stories of essex sociology

I am Student Support Officer in the Department of Sociology at the University of Essex, committed to all matters student oriented. This site is dedicated to telling the story of the Sociology department at Essex as it approaches its 50th anniversary in 2014. The site will be launched in October 2014 as a birthday gift to the department.


Brian Belton (MA Sociology 1987-8)

Brian Belton



I had been studying for my Masters degree at Essex for just a few weeks and was struggling with the idea of liberty. I concluded, straightforwardly, that liberty is, for the most part, associated with being able to ‘do’ something. It implies action. Anthony Burgess depicted Alex, in his book ‘A Clockwork Orange’, as someone who constantly ‘did’ (mostly bad) things and having his liberty taken away effectively stopped him doing these things.   To some extent, we see liberty as access, and rapid access, to doing stuff. As a society we expect our food to be fast, the light to come on when we flick a switch, the train to be on time – we do not expect to be kept waiting….at the bust stop, at the traffic lights or at the supermarket check out   We complain about the wait at the doctor’s surgery or the airport. It seems the biggest infringement on or everyday liberty is to be ‘kept waiting’.

However, this ‘intolerance’ doesn’t seem to be an innate human characteristic. In some non-western traditions it is not always present. For example, some Native American groups learned to take pleasure in waiting and keeping still as this was necessary when stalking game. Even within our own society people seem prepared or even enjoy waiting; watch practically any group of people fishing for instance.

Our inability as individuals and as a society to linger can be understood as a lack of freedom; we ‘just can’t wait’.   Those we work with as part of our practice often seem to demand immediate gratification or satisfaction. We talk about ‘offering opportunities’ or ‘fulfilling needs’ but this has to be done quickly, otherwise we lose attention. Our clients are taken as being likely to make off to locations that are not so tardy in serving up stimulation.

Logic would tell us that waiting is inherent in dialogical situations. I have to wait for you (or you have to wait for me) to finish speaking or even thinking before ‘I put my oar in’ if the dialogue is to be sustained over anything other than a minimal period. It’s perhaps surprising the number of times this does not happen in conversations wherein we are much more concerned about what we have to say than waiting for someone else to say what they want or need to say. We, as a society, appear to have a fear of waiting; we think of it as dead time. Generally it is thought of it as dead time. Waiting, for perhaps most of us, suggests inactivity. But waiting is not an inactive or dead process. At its best it encompasses expectancy and excitement, like waiting for Christmas or a first kiss.




I heard a swooping sound and saw a blur of dull cinnamon just before a set strong pinions whacked my head. I was under attack by a pair of great skewers. These birds have a 1.5 metre (five foot) wingspan and can have very nasty manners. As it dive bombs it utters its war cry; ‘Scare, scare, scare’. In more tender moments it may squat on its nest and sing ‘Woh, woh woh’, there is no sound in the entire avian kingdom more unlovely than the skewer’s affectionate ‘Wohers’ to its mate.

I am a celebrant of remote and outrageous places. I first experienced intimate contact with skewers on Foula Island in the Shetlands in 1987 not long after I had started my studies for a Masters degree at Essex. You probably haven’t heard of this place, few have. It’s the most remote inhabited Island in the United Kingdom. You won’t find it on some maps; it wasn’t on the official Shetland Islands tourist map 20 years ago.

In 1998 I wanted to go back to Foula because I was curious to see what had befallen the Island over the intervening years. But I had another reason; I have a perhaps irrational passion for islands that have fallen off the map.

I flew from Heathrow to Edinburgh, Edinburgh to Wick and Wick to Sunburgh. I took an epic £25 taxi ride from Sunburgh to Tingwall Airport, arriving just in the nick of time to catch my flight to Foula. I entered the waiting room of Tingwall Airport. It would appear to be a rather unassuming place; no bar to which you can retreat and have a pint whilst waiting for your flight, no computer monitors to indicate the status of that flight – it looks a bit like a doctor’s surgery, complete with the scales where the patient is weighed. There was a bit of luggage on the scales at that moment.

