Going Up Late
The exuberant delight with which Annabel had received the account of my interview with the Provost of Worcester College (“You’re in! I know it!”) had been a classic example of counting chickens long before they were hatched. I was ‘in’ provided that I could pass both university and college entrance examinations. Latin was compulsory for both. It had been at least twelve years since grammar school had ended and I had become a boarder at the Imperial Service College. Consistent with its foundation in 1874 as a school for the sons of serving army officers, the ISC was academically more concerned with entry to the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, than with any higher, more classical education. At Windsor I had flourished in French, floundered hopelessly in German and won prizes for English. Caesar’s Gallic Wars were all Greek to me. As the Provost had cautioned, I could be ‘in’ only if Davies’s private tutors could teach me enough Latin for the university exam (‘Responsions’) coming up in December, 1950, and for college entrance in March the following year and if I could find the means to pay for the tuition.
Unable to lay my hands on any new money, my only recourse was to make what little I was already earning go further. Hence the living-in job as boiler and boot boy. The Latin made infinitely greater demands, but now the modus vivendi which I had been obliged to adopt at the Shell Film Unit came into its own. In the morning, when I was not in the local library or browsing in the bookshops of the Charing Cross Road, I took care to be seen about the office, thus at least legitimising my lunches in the canteen. In the afternoons I borrowed the key to one of the boardrooms from a friendly janitor and retreated there with Kennedy’s Latin Grammar. Shell Mex House: how benevolent the part that you played in my life! And with so little return! When the time came for me finally to leave Shell and the genial head of Publicity, shaking my hand, said he hoped that I would let him know when I came down from the university so that he would see where he might be able to “fit me in”, I was as embarrassed as a dinner guest with a conscience when thanked by his hosts for coming, knowing all the while that he has pocketed the spoons.
Boiler and boots were not the end of the money problem. Paying for Latin tuition was one thing; paying for three years at Oxford would be quite another. The post-war concessionary period for ex-servicemen’s educational grants had expired, yet without a government subvention for fees and subsistence at the university the Latin would be an irrelevancy. To Latin nouns, adjectives, verbs and adverbs, declensions and conjugations, the perfect, imperfect and pluperfect was now added a plethora of correspondence between myself and the Ministry of Education, sundry ex-schoolmasters, sometime commanding officers and anyone else whose words might plausibly carry weight and might endorse the proposal to pursue my private fancy at the public expense. Past achievements were exaggerated, failures conveniently forgotten, confirmation of academic intentions frustrated by distinguished military service imaginatively, if not mendaciously, supplied.
Fortune and the Ministry of Education (Awards Branch) smiled. Before the leaves were falling in Temple Gardens and Guys and Dolls had opened on Broadway I had been informed that, subject to proof of university admission, for three academic years from the autumn of 1951 until that of 1954 I would receive a grant of £265 per annum. Now, the study of the Venerable Bede’s Historia Ecclesiastica (a certainty for the Examination Schools) assumed a realistic urgency of purpose and I dared to picture myself in gown and mortarboard (during the whole of my time at Oxford I doubt if I ever wore one). I seemed to be getting my ducks in a row.
Tempus fugit (as they say at Davies’s). It is early October, 1951, and I am sitting on the edge of my bed in my Walton Street lodgings, Oxford, almost opposite the entrance to Worcester College. I was 27 last birthday, but have been weeping as bitterly as a small child who has suffered some catastrophic disappointment or loss. It is not the first time that this has happened since the letter came this morning and I know that before the day ends it is likely to happen again. I must, must, must get a grip, I tell myself. Over and over in my head, mantra-like, with its own dynamic, is running the cliché ‘tout lasse, tout passe, tout casse’, with the optimistic afterthought ‘tout se remplace’; a threadbare philosophy and feeble anodyne, but there is no other. Alcohol, as I learnt definitively seven years ago, may anaesthetise; but there must always be the moment of coming round. What then? There is no readily compassionate shouIder: if I weep, I must do so in private.
Though the tears, heaven knows, are heartfelt, there are no bitter thoughts. The timing was cruel, but when would have been a better time? When might it have hurt less? Anyway, as Annabel herself said, it was not until a few days ago that the man she is now engaged to delivered his ultimatum: “Give me a straight answer now or finita la comedia”. He has known her far longer than I have, is in his early thirties, successful in the City and has been very patient. Also, she loves him. She loves me too; but “in a different way”. Being in love with her is all very well, but I know, and she knows, that I am no more at the marrying stage of my life than a learner-driver is fit to race in a grand prix. Marriage has never entered my head. Eventually, the misery is contained. I breathe evenly. Sluicing my face in cold water, I tidy up and walk across to supper in hall. Over the past year or two Oxford had seemed to have become something of a joint venture; now, I feel terribly alone.
Less than a week later, my father died. For some weeks he had been in hospital, following a stroke. I had visited him the day before leaving Sussex for Oxford, and although his speech had been seriously impaired he had been able to tell me to do my damnedest. Now, he had suffered another, and worse, attack, and was not expected to live. I arrived at his bedside in a general ward in time only to hold his hand while he tried vainly to speak, struggling desperately for breath. My mother, who had been with him for some hours but had left his bedside for a few minutes, returned too late for the end. He was only sixty-seven. Back in Walton Street, after his funeral, I sat on my bed and cried again until it seemed that there were simply no more tears to be shed. “It is bound to affect you deeply”, the Provost said, “but if there is anything that I might do to help I trust that you will keep me informed”. Did he sense that with my father’s death Oxford might have lost something of the purpose with which, unknowingly, I had invested it? The emotional consequences were indeed deep; most painfully, grief that a life of unremitting effort for the family he loved had ended so mercilessly and so untimely. I took no oaths, experienced no epiphany, but had no doubt as to what his fundamental values had been and thereafter was seldom tempted to forsake them. “This above all…”, and all that.
