adaptation, and stereotyping, and changing sexual mores, and I hope that the spirit of School 6 was still there in his bothy and couldn’t help overhearing it all.