The waiting room, I confessed to myself, was austere though it had an unrushed, unhurried, pre-modern quality that I found somewhat appealing. It was the sort of place that seemed designed for waiting. Endlessly waiting; there was nothing there that would seem to indicate that travel was possible.

There was bad news for me; the flight for that day had been cancelled. 1 supposed that I could expect that sort of thing in that part of the world. I decided to spend the evening in the nearby town of Lerwick and try again the next day.

I had been walking around Lerwick, the capital of the Shetlands. I eventually found myself in the Thule bar. It seemed an appropriately named watering hole in which to take a pint. Foula, my destination, is reputed to be the ultimate Thule of legend; the last place in the world, before you fall off the edge and into the gapping mouths of sea monsters.

I looked around and there seemed to be about 35 people quaffing pints around me, just the same number of people who at the time lived on Foula. I’m drawn to places like that, maybe because I was born in the middle of a great big city; London. It is hard to get anymore ‘central’ than London. It is at the centre of a very recent Empire – the biggest the world has ever seen. It is a financial, communications and military centre. It is the link between Europe and America, the 2.5 billion people of the Commonwealth and the rest of the world.

Even as a child, I seemed to want to escape the middle. I would go to the far parameters of our back-yard and sit there and dream of remote places.

As I sipped my own pint and listened to the pop music on the duke box, I felt even more urgently to be on Foula…soon.

I arrived back at the airport the next morning. The flight for Foula was reputed to leave in ten minutes or so, but it didn’t look hopeful. There was this thick fog, like a dropped curtain on a play that was over. There was a bit of drizzle, a bit of mizzle, sort of archetypal North Atlantic weather.

Well, let me describe the airport itself.   Rather different to Heathrow or Gatwick. No concessions, no places to change money. Was there place to get something to eat, or buy a newspaper? Nope!   I look around me and all I see is a mixture of moor, fog, grassland, and occasional, worm-like, sinewy roads winding through it all like tributaries running down to a lack.

There’s an airstrip, with puddles of rain. Prospects don’t look very good.

An official suddenly appeared; “Right that’s it folks for this morning! In this kind of fog anyway, so that makes the decision that much easier. So I’m afraid it’s going to be this afternoon”.

I asked him what the forecast for the afternoon was, and if a word like ‘forecast’ had any meaning in that part of the world. “The forecast is for things to improve” he said. “The indications are that it should be getting better during the day”. I asked if this forecast was made by the same person who had yesterday forecast that it would be quite good that morning. The man laughed “Eh, Yes”. I commented that it was possible he had got it wrong again.

I tend in my daily life to be a complete, total, driven perfectionist. It makes me an uncomfortable person to have to live with. It makes me uncomfortable to myself at times. How does this relate to travel?   Do I tend to want to take perfect trips, to perfect destinations, and sit on perfect sands and have a perfect drink, with a perfect person, under a perfect palm tree? Not at all! Travel absolves me from having to be perfect. It frees me from this terrible burden that was bestowed upon me by well meaning parents.

Others make decisions and I can live with their imperfections in ways that I cannot live with my own. I don’t go to places that others consider perfect. I go to places that are likely to test the perfectionist urge of almost anyone. Places where things tend to go wrong as a matter of course, but when other people make mistakes I don’t find that intolerable; its life and I accept it and even rather like it.

Part of the joy of going to a place like Foula is not getting there. I don’t mean actually not getting there, but the difficulty in getting there. Nowadays, when a piece of corporate plastic can get you to the wilds of New Guinea, the depths of the Amazon (and I’m not talking the on-line book store) or the heart of the Arctic in almost less time than it takes me to finish this sentence (a sentence still going on by the way) going to Foula by air or sea is something that is going to be an imperfect event. The weather will definitely be a factor, it will remind you that however refined modern humanity’s mechanisms of transport are, however sophisticated our technology, that nature itself will have the final word.

I went out for a walk and on my return the waiting room appeared to have filled up a bit. I sit next to a woman, a fellow traveller. I ask her what she thinks about our chances of getting to Foula. She replies that she saw our chances of getting there that day to be pretty thin, she sees it as how life is in those islands. If you don’t get where you want to go today, you might make it tomorrow. She can see no reason to get upset about it; you have to see things that way because that is how it is. You just ‘sit on and hope’. She hopes that the pilot will look out of the window and think, ‘things don’t look too bad – we’ll go’. She said that it’s not like being in a town, champing at the bit for the bus to come, complaining that it was ‘late again’. For her, her island existence is a different world.