At about this time, too, “J.C.” effectively scotched any lingering ideas that I might have had about reading Law. If I wanted to become a solicitor or a barrister, he said, I could always, with or without a degree, take the specific examinations attached to qualification for those professions; meanwhile, he wondered if Modern History might not suit me better. For the Provost to “wonder if” was as good as a command and in due course I was to learn that “modern” did not exclude some knowledge of the mediaeval Exchequer and the Pipe Rolls.
Though fancies about chambers in the Temple had been laid to rest, those concerning a literary life had not. The Spectator magazine was then, as now, one of the leading magazines of current affairs in Britain. The leading magazine, some would say, and then, as now, an author earned modest kudos by being published in its pages. At the time I went up to Oxford there was, moreover, a Spectator Undergraduate Page, to be published on which was a feather in any young person’s hat. Greatly daring, halfway through my first Oxford term I submitted a piece to which I naively gave the (as I thought) catchy title of Getting Up Late.
GOING UP LATE
from The Spectator December 4, 1951
“But haven’t you left it rather late?” The question was often put to me before I arrived in Oxford, and it has been repeated many times since. A few weeks ago I could not be certain of my answer. Now there is no doubt at all. That there should have been some uncertainty was hardly surprising, for at rising twenty-eight, after five years in the Army and four in the City, one could not be completely confident that in going up to Oxford one was doing the right thing. Three years as an undergraduate! Three years of long scarves and learning and very young men fresh from school or conscription. Would it be worthwhile, and – in any case – could one go through with it? Older men had done it, of course, but they had, with few exceptions, done it in the years immediately after the war. They had come in their thousands, comfort for one another. They had come even with their wives and children, and – official recognition of the strangeness of the times – without Latin.
All that has changed. During the months that preceded my arrival I was assured by kind friends, who thought thus to sustain me in my resolve, that the universities were rapidly returning to normal; and last year, seeking admission to university and college, I was obliged to make Kennedy’s Primer and Caesar’s Gallic Wars the objects of seven months of study. At the end of the war some hundreds of undergraduates were over thirty. Now a man is getting on at twenty-three and nineteen is common.
Yet, if undergraduates are very young, Oxford is very old, and in becoming aware of the world which is Oxford I have almost lost sight of the other world which I so recently left. How quickly it has fallen way! A few weeks ago there was no other. Now I am reminded of it only by the daily arrival of The Times, and even this, which was an indispensable part of my London day, no longer keeps its former place in life. The personal column is ignored, the crossword undefiled. It no longer has its old significance, but comes as might a postcard from a distant relative, of whose existence one is thus reminded, but for whose activities one feels, for the moment, no responsibility.
In these few weeks I have found more than I dared to hope for, and my fears, with a few unimportant exceptions, have been proved liars. When I had contemplated the living again of a corporate existence there had been some anxiety. I remembered school and Army days, and dreaded having to face once more the rigours of competitive living. I visualised remote and inadequate bathrooms and the need for early rising if one wanted a place at a washbasin, hot water and a reasonable shave. I had, in my deep and fearful ignorance, imagined the old and typewritten notices pinned to the doors – “Baths may be taken only between the hours of –.” Yet I have found none of this. The competitions that I feared do not exist. My scout calls me gently at eight, the bathroom is across the landing and the water is always hot.
Indeed, corporate living as I have found it here, far from being the ordeal of imagination, is a great improvement upon the sort of life which I have known during the past few years. Luncheon in the City was a vulgar affair involving books of tickets, long queues and a descent into an underground inferno of glass-topped tables and metal trays. One ate joylessly and much too quickly, and got out. But in college one is able once again to take one’s meals in comparative comfort and decency. Here is no maze of heat and sound. No “daylight” lighting. No surrender of perforated coupons. The wooden tables are long and polished and the places are neatly laid. The food, surprisingly good, is served by the white-coated “scouts”, and conversation is no longer a physical effort made against an endless din of clattering cutlery. Better, too, than those improvised and solitary suppers taken in the kitchen of a bachelor flat are dinners in hall. Called by the lodge bell, we stand to our places. Chatter dies as the dons walk to the high table. Two blows of a wooden hammer sound upon its surface. The great doors are shut. A third stroke of the hammer falls, and Latin grace is recited quickly by one of the scholars. We eat and drink and talk, and all the while the portraits of great men look down upon us from the high walls.
Even the discipline of undergraduate life is not, as I had feared, hard to undergo. Indeed, such as it is, it seems to be for me a source of pleasure rather than a cause for discontent. Long ago, for example, it was clear that freedom to worship or not to worship was essential to adult existence. Compulsion, one had decided after the last church parade, would never again be tolerated. True to one’s principles, one was not compelled, and despite parental sighs went to church only at Easter, Harvest Festival and Christmas. Yet now, when one attendance at chapel is obligatory on Sundays, I feel no irritation. I remember that even at school it was not an unpleasant ritual. I have been for a walk by the river and have had tea here in my room by the fire. Again the bell sounds from the lodge, monotonous and insistent. I put down my book, put on my gown and join the other men who are hurrying under the old arches towards the light that comes from the chapel door. It is good, I find, to be summoned in this way. Good to be there in company with a hundred others reciting the old prayers, singing loudly the familiar hymns, whilst all the while it grows darker outside and the windows seem to grow dusty.
