On Tuesday, 15 September 2020, I returned to the town of Harlech, in the country of Gwynedd, North Wales. It was my first time back since June 1987. Two years earlier, September 1985, I had arrived at Coleg Harlech by a most curious path. A large multi-national firm was my employer back then, but my manager had advised me to leave and go back to college to try and improve my employment chances by advancing my academic qualifications. It seems that he had submitted me for an internal junior management development scheme, but that senior management had knocked back his recommendation on the grounds that they had only agreed to him hiring me because I had a green card. Back then disabled people were encouraged to register for employment with the government sponsored green card scheme. Large employers were expected to have on their books a percentage of disabled people, each in possession of a green card. In mine, and probably many other people’s cases, the green card became more valuable than the person holding it. Quota systems have a funny way of skewing things like that.
I took my manager’s advice, went back to college as an adult, got some A-Levels, and applied to Coleg Harlech to undertake a two year residential course studying English Literature and Philosophy; obviously, I was accepted. Coleg Harlech had at its heart a simple truth; it was a place of second chances. When I arrived in 1985 there were students of all ages. I remember a lovely woman called Iris who was in her seventies and as keen on her studies as anyone else. Class was no barrier, nor former occupations. People came from all different backgrounds and for many different reasons. For most of us Coleg Harlech was going to change our lives.
In hindsight going to Harlech might seem like a strange choice for someone with impaired mobility, the town sits on the side of a steep hill and the college is very much at the bottom of it. To get to the town to pick up groceries to supplement the food we received in the dining room, which I actually enjoyed, we would traverse what was commonly known as the ‘goat-track’, a slippery, dangerous, not very well lit mix of path and steps that brought you up to the Spar shop. Somehow, it seemed much easier to negotiate under the influence of alcohol! Yes, I did find getting around a little difficult, but back then I was only 24 when I started college and I was very determined not to be held back by my disability.
I met some wonderful people back then. I am still in contact with a few of them through social media, Caroline and Sophie being two who I remember as good friends. We were of a similar age and just got along really well together. I never had a romantic experience in Harlech, but I did have an epiphany. I remember it very well. We had been reading John Lock in Philosophy and had moved onto the more obscure book ‘Ethics’ by Baruch Spinoza. I was studying Philosophy for a particular reason; I was in search of a truth. I wanted to try and understand my place in the world. I had questions, such as why had I been born disabled? From 18 to about 22 I had been suffering with depression, but I really did not understand it as such then. Anyway, reading Spinoza brought me into contact with Pantheism, the concept that everything is one, and suddenly everything fell into place. It was like completing a jigsaw puzzle. It happened as I made my way from the tower block were we lived and towards the main-building where our lectures were held. A light came on in my head and for the first time I saw my disability as a necessary part of me. It was not a punishment from an invisible deity, it was a consequence of how the universe works. Species evolve because their genes mutate to allow them to adapt. Most mutations are hardly significant. Some prove very beneficial, like being able to sing beautifully, and some are not so kind, such as developing a very rare muscle complaint like the one I have; Myotonia Congenita.
Coleg Harlech helped me in many other ways too. At comprehensive school I had been largely written off, like most disabled people were in the 60’s and 70’s. At this wonderful college I was treated the same as everyone else. I had equality of opportunity for the first time in my life. I knew how important this gift was and I did my best with it, earning a University Wales of Diploma for English Literature and Philosophy.
In 2017 it was announced that Coleg Harlech was to close. I felt an urge to return. Unfortunately, I was convinced to undergo major surgery in 2018 and had to postpone my journey. I followed the demise of the college, which seemed to have more to do with government educational policies than the administration of the place itself. Indeed, the aspiration of the college to offer adults a second chance at education, to give them a good background in humanities, was still valid, but no longer appreciated in a world where students had become customers saddled with debt and education just another industry.
So, I finally made my return. My wife joined me. She knows how important this place has always been to me. When I was a student there she, too, was little more than an aspiration of mine. Seeing the run-down state of the college was saddening, but being back in Harlech once more awoke so many good memories. It is a pity that other people might not get the second chance that I and so many others enjoyed. We were a small part of Coleg Harlech’s 90 year history. Probably, as individuals, we had a very small impact on the place, but as an institution it had a considerable part to play in changing our lives.