I commented that it suggested eternity – a kind of endless timelessness, the fact that nothing might happen. I said that it was almost Zen like, as if going to Foula and not going to Foula was almost the same thing; that the imagination and anticipation of being there, in the absence of actually going, has to constitute the trip.

She replies that when there were only boats, before you could fly to Foula that the Island could be cut off for weeks at a time. They just used to ‘sit on’ till the boat came. And it came eventually – like the plane would. I tell her that if I don’t see her on Foula I will definitely see her there, in the waiting room, later in the day. ‘Yes’ she replies. ‘And again tomorrow morning’, I quip. ‘And maybe tomorrow afternoon’ she retorts. ‘But they don’t work Sunday though…unless necessary’. She makes this last point in a rather disturbing matter of fact way. ‘Well’ I went on, ‘there’s next Monday then. As they don’t work Sunday we can talk about what we did on Sunday, apart from waiting in the waiting room’. ‘True’ she giggled.

While waiting for the pilot’s next report I wandered over to West Voe and back again. There I was, yet again at the Tingwall airport, on the Shetland mainland, waiting in the fog, the mist, the mizzle, the occasional rain, for the plane to take off and go to Foula.

I see the pilot and stroll over to talk to him:

“What’s the prognosis now about travel to Foula” I inquire.

“Well, I regret to say that perhaps I’ve been suckered, looking at down weather. It seemed things were getting a bit better. Looking into the weather now things are certainly worse than before.

“Maybe you’d like to go to the North-East where things appear to be clearer – somewhere other than Foula? I don’t know; I’m still hoping that things will lift. In this part of the world, until you actually see the clearance, you can’t be sure.

“Unfortunately, it’s just frustrating for you and me that we can’t, actually, get airborne at the moment”.

I ask him how he decides when the weather was good enough to fly in. He tells me he rings round the islands and speaks to the locals. They give him an idea of what the weather is like. It isn’t quite people going out looking at their washing, but it’s almost like that as far as the outer islands are concerned. But what folk say is fairly accurate. He says that his decisions are often based on “Unofficial observations.”   I’m not comforted.

Once again I’d been unable to fly to Foula. For some reason, this gave me a powerful thirst. I went back to Lerwick to enjoy a few more pints. The lounge of the pub made a lively scene. A veritable cross section of Shetlanders; young and old – people long in the tooth, people with no teeth. The fog of cigarette smoke lingered in the air; it was every bit as thick as the fog that shrouded Tingwall and presumably Foula. Such were bars of that sort in the days before the ‘no-smoking’ legislation kicked-in. But the traditional Shetland music seemed to dispel this fog and I saw clear blue sky and I felt certain that I would be airborne soon.

While I was waiting to find out if there was going to be a flight I thought about how I tend to be a relentlessly backward person. At that time I didn’t own a microwave or a mobile phone. Unlike most men I meet, I’m not interested in how cars work, sound systems or the intricacies of computers. This seems to link with my passion for remote islands.


images-3Eleven years previously I had been dropped off on Mingulay, a hilly rock of an Island in the Outer Hebrides, by an old Lobster fisherman named Hector.

Mingulay had been wholly devoid of people since 1908. So we went there and Hector said that he would pick me up at six o’clock. I had a Cadbury’s chocolate bar, and some fags (this was during a relatively short period when I had taken up smoking after years of abstinence) and I spent the day drifting around. It’s a very high Island. It has very high sea cliffs, about 700 feet.

At six o’clock I returned to a small prow of a rock and I waited for Hector. Six o’clock, seven o’clock, eight o’clock, nine o’clock; no Hector.

I started to worry a little and at the same time I convinced myself that he had said six o’clock the following morning. So I spent the night there. Six a.m. I sort of jerked awake – 7 a.m., 8 a.m., 9 a.m.; No Hector.