This rediscovered pleasure is not confined to the institutions alone but goes much deeper, is more personal. I had feared that as a freshman I should be imprisoned by my extra years and forced to choose between solitary confinement and the tortures of an ebullient Junior Common Room. In this, too, I was greatly at fault. There is no lack of pleasant company. Some of the dons, for instance, are only a little older than myself, and I have met one who served with me in Normandy. I have found them generous with their coffee and their conversation.
In any case, I had no need to fear that the difference in our ages would isolate me from my fellows; that their youthful company would prove intolerable. They do not spend their time in climbing monuments or making apple-pie beds. Their rooms are not full of bottles and cigarette smoke and shrill voices raised in argument as to whether the table is. There are, of course, little affectations – “I know all about art, but I’ve no idea what I like” – but for the most part their talk is diverse and entertaining, and of no less a quality than that which is to be found in the bars of Threadneedle Street or Cornhill, where men of more maturity and substance hold court.
I have not found here the time for loneliness and boredom. After all, one has one’s work to do, and in that, above all things, one may find the greatest delight of all. Before coming up I had feared that my studies might prove too difficult. I might not, I thought, be able to bring to them the mental ability and powers of concentration which might be required. These might have been fatally impaired by the years which the Army and the City had eaten. I was wrong. I doubt if I shall get a First; I should be surprised and grateful for a Second; but reading is at least no longer an affair of tube trains and papers and an occasional weekend in the country. From being an infrequent and restricted relaxation, it has become a regular and illimitable virtue. It could scarcely be otherwise. There are the Bodleian and Rhodes House and the Radcliffe libraries, and – “you may browse all day if you wish” – there are the bookshops in the Broad. I have become aware of books as never before.
In becoming aware of what Oxford has to offer, I have become conscious, although as yet imperfectly, of what Oxford is. It is old and wise and kindly and rich in those things for which, in this fretful age, one might search longingly and in vain elsewhere. It is contemptuous of none but is tolerant of all men and of all ages. Better by far that one should have come to it late than never have come to it at all.
NEXT FRIDAY, 3 May, The Fading Margin, Serial 22: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part Four.
Standing on the Boulevard de la Trémouille in Dijon, capital of Burgundy, on a fine, clear day, looking south to the hills of the Côte d’Or, it is possible to entertain the happy illusion that by continuing straight ahead one must surely be able to walk unhindered into the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits. An illusion it must remain. Where vineyards once almost hugged the walls of the city, suburbs now sprawl for some two or three miles before more than a few isolated and uninspiring plots of viticulture are reached. Untidily interspersed with patches of maize, assorted vegetables and fruit trees, limited on the one side by the unlovely building developments bordering the Dijon to Beaune road and on the other by the nondescript slopes of the Hautes Côtes, they have nothing of the dignity to be found further south along the Côte d’Or. Later, after Fixin say, the vineyards are recognizably the be-all and end-all of local existence. Here, even around Marsannay and Couchey, where red, a little white and a famous rosé wine are made, they might be mistaken for an afterthought, incidental to ever-spreading urbanisation. At Chenôve, once a country village, are nevertheless the beginnings of tracks that enable the walker to set off southwards without braving hard-top roads and backyard dogs. There also are the much-photographed wine presses of the Dukes of Burgundy, which may help to sustain a romantic idea of wine and wine-making in an increasingly technological age. Many a modest stone-built outhouse of the Côte d’Or shelters an old press, still in use, that functions according to the same mechanical principles.
It was a fine morning in April when I set out. Impatient to get well beyond the petrol stations and housing estates, I set a good pace, wanting to reach Gevrey-Chambertin, more than two miles away, before everything shut for lunch. Not only had I ideas of visiting the château, I also needed to shop for a picnic. Reluctantly, I hurried through Fixey, with its very prettily placed Romanesque church, and through Fixin (pronounced ‘Fissin’), which in retrospect seems to nestle among cherry and plum blossom, reaching Gevrey-Chambertin as the clocks struck twelve.
The château was closed all that day, but I was able to buy what I needed for lunch, including wine. Notwithstanding the locality, I had intended nothing out of the ordinary when I chanced across a serious-looking corner shop with a well-known wine-maker’s name over the door. I expected it to be locked, but it was open. The interior was attractively Dickensian and silent. After a little while a grandmotherly person appeared, apologising for keeping me waiting. “Les jeunes”, who really looked after the shop, were all “à table”. It was clearly not the occasion for tasting or deliberation, so with some extravagance I bought a cellar-cool bottle of the proprietor’s three-year-old Gevrey-Chambertin AC. As soon as I had left the shop I tucked it down inside my shirt, buttoned and zipped everything else over it, and went on my way hoping that nobody would remark my curious anatomy and that by picnic time my expensive acquisition would be agreeably ‘chambré’.
