THE FADING MARGIN: serial 21.Posted: April 26, 2013
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.