I was alone on this island, about two by three miles.   I wandered about for the rest of the day, but never went terribly far from the place where I had been dropped off, because I was convinced that Hector’s boat would appear at any moment. Meanwhile, I was developing rather severe hunger.

The afternoon progressed and at 6 p.m. I went to the rock where I had been dropped off. Thinking well, maybe, in fact, he had meant 6 p.m the following day; 6pm, 7pm, 8pm – still no Hector. By now I felt as if my body was starting to feed off its own inner organs. I was very worried that I had been marooned on this island. It goes back to your childhood. You’re left somewhere by your parents, or you get detached from them. You don’t know if they’ll ever come back. It’s that fear that the world has just left you and you’ll never be found again – this is the fear of waiting. That’s what I was feeling.

I was still casting glances at the place where I expected the boat to be, but I wasn’t hanging out there. Mingulay has been completely taken over by birds. I was now panicky and constantly fearful of having been abandoned in this remote place, for the rest of my life; that I didn’t think might be very long at that point.

Days went by until, early in the morning, I suddenly heard and I believe I also smelled, a primitive diesel engine approaching Mingulay.

It wasn’t Hector in the boat however, it was his nephew. Hector had gone back to West Barra (a bigger Island not far off with the massive population of around 700); he’d had a stroke. He had been removed to the hospital on South Uist and he had been more or less in a coma for days. When he awoke he said, “I’ve left a man on Mingulay!”

The Rocky Isle’

I got my Taxi to Tingwall airport. When I tell the driver I’m headed for Foula he tells me that it’s a place he’d never been, even, though he has spent his entire life in the Shetlands. He calls it ‘The Rocky Isle’. I ask him if he thought the plane would fly. He says ‘keep your fingers crossed’.

The pilot spoke to someone called Ken on the phone. I heard the pilot say ‘It’s gone out again then. Okay. That makes the decision that much easier. It’s got a little bit better than when I spoke to you a little bit earlier, but it’s still not a lot of good here. So, we’ll call it off for this morning then. If you can keep an eye on things and let us know when things get better. Thanks, bye-bye’.

He turned to me and said, ‘I’m afraid that’s it.’

It had been relatively easy for me to visit Foula in 1987. I just climbed aboard the plane and off I went. This time travelling there proved completely impossible. The Island seemed to have cut itself off from me, or the world, or both me and the world. Of course, I was disappointed not to have returned to Foula, but perhaps it is just presumptuous of me to think I can merely hop over to Britain’s most isolated inhabited island whenever I choose to do so. But I’m consoled by the thought that one of the purposes of travel is to avoid your destination at all costs. Once you’re there, you’re there and you’ll never be permitted that long baited breath of anticipation again.   And in not getting to Foula I’d seen some perfectly splendid fog, some perfectly splendid cloud cover too. And felt the wind against my skin so often that I dare say that I’d become friends with it. Perhaps I’ll try again next year.   I’ll have to wait and see.

Waiting softly

To wait, softly, gently, like the woman I met in the airport at Tingwall, is a manifestation of liberty. She was free from the torture of waiting; she had found something in it; an acceptance of what was liberation in an embracing of what was offered by the wait.

Waiting is a window in time out of which one can take the opportunity to look over the world. We can be trapped in time, in our waiting for the lights to change or the next TV programme to come on, or in my case waiting for the I-player to ‘unfreeze’. Or we can be in the world, the reality that exists outside of our manufactured time.

To wait with someone is to be active. Maybe I am most with someone when I wait with them. We share our expectancy, the adventure of the future, from the comfort of the present. In our waiting we look out to the very horizon of consciousness and we are joined in that relief from the unforgiving moment; those who ‘just cannot wait’ are sublimely ‘unfree’.

It may be true that all is lost to those that wait, but ‘fools rush in where angels dare to tread’; the ‘all’ that the angel looses may well be acquired by the fool, but the fool will never know that what they have gained may have meant the loss of just a little bit of their soul.