In his autobiographical book, A Traveller’s Life, Eric Newby tells of asking Evelyn Waugh to write an introduction to A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush, Newby’s classic of travel writing. In the course of the brief correspondence that followed, he had occasion to point out that there was no such wine as the ‘Clos de Bère’ which features in Brideshead Revisited. Waugh apologetically replied that it was a misprint for Clos de Bèze. Newby got his introduction, and as a gesture of thanks sent Waugh three magnums of Clos de Bèze. Newby and I were friends. We had talked about the incident, and about Waugh, and (as always in Newby’s company) had laughed a lot. Such were my slender motives for wanting to sit with a glass of burgundy overlooking the Clos de Bèze, though I had never tasted the product of its precious 15 hectares.
Taking the tarred minor road that leads up the hill out of Gevrey into the Bois du Forey, I came to a track running between the topmost vines and the wood, just below the 300 metre contour line. Two or three minutes more brought me to a little grassy recess in the bank that formed both the border of the track and the margin of the wood. “The Grand Crus shelter under the woods of the Montagne de la Combe Grisard, a good barrier against the winds from the north,” notes Serena Sutcliffe of the highest vineyards of Gevrey-Chambertin, in my dog-eared and wine-stained copy of her invaluable Pocket Guide to the Wines of Burgundy. With the north wind sighing in the trees, I gratefully shed my pack, settled myself comfortably, and there above one of the most celebrated of all the Grands Crus ritually poured a little of the Gevrey-Chambertin AC onto the ground. Not ten metres below were the precisely ordered, immaculately tended vines of the Clos de Bèze.
It is not the recommended treatment for any decent wine that it should be translated from cellar to luncheon underneath the consumer’s thermal vest in the course of a purposeful 1200-metre walk; nevertheless, the little burgundy seemed to have taken no harm. It was a trifle too young, I thought, and still a touch too cold; all the same, it was better than drinkable right from the start, and much better half an hour later, and by the time I reflected that half a bottle would have been absurdly too little I began to think also that Serena Sutcliffe’s remark about the top wines of the appellation combining “finesse with power” might not be inappropriate for the humbler ones as well . What a delight it was to sit in that privileged place, watching cloud shadows passing over the burgeoning vines of Grands and Premiers Crus, looking at the map and noting that the good, wide track ran southwards all the way along the edge of the wood and out into the vines, except for the wine villages and the Château du Clos de Vougeot, promising fine, steady walking with not a dwelling (and so probably not a dog) in sight.
Later, I was sitting looking at my map on a low stone wall between the vines of Romanée-Conti and Romanée-St Vivant when a middle-aged man who was driving slowly along the track in a modest Renault stopped to enquire if I needed help. I said that I had been given the address of a certain well-reputed wine-maker in the locality and that I was now trying to find him. What was the wine-maker’s name, the man asked. “Trapet”, I told him. “Well”, he said, “you’ll have no difficulty in tracking him down because he’s talking to you. Put your pack on the back seat and jump in”.
Thus I made the acquaintance of one of the best-known wine-makers of the Côte de Nuits. His car was modest. His wine-making premises, like those of so many others whose names are music to a wine-lover’s ears, would be unlikely to attract so much as a passing glance, nor were they tricked out with any of the refinements so frequently to be found in a business that is only too aware of the value of appearances. There was no rustically elegant, candle-lit tasting cellar gleaming with polished oak and sparkling glass, no poker-worked wooden boxes of wine for VIP guests. There was oak in plenty, the deliciously fragrant new oak of neatly marshalled rows of casks stained purple around the bungs by young wines, but we tasted by electric light, spitting into a plastic bucket. “Violets, perhaps”, Monsieur Trapet replied thoughtfully when I asked him to give his own impressions of the ‘nose’ of this wine or that, “and red berry fruit. Épices, of course. Spices”. Admiring the very beautiful colour (‘robe’) and limpidity of the sample in the glass, I asked how much he filtered. “Very little”, he said. Too much filtration could take the heart out of a wine.
It was the easiest and most agreeable of marches into Nuits-St. Georges thereafter, so that I was already reviewing with satisfaction my 10-mile day on the Côte de Nuits and looking forward to the Côte de Beaune. Nuits-St. Georges only sustained and improved the mood. On a previous visit a year or two before I had stayed grandly as a paying guest in the house of the Comtesse de Loisy, where dinner had started with truffled eggs and the lamb that followed had been accompanied by a superb Nuits-St. Georges from the very distinguished house of Faiveley. Now, I lodged less nobly and chose to have dinner at a hugely busy, ordinary restaurant in the centre of town. The three-course menu cost what one might expect to pay for the soup in London’s West End, and was wholly acceptable. There were house wines at charitable prices, and when the bustling, good-humoured patronne told me, sotto voce, that there was a bottle or two of ‘réserve spéciale’ left if I would like to try it, I gladly accepted and found myself drinking a wine which, although no Richebourg or Romanée-Conti, was far superior to the sort of burgundies that I might normally afford. What exactly was it, I asked. Ah, said the patronne, she couldn’t tell me that, though her husband might know; but at any rate it was from “d’ici quelque part”, somewhere around here. It went wonderfully well with the chicken and chips.
I am sorry to disappoint our eager readers, but ‘Margin’ has unavoidably been marginalised again this weekend. It will be up and running again in a day or two; meanwhile, keep an eye on this space for a seasonable account of a fine spring day among the vineyards of Burgundy.
