THE FADING MARGIN: serial 20.Posted: April 13, 2013
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.