‘Patience is a virtue’; ‘everything comes to those who wait.’ Everything worthwhile maybe? While I waited on Mingulay I was most acutely aware of being alive and wanting to stay alive. My wait then helps me see the folly of worry about money or cleaning my car.   You see, waiting can be a gateway to freedom. Without waiting life is linked up with meaningless ‘doing’; trudging from one thing to another – never actually stopping – perhaps that’s why so many of us have trouble sleeping, or staying asleep for too long.


The place without the chance to wait is a desert of a world, with no seas, no islands, just the blandness of immediacy. We are never hungry, never thirsty, we are constantly sated. Irritations are scratched before they itch; there is no play and no foreplay. We know not what it is to be teased or tantalised, our mouth never waters. Desire is replaced by having and thus we are deprived of the satisfaction that is only had through, after, as a consequence of the act of waiting.

We, as a society are locked in prisons of ‘having’. The guards are those who seek to ‘meet our needs’. The social worker, the health worker, who can make the judgement to act maybe needs also to exercise the judgement to stand-off from time to time; not wait forever, but at least until the other person finishes what they have to say or what they want or need to do.

I often wonder if we can and do ‘help’ too much. In the last seconds of the 1969 film ‘They Shoot Horses Don’t They’ there’s an exchange between one of the main characters and a police officer:

Policeman:   Why’d you do it, kid?

Robert: Because she asked me to.

Policeman:   Obliging bastard…


Sometimes, I feel a bit like what that policeman called Robert and that waiting is the means to dialogue.


Burgess, A. (1962) A Clockwork Orange, London: Heinemann

Further reading:

McCoy, H. (1940 They Shoot Horses Don’t They, London: Wells, Gardner, Darton & Co Ltd

Film of the book (DVD) 2008, Fremantle Home Entertainment; Dir Sydney Pollack


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Here are some of the unsolicited REVIEWS since the publication of IMAGINATIONS:

Thank you for giving us this precious gift. Leonore Davidoff … Absolutely blown away by the book! A really wonderful achievement. The photographs are especially wonderful! Sean Nixon… It is a fitting celebration of a departmental jewel in the Essex crown. Anthony Forster…What a splendid achievement! I have only so far had the opportunity to read here and there, but enough to know how rewarding it is going to be to work through it. Alasdair MacIntyre… It looks great and will be a lasting memory of the department. Sue Aylott …Will be a landmark book in the history of the University. David Lane … It is truly a major compilation. Peter Abell… It is BRILLIANT. It is so well produced and the pics are wonderful. Miriam Glucksmann… I think the book is splendid! It’s Wonderfully designed and full of fascinating reflections on a department I am proud to have been a member of. David Rose… Congratulations once again for the book. It is a reflection of your passion for sociology and sociology at Essex but also a contribution to wider sociological discussions! Carlos Gigoux… Congratulations on producing an excellent volume that brings back very many and all sorts of memories as well as posing many questions – especially where are they now? Adrian Sinfield…The book is splendid. Anthony Woodiwiss … Even though I had high expectations of the book, it really is a triumph, a fantastic thing… and I have barely dipped into it. It really is a thing of beauty. Rowena Macaulay…The book looks great. It is a pretty comprehensive view of ‘the department’, and is really impressive because it’s so unique. Colin Samson … I’ve been thinking about the Essex Sociology 50 Years book, and marveling that you’ve managed to put it together. I’m so pleased it exists, and I’m sure there are so many other people who feel exactly the same. Rob Stones

Copies are best ordered through

The Wivenhoe Bookshop by phone 01026 824050; by e mail; or web site:

Directly from Ken Plummer through

Or Waterstones, the Essex University Bookshop by phone: 01206 864773  or email: essexuni@waterstones. com

Publication price: £25.00

With post and packing in UK £30.00  Overseas will have to add extra.

ISBN: 9780957085046; 208pp, 50 contributors.

It can also be ordered though Amazon but they will, as we know, effectively take all the money!