Going Up Late
The invitation came from Deborah, whom I had met at a point-to-point in Sussex a year or two before and had seen quite a lot of since. Belonging to a Royal Navy family, she had been a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service, a ‘Wren’, and was friends with Guy Spooner, a wartime Commander RNVR, and his wife, Maisie, who also had been a Wren. It was for a weekend on board the sometime torpedo boat which Spooner had commanded with distinction during hostilities, had afterwards acquired from the Admiralty as ‘surplus-to-requirements’, had converted into a pleasure vessel and now kept at Newhaven, on the Sussex Coast. The weekend had gone well and shortly afterwards I was invited to join the same company for a trip to Brittany. That, too, was a success. When engine trouble developed off the Isle de Bréhat, my wholly inexpert help had nevertheless been decisively useful. Added to that, though the Commander was some twelve years my senior and had seen infinitely more – and more hazardous – action than I, he appeared to have the sort of exaggerated respect for my experiences that members of one service often have for those of another.
In the course of conversation during a notably convivial dinner on the last evening my host asked whether I was enjoying myself in my present job. Not much, I said. I was also regretting that after the war I hadn’t gone to university. If not happy with the sort of thing I was doing at present, the Commander enquired, why not go to university now? I seemed to have left it much too late, I said. The period of concessions for ex-servicemen had long passed and neither Oxford nor Cambridge appeared able to offer me any hope. As to that, my host said, it sounded to him as if I ought not to give up too easily. It happened that during the war he had seen quite a lot of a man who was now head of an Oxford college. If I was agreeable, enquiries could be made as to how things currently stood in that particular quarter. Loath to count chickens before they were hatched, I built no castles in the air and told nobody about the Commander’s proposal; then, no more than a week or two later, came a letter with an Oxford postmark.
Dear Mr Buxton,
My friend, Commander Spooner, tells me that you are anxious to attend the university and has asked me for an opinion as to what the chances might be of your being able to do so. As you are already aware, the number of applications for entry to Oxford greatly exceeds the places available, and Worcester College offers no exception to the general rule of difficulty. You would, in any event, be obliged to perform satisfactorily in both the college and university entrance examinations. Nevertheless, provided that you are willing to bear all this in mind, and to risk disappointment, I would be happy to have a talk with you here in the hope of being able to help you in some way or other. If this interests you, I should be obliged if you would telephone my secretary with a view to making a convenient appointment.
The writer ended “Yours sincerely” and signed himself J.C.Masterman.
Journalist and broadcaster Katherine Whitehorne once wrote that some moments in life are so embarrassing as ever afterwards to make one mentally drum one’s feet in order to put the memory of them out of one’s head. In time to come I cringed to remember that at my first sight of it the name of the Provost of Worcester had meant nothing to me, then comforted myself with the thought that his intimate connections with MI5, his chairmanship of the hugely important (some said war-winning) Twenty Committee, which masterminded the brilliantly successful use of double agents, was then far from public knowledge, and that it would be more than 20 years before his famous book, The Double Cross System, would appear after a bitter struggle with the authorities that wanted to prevent its publication. That Guy Spooner had had anything to do with the Provost’s wartime activities was something I did not become aware of until even later. “Seen quite a lot of” had been something of an understatement on the Commander’s part.
Still I did not tell Annabel or anyone else about what was happening as regards Oxford. One day that Autumn, at the end of a terrace overlooking a notably well-tended lawn, a black-painted door in an eighteenth century façade was opened by a tall, ascetic-looking man who showed me into a spacious, high-ceilinged, book-lined room, told me to make myself comfortable and hoped that I would find some tea ‘agreeable’. It was less an invitation than a polite notice of intention. Gesturing that I should occupy the chair that had its back to the door by which I had entered the room, the speaker first pressed a button in the wall near the fireplace, then installed himself in the larger chair facing me, first sitting, then lying back, stretching out his legs, crossing his ankles, resting his elbows on the arms of the chair, his own forearms forming a gable above his middle, his fingers interlocked at the apex.
In certain respects, the Provost gave the impression of being a caricature of a senior don, something of which, I suspected, he was not only conscious, but which he enjoyed. He was not yet sixty, and fit, but, as I was to learn, often affected a little stoop, tended to wear his spectacles far down on his nose, and in conversation, having asked a question, to look quizzically over them at his interlocutor, who was thereby liable to be intimidated. For what seemed an ominously long time he said nothing. I see him still; so steadfastly regarding, so candidly appraising as to induce the conviction that nothing could be hidden from him. Here was a man, I thought, whose impeccable courtesy could not, nor was intended to conceal an unerring and unsparing perspicacity. Tea and toasted teacakes were brought by a white-jacketed butler. Questions touched on school, army, post-war activities, what authors I had most enjoyed as a boy, and since; yet although his interests in the answers seemed intent enough, still I had the feeling that, as a patient may be encouraged to talk about inconsequentialities (pastimes, holidays, current affairs ) by way of distraction from what in reality is the wholly tactile examination that the physician is conducting, so – quiz me as the Provost might, respond as informatively, truthfully and intelligently as I was able – still, the Provost’s concern was less for what I said than the manner in which I said it. Only when at last he asked if I had any particular purpose in mind in seeking a place at the university, and why I had not done so before, did he appear to me truly in quest of enlightenment.
