It’s December, which reminds me of the time 27 years ago, I did interviews for getting into Oxford and sat waiting to find out if I got in. I wrote this article some time ago and I submitted it to my old college magazine, (but they didn’t publish). It might be worth reading if you do, don’t or did get into Oxford.
I recently met a young woman who had won a place to go to Balliol College to study PPE at a salsa dancing class. To my chagrin, I worked out that she would have been born after I graduated. She asked me what I did and I told her I was a speechwriter. I met her a few times, and I felt moved to offer some advice: “Read the reading list”, I said, “And don’t, whatever you do, get a Third.”
Having given the advice, it bothered me for a while. It forced me to ponder. Had my time at Brasenose College been a success or a failure? Should I be proud of my Third? Or like the Ancient Mariner do I have a duty to warn others?
We now have a pretext to remember our BNC experiences. About teatime in the spring, I get a call from an undergraduate studying my degree asking how I’m getting on. Eager for vocational counsel, these young fundraisers are more formidable than the telesales calls I normally have to brush off working in my home office.
How do I deal with their curiosity? Using my speechwriter’s hat, I feel tempted to tell an anecdote.
Two young men who had just graduated from Harvard were excited and talkative about their future plans as they got into a taxi in downtown Boston. After hearing them for a couple of minutes, the cab driver asked “You men Harvard graduates?”
“Yes, Sir! Class of ‘2012!” they answered proudly.
The cab driver extended his hand back to shake their hand, saying, “Class of ’92.”
Dr Gasser, the distinguished former Bursar, gave us a pep talk when we arrived. He told us that many people look back at their time in college as the happiest period of their lives. That sounded very bleak to me.
My first year at Brasenose was a shocker. I was disappointed with my concrete pillbox room (Staircase 18). There was a washbasin, but for anything else I had to trek 20 metres in the direction of the Arab quarter. The lectures were dry, and because I somehow forgot to read most of the books before coming up, it was extremely difficult to catch up. The social currents were hard to navigate, too.
I loved the privileges, though. The chance to hear top politicians like Michael Heseltine and Enoch Powell at the Union. The unsupervised hours available to visit friends in other colleges and to pursue whatever intellectual interests you cared to follow. I invited my old school Chaplain to guest table. It turned out to be the last time I saw him, (he was sipping morphine instead of port after the dinner) but it was a wonderful way to express gratitude.
I did enjoy the tutorial system. Mr Lucas, the German tutor, would usher you into his room where he would be wearing odd socks and having tea. He offered many unusual observations like Thomas Mann’s Der Zauberberg had a joke on every page. He was very tactful, even if I hadn’t done the work.
His lectures at the Taylorian were less successful. He began with a full theatre but by the end of the series, it was just the BNC loyal Germanites who were left. His handouts were typed on sheets crammed with semi-legible quotations. We framed the best example and gave him an award for the most inscrutable lecture notes in the whole of Oxford University.
The strength of Mr Lucas’s teaching was the way he lived his life. On his mantelpiece were invitations to aristocratic weddings in Germany. When I was working on The Guardian I sent him Prince Philip’s obituary, which is full of complex dynastic references. He went through it making corrections in red pen.
He invited us to his house in Gloucestershire where we went for walks and listened to German lieder. He’d say you get less bored as you get older or it was better to do an unpleasant task first and reward oneself with a nice one. Not stuff that’s much use in Finals, but it stays with you like a signature in a stick of rock.
My best year at Oxford was the one I spent in Strasbourg. I had an introduction into how being at BNC can open doors. Literally. The sidesman at the ex-pat Anglican church I visited turned out to have shared digs with Michael Palin. It led to me being introduced to Lord Runcie.
Trudging through the snow in the Vosges, Runcie told us was how he had been in combat and had to deal with the bodies of dead German soldiers as a tank commander in the Second World War. It was quite shocking to realise the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had his portrait in Hall, was not only JCR President, but killed people as young soldier.
One of the excitements of going to Oxford is reading about which famous person went to which college and following it up with speculation about which of your contemporaries will be famous. Actually, as this begins to happen, you don’t feel, how exciting. When I discovered I had circled the quadrangle with a future Prime Minister, I had to admit to family and friends, ‘I didn’t know him, in fact, I didn’t even know of him’. Maybe I should have spent more time in the bar.
After graduation, we all rush off in search of the smartest suits in the shop, but as a contemporary pointed out to me later, we don’t really want the smartest suit, we want the one that fits us best. I could never have imagined that 20 years later, my experience of writing doggerel for Brasenose Ale Verses could be turned to commercial advantage as a speechwriter.
We like to be romantic about Oxford friendships, but they’re like your Bodleian card – it takes a real effort to keep them renewed. We all go in such completely different directions. Sometimes you get friendly with people who you weren’t friendly with at college.
When I was living in Paddington, I met up with a mathematician who would buy me greasy spoon breakfast and tell me how he’d just bought a five-bedroomed house overlooking Hyde Park, or a street in Newcastle, or a bit of jungle in Sri Lanka. While he was channeling the forces of global capitalism, one of our mutual friends was working as an itinerant violin tutor in Scotland. The college makes its own special contribution to social mobility.
My way of reconnecting is to read some of the college’s distinguished writers. Living through the awful John Major years, I read all the works of J G Farrell. Farrell also did Modern Languages and also got a Third. In the days when it was difficult to get hold of unusual books, I found a copy of Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, which includes comforting essays on subjects like the perils of overmuch study.
I met George Bull, the translator of many Italian Penguin classics at a Brasenose Society dinner. He invited me to have lunch with him at the Savile Club. It was good to witness a Brasenose literary man in action. His translation of The Prince by Machiavelli sold over a million copies.
I still have nightmares about not having put a dinner ticket in the box for formal hall. Probably because that was what I enjoyed most. Eating with fellow students and talking with them about economics, politics or religion.
I went back recently to stay in a guest room. I can vouch for the fact that staying in college is now as comfortable as any Travelodge. You get branded washbags with soaps and a puffy duvet.
So what did it mean to go to Brasenose?
Lord Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, opened a speech with a good story recently. Someone asks an eminent rabbi, are you an optimist? He replied: I am not an optimist in the Leibnitz sense, that this is the best of all possible worlds. Neither am I a pessimist in the Gnostic sense that this is the worst of all possible worlds. So what are you then? What do you believe? I believe this is the worst of all possible worlds in which there is still hope.
Without my BNC experiences, I don’t think I would have laughed at the joke as loudly as I did.