And here is A CONTENTS GUIDE to the book

CONTENTS: Introduction: Ken Plummer 1. Contexts – Creating Essex Sociology-A Timeline of Memorable Moments Peter Townsend’s Founding Vision – Transforming Visions for a Twenty First Century. 2. Formations The Early History: Joan Busfield: Remembering Early Days – Adrian Sinfield: The Challenge of Social Policy – Geoffrey Hawthorn; A New Lecturer’s View – Christel Lane: A Student’s View: Undergraduate Study During The University’s Early Years: 1968–1972 – David Bouchier: From Student to Staff: David Bouchier (1968–1986)- Making Troubles – David Lane:1968 – Michael Mann: Troubles of 1974- Judith Okely: The 1989 Czech ‘Velvet Revolution’ As Experienced At Essex 3. Wisdoms Imagining Social Justice: Creating Better Social Worlds For All Introduction.- Michael Harloe: On Peter Townsend’s Poverty – Stan Cohen: Remembering Harold Wolpe – Lydia Morris: Human Rights – Michael Bailey: Public Activism Research Imaginations: Creating Multiple Methods For Sociology Introduction: Unlimited Research – Peter Abell: Whatever Happened to Mathematical Sociology? – David Rose: The Origins of The Institute for Economic and Social Research ISER – Heather Laurie: ISER: So What Happened Next?- Louise Corti: The Creation of Qualidata Mark Harvey: Centre for Economic and Social Innovation Comparative Imaginations: Building An International Sociology Introduction. Alison Scott: On the School of Comparative Studies -Ayse Güveli: The Gains and Changes of Migration- Interdisciplinary Imaginations: Broadening The Scope of Sociology Alasdair MacIntyre: Philosophy in the Sociological Conversation 1960−1970 – Michael Roper: Social and Gender History Ken Plummer: Making the Person Matter – Karl Figlio: The Creation of the Centre for Pychoanalytic Studies – Eamonn Carrabine: Imagining Crime – Sean Nixon: The Moment of Cultural Studies – Michael Halewood: Theory in the Department – Colin Samson: Sociology, Neoliberalism and the Struggle to Keep the Interdisciplinary Spirit Alive 4. Communities Remembering Communities John Scott: Coming Home – Rob Stones: The 1990s in the Essex Sociology Department: A Personal Point of View- Mary McIntosh says goodbye Miriam Glucksmann: Remembering the 1990s – Building The Educational Community: The Great Sociological Conversation Rowena Macaulay: Twenty Years of Departmental Support: The Student Resource Centre – The Office Community Mary Girling & Paul Thompson: Reflections of a Departmental Secretary – The Global Community From South Africa: From Hong Kong: From India – The Web Site Community The Long Community Nigel South 5. Futures Looking Ahead Voices: Professors Voices: Former students- Refelctions: Telling stories of Essex Sociology- Epilogue And Reprise: The Last Refuge – Suggestions for Further Reading – Index Focus Boxes: The heads of department -The Vice-Chancellors -The expansion and transformations of Essex- Profile of an early student – The professors – Social class and David Lockwood – Seeking gender justice – feminism in sociology – A red-green revolution? – Moments of oral history at Essex: From Gay Liberation to “Sexualities” and Intimate Citizenship- Focus on Essex’s Legacy: Some Fifty or so research areas and their books – Evaluating the quality of research – Some of the most cited books in the department – Focus On Public Lecture Series: The Fuller Lectures – Focus on Dennis Marsden – Honorary degrees – Consolidating the canon: The textbook tradition at Essex – Student numbers at Essex – Focus on the Rise of Teaching Assistants – Focus on the Essex newsletters and journals: The reading and writing community – Managing the department: The Secretaries – Paul Thompson remembers Brenda Corti- More stories of Essex Sociology- Focus on Essex’s Legacy: Some Fifty or so books published by graduates and researchers – Focus on Essex’s Legacy: Some Fifty or so graduates and researchers who became ‘Essex’ Professors – Sociology in the Media: Pam Cox- Handing our stories on.

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The Old Staff Reunion: Dedham Boat House: September 12th

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The Launching of Imaginations: Fifty Years of Essex Sociology Wivenhoe September 5th

Over the past couple of weeks the book has been launched at the

Wivenhoe Sneak Preview

The Staff Reunion Lunch at the Dedham Boat House

and the Homecoming Weekend 50th Anniversary

Here are a few images of the Wivenhoe Launch



IMWivlaunch2 IMWivlaunch1 IMwivlaunch3 IMwivlaunch7 IMwivlaunch6



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Katsuhiro Harada


HaradaCongratulations to the 50th Anniversary of the Sociology Department of the ESSEX UNIVERSITY!!!!