Why the university, and why had I left it so late? Prompted by the earlier exchange with Guy Spooner, I had already asked myself the questions and struggled to formulate coherent answers. The trouble was that, so recently out of the crucible of army service, one tended to think oneself capable of almost anything, whilst being sure of almost nothing. The possibility of Oxford or Cambridge had crossed my mind, but fleetingly. Granted, there had been not a few obstacles, but I had made scarcely even a half-hearted effort to overcome them. Lacking any particular ambition, it had seemed important simply to proceed with being. To the Provost, sensing as I did that anything less than sincerity would be instantly recognised and appropriately evaluated, I said that it had taken me a little while to realise that I wanted to do something more worthwhile than simply getting on in business, and that the university appeared to offer the best chance of finding out what that something might be. Had I any idea as to what subject I wanted to read at the university if I were able to find a place there, the Provost enquired. Diffidently, apologetically, I referred to John Buchan again (I had cited him as one of my favourite boyhood authors), and said that he had made the Law sound an attractive profession.
The Provost was silent for a few seconds, looking at me over his spectacles. Then, unsmiling: “Law is a very narrow discipline, Buxton”. Another thoughtful pause. “But there’s plenty of time for all that”. With this, I afterwards comprehended, a process of investigation had for better or for worse ended and one of something very much like instruction had begun. After conferring with certain of his senior common room colleagues, the Provost said, he would be letting me know as soon as possible if and when the College would be able to offer me a place. As he had already told me, Latin was compulsory for the entrance examination and it might be prudent for me to consult a reputable firm of private tutors, such as Davies’s, with a view to brushing up on the subject. Then there was the matter of money: I ought to come to no conclusions concerning the question until I heard from the Provost again. “Sufficient unto the day…” and so on.
On the train back to London I found myself thinking that at least I had been as honest as it was possible to be. Concerning the only parts of my life to date on which the Provost had questioned me, I had in no way attempted to falsify or embellish the facts. If I had known then what I was to learn only when it no longer mattered the comfort would have been greater, for with few exceptions, and they of small significance, I had told my questioner almost nothing of which he had not already been aware. Annabel was ecstatic. “You’re in”! she exclaimed. And, in response to my doubts about the Latin: “Of course you can do it. It’s simply a matter of mugging up a lot of old stuff about Gaul being divided into three parts and going through masses of past exam papers. You’re in. I know it. You’re in, you’re in, you’re in!”.
More than a year later, on a day early in 1951, it is about 7.30 in the morning in London, NW3. I have washed and shaved but am not yet fully dressed. I have taken tea up to my domestic employer and his wife, stoked the old-fashioned boiler in the kitchen of the 5-bedroomed house, polished a pair of black shoes too big to be mine and am about to have my breakfast, sitting at the kitchen table. That done, I shall wash up my breakfast things, finish dressing, walk the 5 minutes to the tube station and take the Northern Line to Charing Cross. Soon after 9 am I shall be at my desk in Shell Mex House, making pitifully slow progress with the Times crossword, which I don’t much care about anyway, but if I see Annabel later today it is possible, though unlikely, that I shall have completed a word that she has not.
Prudence had indeed been indispensable in my attempt to go up to Oxford: School Certificate had been almost ten years ago and three sessions a week at Davies’s Tutors was expensive. Through the admirable Royal Artillery Association I had got a job in the house of a County Court judge (himself an Oxonian) as boiler and early morning tea boy in return for a room and breakfast. Not only was I saving the cost of my accommodation at the Lensbury Club, I was spending a good deal less on my daily travel. At my interview with the judge and his wife they had expressed certain obvious misgivings, but had said that they admired my motives and that if I was prepared to play the game they too would give it a try. Now, almost a year later, I am a few weeks away from the exam that will decide whether all the effort has been worthwhile.
NEXT FRIDAY, 19 April, The Fading Margin Serial 21: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part Three.
Going Up Late
It is 1948, or thereabouts, in an office overlooking St. Mary Axe in the City of London (if it were still there today, which it is not, I suppose it would be in the shadow of the Gherkin). I am sitting at my desk in the Publicity Department of the Shell Petroleum Company, working on a script for a 16 mm training film, the subject of which is crop spraying. Herbicides are among Shell’s many chemical products and it is at present the chief function of the 16 mm unit to produce films for the users of such products. There will soon be one dealing with the use of bitumen in road-making and another about antifouling paint for the treatment of ships’ hulls.
In contrast to the famous Shell Documentary Film Unit, which works only in 35 mm and is to be found in Shell Mex House, in the Strand, the newly–formed 16 mm unit is obscure and very small, consisting only of my immediate boss, James Binning (a fictional name), myself and a freelance director-cameraman called Eric. I do not get on well with either of them. Binning, who is rising forty, was not in any of the wartime uniformed services and was until recently a schoolmaster, always wears the same thick woollen tie of Cambridge blue (he is a geography graduate of St. Edmund’s College), has aggressively leftish political views and on principle insists on tinkering with everything that I write. Eric is in his fifties; an entrenched crony of Binning, he despises young men who talk the way I do and have held commissions in the services and bitterly resents my querying of his creative claims for expenses and film stock. It will not be long before one of us will be obliged to seek employment elsewhere. There are no prizes for guessing who that will be.