Knowing about this marvellous celebration, I have called my nostalgic memories,with deep gratitude,of those days staying from 1983 to1984 in the Department where I had many chance to enjoy happy,friendly relations with you and your faculty members.

I really hope the Sociology Department has more brilliant future in the next 50th years.

I have already retired from the University, and now I am mainly writing onthe family life story of my maternal historical lineage which go back in the17century(Edo feudal age)when the ancestor was a head of a fisherman’sCo-operative.

I am always walking nearby around, sometimes flying a kite on the seashore, and not in bad health at present.

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Paul Howell, BA 1998

Anne-Marie, Johanna and Paul (just after our finals in 1998)

Anne-Marie, Johanna and Paul (just after our finals in 1998)

With my hand on my heart I can say 100 per cent that those three years (1995-1998) spent at Essex University were the best of my life. I continually reminisce about them.

Prior to Essex, I had been an anxious, withdrawn and rather isolated teenager. I had grown up in Bexhill-on-Sea (a small seaside town on the South East Coast of England) knowing I was gay and to say I was not at all comfortable in my own skin is a definite understatement.

Entering the welcoming Sociology Department in October 1995 – complete with its rainbow flag – was a major awakening for me. And what a journey I was about to embark upon! I didn’t work as hard as I should have but the openness of the department, its inspiring academics (many of whom “out and proud”) and the tolerance which was abounding did so much for me personally. I made some amazing friends, with whom I am still in contact  almost twenty years later (Anne-Marie Kowacs, Susie Scott, Viki Grainger, Johanna Brophy, Loretta El Sadat, Daniel Harris, Agnes Skamballis, Michael Chittenden…). Often I wonder what happened to those acquaintances I met throughout the duration of the course (I’d love to hear from anyone who remembers me!). Everyone was just so upbeat, enthusiastic, friendly and kind. There was a real camaraderie between us all and we were all interested in each other’s welfare. There was never a feeling of competition.

I could go on and on about my very happy memories. I look back with particular fondness on those first term core course lectures conducted by legendary Professor Ken Plummer – especially the last one just before Christmas in 1995. Ken put up a slide on the projector and to our amusement Father Christmas hats were drawn on to the heads of Marx, Weber and Durkheim! I am sure they would have approved! Well, maybe…! This lecture was rounded off with a clip from “It’s A Wonderful Life”!  It certainly set me up for the Christmas holidays! I also had a superb first year core course tutor in Jean Duncombe who was encouraging and good fun. Those Friday morning 9am classes were a joy to attend. As were those second year core course classes taken by the lovely Rob Stones. I was also taught by a lot of student tutors and it’s great that many of them, then starting their careers, are now established Sociologists.

During my three years I was a Resource Room volunteer (so much hilarity took place in that small room and what a delight Helen Hannick was with her endless encouragement!), I attended all the Sociology parties (!!) and the quiz nights. I helped out on the stall at the Freshers’ Fayres in 1996 and 1997. I also took part in helping the department raise money for the Women’s Refuge in Colchester and, in early 1997, participated in Project Sigma. I was also a brief member of Viki Grainger’s Feminist Action Group, which took place weekly in the Resource Room, ending up with quite a few members.

Just before the summer vacation of 1996, Ken Plummer introduced me to the work of novelist Edmund White. I was dreading a return to my seaside town. Yes, I was excited about seeing my family, but I was going to miss my new-found friends. I dived into Edmund White’s “A Boy’s Own Story” and, some ten years later, I was lucky enough to go out to lunch with this author following an event at the Edinburgh Book Festival. I raised a thankful glass to Ken!

Even though there was a lot of serious work being conducted by those very eminent, pioneering and busy Sociologists with research findings “hot off the press”, the department was never short on laughs and it didn’t take itself too seriously. I mean, what other academic department would hold an evening debate on whether or not the Spice Girls were the “new” feminists?! Sadly I can’t remember now what the overall consensus was. But I do remember that the debate got quite heated!