The year before, leaving the demobilisation depot at Woking with a rail pass and a collection of civilian clothes in a cardboard container, I had been about as well-equipped for the future as the lost traveller who is told by the apocryphal Irish peasant that he doesn’t rightly know the best way to get to where the questioner wants to go but wouldn’t start from where they are. In 1947 half-educated young men with respectable service records were ten a penny. Those who knew what they wanted (to be doctors, or dentists, or lawyers, say, or prosperous accountants) had clear ambition and known avenues of advancement to guide them. Those not so equipped were rudderless by comparison. An acquaintance from my time in Iraq had given me an introduction to British Petroleum, who offered me a job in Abadan; but I had seen quite enough of the Gulf for a while. England was where I wanted to be, a precondition which also ruled against my accepting an invitation to attend a Unilever selection process, success in which would again have entailed a posting overseas and might have required me to take a serious interest in ground nuts or palm oil.
Though half-heartedly I went through the motions of looking for a respectable job with fair prospects in a sound institution – putting my name on the books of the Royal Artillery Association employment bureau; reading the Situations Vacant columns of the Telegraph and Times – the truth was that somehow or other (it may well have been those 6th form English essays again) in the past half dozen years I had acquired notions as tenacious as they were nebulous that I might have a bent for some sort of ‘creative’ occupation, as opposed to the hard grind of being an ambitious organisation man. For the moment, there were vague ideas about becoming a film director – a David Lean (Brief Encounter, Great Expectations), or a Carol Reed (The Fallen Idol). Or if not in features, a maker of documentaries – a Robert Flaherty, perhaps, whose Louisiana Story would be his classic of 1948. It did not take me long, however, to discover that it might be easier to pitch a tent on the lawns of Buckingham Palace than to break into the film business. The labour unions that ruled the industry were omnipotent and unyieldingly restrictive. It was not impossible that patience and persistence might have secured a foot in the door, but I was short on both virtues and had only the dregs of my army gratuity to exist on. Memory does not tell how I came across it, but a vacancy for a copywriter in Shell’s expanding Publicity Department seemed to me heaven-sent. Here was the best of both worlds: a ‘creative’ activity in a universally esteemed company in the City of London, with a tolerable salary and (as I learned at my first interview) the possibility of subsidised living at the Lensbury Club, Teddington. When, shortly after my arrival in St. Mary Axe, the scriptwriting opportunity presented itself, it seemed that the winds of good fortune might be in my sails.
That the trio of Binning, Eric and Buxton lasted even as long as it did was thanks not to any improvement in relationships but to the arrival in St. Mary Axe of another Cantabrigian who made nonsense of the vulgar idea that members of Girton College (at that time still exclusively for the female sex) could only be bluestockings. Aged 23, not conventionally pretty but arrestingly attractive, Annabel possessed a personality and a sexual dynamism that electrified the entire department. My first memory of her is a husky voice in the corridor singing Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ (Oklahoma was in its first London year) before she knocked briefly and came into the office to introduce herself. A year later I was to take her to the second London night of Carousel at Drury Lane, and June Is Bustin’ Out All Over entered her repertoire of songs for moments of elation and started on its way to becoming a bittersweet souvenir that has the power to disturb me still.
Annabel had read English at Cambridge and, like me, had visualised in copywriting the opportunity for some sort of literary activity. Like me, she was not long in discovering its limitations. Eagerly recruited by Binning, who ostentatiously caused it to be seen that he regarded the arrival of another Cambridge graduate as an alleviation of his regrettable state of academic isolation in the 16 mm unit office, she was pretentiously dubbed ‘research assistant’ and too often found herself in the library at Shell Chemicals, seeking to understand such matters as the biosynthesis of lipids and the functions of acetal-coenzymes. Being the girl she was, she soon found a solution to the problem. Flattering the especially susceptible Eric (who was fond of boasting that he had made his way in the world without the advantage of any but an elementary education) by an apparently keen interest in cinematography, to my great delight she insinuated herself into our hitherto 2-man location team, among the benefits of which development was the wine which she would contribute to our country picnics where only Eric’s flasks of cold tea and my daring bottles of light ale had been before. In St. Mary Axe, the two of us shared coffee breaks, lunched together in the canteen, exchanged wittily flirtatious poems. Exacerbated by the injudiciously burgeoning rapport, Binning’s compulsion for finding fault with my work became intolerable. “We don’t want to lose you”, said the sympathetic head of Publicity, when at last I sought his adjudication. “I can’t see anything else for you here, but I’m sure they would be glad to have you at Shell Mex House”. Thus, the casual and unportentous announcement that was to determine the course of the rest of my life.
It was an almost wholly benevolent gesture.They no more needed me in the long-established and award-winning documentary film unit in the Strand than divisional ‘B’ Echelon had needed me in Belgium some three or four years before; film trade union restrictions were no less rigorous in Shell Mex House than anywhere else. Little survives in memory of what work I may have done, though I recall the occasional checking of scripts to be used in the recording of commentaries for some of the unit’s films and now and then sitting in on early viewings and making notes of what seemed to me infelicitous departures from the scripted word. There is no recollection of my being responsible for any specific part of the work of the unit or of routinely reporting to any particular individual; it was a strict necessity of my existence that I did not in any significant way trespass upon any of the prerogatives of the industry’s labour unions and threaten the smooth working of the unit. In sum, little more was asked of me than that I should try not to get in anyone’s way. Missed by nobody, I spent a lot of time reading at the public library in Charing Cross Road or browsing in the area’s scores of bookshops. When in the office, evidently busy at my desk, I wrote many a private letter, composed many a facetious piece of verse to send to Annabel and began and aborted many a more ambitious literary endeavour. What, if anything, I seriously thought I was usefully doing with myself; where I imagined it all might be leading; whether or not the lamentable lack of purpose troubled me, I can’t say. Something, I must have supposed, would be bound to turn up.
What turned up was a concatenation of circumstances which seems now to have been indispensable to a master plan. Shell Mex House was only a short walk away from the Temple, and at lunch time on fine days I used often to take sandwiches to picnic somewhere in that enclave of tranquility which lies between the Thames Embankment and the Strand. I liked the well-tended lawns and flower beds behind handsome railings, where in spring and summer engine exhaust fumes could be exchanged for the scents of wisteria, jasmine and new-mown grass. I liked the hidden courtyards, the grand imposing buildings that were the halls and residences, the huddles of humbler premises with their narrow, Dickensian staircases and name boards, the glimpses of industrious solicitors’ clerks or barristers, desks piled high with reference books. I loved and was always moved by the Temple Church with its recumbent effigies of mediaeval knights. In sum, innocent of all commercial clamour and vulgarity, here was a haven of elegant professionalism where, I recalled, John Buchan had had “pleasant chambers” with a view of the river, and according to his memoirs “at night in winter could hear overhead the calling of wild birds in their flight upstream”.
John Buchan! He had been a hero of my adolescence. As a boy, I had read some of his hugely successful novels (The Thirty-Nine Steps, Mr.Standfast, Greenmantle, The Three Hostages, John Macnab) again and again until I knew them almost by heart. As an element of my bias towards Glasgow rather than Durham or Edinburgh universities when choosing a War Office course in 1942, Buchan had in passing already been of crucial influence in my life. Now, quite suddenly, as a curtain rises to reveal a major player occupying centre stage, he became the inspiration for fancies which in that uniquely conducive environment of the Temple, in the vacuum of that essentially footloose time of my career, took instant possession of an imagination as yet barren of ideas for the future, so that it burgeoned with creative fantasies like a desert following the first rains of spring.
Buchan the barrister. Why not Buxton the barrister?! Erstwhile star of school debates, it was no less compelling than it was extravagantly absurd to see myself as a notably successful counsel—a Marshall Hall—returning wigged and gowned, admiring juniors in attendance, to my sherry and view of the river from yet another triumph of advocacy in the Courts of Justice, just across the road. And if Buxton the learned advocate, why not Buxton the best-selling author? Buchan had been published even while he was still an undergraduate at Oxford. By the time he had been called to the Bar he had……..
Oxford! Now, my lunchtime fantasies starring the Inns of Court were exuberantly conflated with those featuring the university whose dark blue I had without any good reason always preferred over the light blue of Cambridge. In a scenario that my mother would have regarded as wholly rational for the winner of English prizes at school, I saw myself capped (not wigged) and gowned in courtyards no less venerable than those of the Temple, passing unhurried hours in mediaeval libraries, sitting at the feet of the sort of luminaries whose lectures were rich in memorable aphorisms (“You must believe in God, in spite of what the clergy say”), eating convivial dinners at long tables in darkly wainscotted dining halls, dons on the dais serene. For the moment there was no coherent desire or recognisable ambition; idle fantasies had not yet taken on the substance even of daydreams. Then Annabel joined me for one of my picnics and everything changed.
To say merely that she had grown on me in the few months since our meeting would be absurd: from the moment that the singing of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ in the corridor had ended and Annabel had come through the door of the office at St. Mary Axe I had known that something of more than trivial interest had burst into my life. Though I greatly missed my almost daily contact with her after moving to Shell Mex House, I made frequent lunchtime visits to the City and we met from time to time for evening drinks at the flat in Chelsea which she shared with three other girls, all graduates, one from Girton, the other two Oxonians, then supper at an affordable bistro before I caught the last train to Teddington and the Shell club. Annabel’s popularity and my restricted resources ensured that such evenings were widely spaced, but they were by far the ones I valued most among my modest but busy social activities. Then one day in May we met at the steps leading up to the Master’s House, close by the Temple Church, found a place in the sun, ate smoked salmon sandwiches and surreptitiously (I was afraid that alcohol might not be allowed in the impeccably ordered Temple gardens) drank cold white wine. For the life of me I can’t remember how Oxford came into the conversation; probably by way of Annabel’s time at Cambridge. However it was, I spoke of Iraq, and Tom Kemp* and how he had urged me to go to the university. When she asked me why I hadn’t gone I tried to explain that, in as little as the idea had occurred to me when I came out of the army, I must have dismissed it as an irrelevance. “What a fool!” said Annabel. “Go now! ”
It was the end of make-believe. Citing Tom Kemp as my mentor, I wrote to Clare, but the college replied that they could see no possibility of a place in the near future. “Try Trinity”, commanded Annabel, whose uncle had been there; but Trinity’s answer was no more encouraging than Clare’s. “Overbooked by Etonians”, said a cynical friend. Blindfolded, I stuck a pin in a list of Oxford colleges and wrote to Exeter, whose response was as kindly as the others, but no more encouraging. Buchan had been at Brasenose, Hilaire Belloc at Balliol; I write to both famous colleges. Both replies further eroded any vestiges of reasonable hope with which I may have begun my quest. “Never, never, never give in”, said Winston Churchill. All the same, I still find it uncomfortable to speculate as to what might have happened if the invitation for Newhaven had not come along.
* See Serial 18
NEXT FRIDAY, 12 April, The Fading Margin Serial 20: Chapter Twelve, Going Up Late, Part Two.