Another fond memory is of the late Mary McIntosh, on the point of retirement, selling many of her books on a big trestle table in the centre of the Reading Room. Despite being a high profile Sociologist, she was humble and very generous.

What I found particularly inspiring was coming across those Sociologists I had encountered in text books while doing my Sociology GCSE and A Level.

There was always support on hand in the department – from the academic staff right down to those who worked in the office, such as Brenda Corti, Mary Girling, and Diane and Sue. You were made to feel welcome – and I did feel completely at home. It really was a breath of fresh air and a safe haven. I had never had as much fun as I did at Essex. If you like quirky people and eccentrics, then you are never to be disappointed studying Sociology at Essex University! It was a very liberal, nurturing and understanding environment.

After my degree I trained as a journalist and later, on a whim, I moved up to Edinburgh, getting a job in the civil service. While in Scotland I was constantly reminded that I was English and naturally certain theories from Sociology lectures came flooding back to me…!

Leaving Essex upon graduation in 1998 was a real wrench and it took me a long time to adjust to post-university life. Even now I can’t think about the experience without getting misty-eyed. Without a doubt I would gladly do it all again. Even better would be to do it all again knowing what I know now! I would say that as well as passing on valuable academic skills and very relevant insights, the department helped us to develop a sense of self and to be the best we possibly could for both society – and for ourselves.

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Helen Hannick (1989-1998 BA, MA and Student Support Officer)

Helen Hannick: 1992 BA Sociology, 1994 MA Social History 1994-98 Student Support Officer I had a truly memorable time in the Sociology department at Essex though it wasn’t an easy ride. Entering as an adult through an ACCESS to Higher Education scheme with a failed school history behind me I was initially scared and overwhelmed by the perceived grandness of ‘ Academia’. A place where others belonged, not me.

The reading and course contents were exacting and challenging: at times mentally, physically and emotionally draining; at times energizing even exciting. The lectures were usually engaging and sometimes inspiring. Most seminars were stimulating, thought- provoking and sometimes fun.

The sense I gained from many of the department’s lecturers was that they cared how well their students did. That they wanted them to gain an understanding of the world as seen through the critical eye of sociology and to take this understanding into the world and make it a better place.

How fortunate I was to have studied Sociology at Essex when I did: at a time when human currency was as valuable as the monetary, market- driven kind; when academic rigour was imposed by approachable and caring academics who were themselves not yet consumed by the crippling demands of ratings and publications.

At the core of all this lay the departmental coffee room. It was a lifeline for us students and the departmental secretaries were truly the bees’ knees. What Brenda didn’t know wasn’t worth knowing, what she and Mary couldn’t fix wasn’t fixable. We students knew that the Brenda, Mary, Diane and Sue cohort was a precious resource: we suspected that they could have run the country better than any government before or since. It was also recognized that all work and no play make Sociologists a dull group. So play we did. The department was reputed to have the best parties and gatherings. And it did.

It was indeed a very special time. Over time Essex became my own. I belonged.
I was hooked. I began an MA. More agony. More challenges. More fun.

In 1994 Ken Plummer, who was then HOD, set up the post of Student Services Support Officer and the Resource Room. I had just completed my MA and made the seamless transition from student to staff . Helped by a myriad of very special students who dedicated their valuable time to running the show, the Resource Room grew to become an integral part of the department and student life.: a testament to a departmental ethos which understood the holistic principle of student growth & development.

My thanks go to the wonderful people who made my time at Essex so special and managed- despite my deeply rooted mistrust of ‘Theory’ – to convert me into the sociological way of viewing the world and its multiple realities. And now there’s no turning back.


Today I own and manage an Azienda Agrituristica in the hills of  Umbria, Italy. Which amounts to being an unpaid administrator, cleaner, gardener, pool girl, receptionist, hostess and driver. The countryside is stunning, the place is beautiful, the food is great and the stress levels are low.

I remain curious and very interested in people and their individual and collective behaviours,  in social structures, cultural diversity, inequality and education.  Hence my role as Trustee (governor) at St Stephens International school in Rome where I currently hold the post of vice Chair of the Education Committee.

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