THE FADING MARGIN: serial 22Posted: May 8, 2013
Going Up Late
My pleasure at the publication of my piece in The Spectator far outweighed the disappointment of seeing it pedestrianly entitled Going Up Late, instead of the (as I thought) cleverly punning Getting Up Late that I had been so pleased with. In time to come I was to learn that editors do not thank writers for gratuitously submitting titles to their own contributions. Meanwhile, I basked in a brief sunsplash of glory. It was a satisfaction, I suspect, that would have been much modified if I could have heard the comments of my elders and betters. Sententious might have been too harsh a judgement, but were the sentiments expressed a suspicion too self-satisfied, a trifle too virtuous? I present it again in these present pages because, for all its faults (Oscar Wilde might have said it was not the least of them) it was written with sincerity and faithfully conveys the attitude of mind with which I not only approached the university but also spent my time there.
As I suppose it to be in all great centres of learning, the Oxford that I knew embraced numerous loosely delineated social enclaves (“sets” or “cliques” would be pejorative and wholly misleading terms), not self-consciously aware of their particular identities, not defined by any coherent criteria or regulated by any codifiable qualifications for membership, but nonetheless individually recognizable. The nucleus of the one in which I moved consisted of fewer than half a dozen members of my own college together with perhaps as many from other colleges. The great majority of those who comprised it had much in common. They came from at least comfortably monied backgrounds in which —not arrogantly, not as of a perceived right, but as a customary stage in a person’s normal progression from birth to adult independence— higher education at the university (which in mid-20th century was still to say Oxford or Cambridge) was more or less taken for granted. Not to have been at one or the other would have constituted a considerable aberration. With rare exceptions, their upbringing had been based upon that expectation. Their 6th form curricula had been devised to that end.
I was six or seven years older than all of them and apart from having been to a minor public school (in the scholastic hierarchy Eton was at the top, the ISC not far from the bottom) shared almost none of their conventional middle class characteristics. For me, Oxford was not the fulfilment of orthodox expectations, a step towards the realisation of practical ambitions, a means to the achievement of material success. It was no more than a fancy that I alone had concocted and was now enacting. Small wonder that I was never wholly to be free of an awareness of being the odd man out. At first a sort of wary formality appeared to condition our exchanges; but my history tutor in college, who was only a year older than I, had been in tanks and Normandy in the summer of 1944 and I imagine that it was through him (two or three of my closest friends in college were also reading history) that it came generally to be known that I also had served there. However it was, I soon became aware that a subtle shift had occurred in my relationship with my fellow undergraduates. What might have been diagnosed as a certain reserve seemed to have been ousted in favour of the unthinking acceptance to be expected among equals. It was as if I had been forgiven for my unfortunate peculiarities of age and experience and been accorded something like a bemused respect.
If a single over-simplification of our compatibility had to be offered the best might be that we tended to be amused by the same things. Not a man among us was by nature frivolous, but it was almost as if it would have been considered bad form to be anything but light-hearted. Though they seldom wore the universally famous old school tie which consists of a narrow light blue diagonal stripe on a black background, several of our number were entitled to do so and I have sometimes wondered whether our aversion to earnestness was an infectious, particularly Etonian thing. To see it carried to the nth – and on occasions tiresome – degree one cannot do better than to read Brazilian Adventure, One’s Company and News from Tartary, the hugely entertaining early works of Peter Fleming —Eton and Christ Church College, Oxford— in which he effectively apologises for taking anything seriously’.
Besides myself, most of the others had done their national service, almost all with commissions in the Rifle Brigade, the Brigade of Guards or the Royal Artillery, something that had undoubtedly meant much to all of them (two had seen active service in Korea) but was not publicly so acknowledged. Rare reminiscences of army days were invariably about some ludicrous military catastrophe or other: an uncontrollable fit of sneezing when trooping the colour; the battery of guns arriving on the firing ranges at Sennybridge only to find that their ammunition consisted of coloured smoke, not high explosive; the convoy intended for Swanley in Kent directed instead to Swansea in Wales. I was never encouraged to talk about my own time in uniform. Though it was known that I had seen some of danger’s wartime faces I was never questioned about such encounters and we never talked about the war; to have done so would have been to break a spell; to have identified a difference far greater than age; to have acknowledged an unbridgeable gulf.
It is, perhaps, a clue to the character of this nebulous fraternity that it did not own to a single member of the Bullingdon*, nor in any respect conform to the largely fictional idea of an unjustly privileged elite. We wined and dined respectably; sometimes elegantly. We drank mostly in moderation with occasional excesses when striving to make the most-acclaimed (and in the early fifties fashionable) dry martinis. Even then, we trashed no restaurants or caused any kind of public disturbance. There was no vomiting through college windows à la Brideshead Revisited, no crying on staircases. And no teddy bears. To a man, nobody I knew, or nobody I regarded as an Oxford friend, would have been seen dead with a stereotypical decadent from the pen of an Aubrey Beardsley or Evelyn Waugh.
Everybody worked, some harder than others; a few (notably those aiming for the Foreign Office exam) with conspicuous diligence. Of the plausible excuses for the marginal 3rd class honours with which I eventually came down from the university the best is possibly the necessity of generating income in the vacations instead of reading for my degree. I canvassed for new members of the Conservative Party, a deeply dispiriting exercise that convinced me that I could never be a successful sales person or politician. I translated texts from French to English for a Brussels advertising agency. “Jamais deux sans trois” was a phrase that occurred in one piece of copy, which ingeniously (as I thought) I rendered as “It never rains but it pours”. The account director thought otherwise and withheld payment. It was never easy money. Masquerading at a Newmarket house party as a footman for an exclusive domestic servants bureau, I was recognised by one of the titled guests whom I had deeply offended in my time as an ADC and denounced to her hostess as an imposter. Chauffeuring a rich but singularly unprepossessing 60-year-old and her octogenarian mother from London to Nice, I was confronted by the daughter with a choice between being tactilely “more friendly” or being abandoned in Beaune. I settled for dinner alone in the capital of Burgundy and the train home. A moment of inattention on the bottling line of a famous wine firm whose slogan for their best-selling sherry was “A Gracious Welcome for your Friends” resulted in a batch of some 500 bottles emerging with egregiously less charm than the vintners claimed and their monitors demanded. My Christmas bonus was not paid.
Nor was my academic performance all plain sailing. In a battered box file, coming apart at the sides, untidily and inaccurately labeled “OXFORD & AFTER”, I have found a buff-coloured postcard. Printed in faded red on one side are both an indecipherable coat of arms and a 2p postage stamp bearing the head of King George VI. The postmark reads “OXFORD 5.15PM 28 MCH 1952”. In my own handwriting, the card is addressed to me in London. The reverse is rubber-stamped EXAMINATION SCHOOLS, OXFORD. Centred in the otherwise blank message space, written in ink by a hand far neater than my own, is one word: Failed. Known colloquially as “Prelims”, the exam in question had been taken by me a week or two earlier. Looking for “Prelims” on Google today, I find: At the University of Oxford, prelims are a first set of examinations, normally during the first half of the degree course for some courses … (and) must be passed in order to progress to the final years of courses, known as the Final Honour Schools. I had thus been required to sit Prelims at the end of the Hilary term, 1952. The Latin paper had been my Waterloo, with the consequence that I had been “rusticated” (expelled) for the Trinity term, but given the statutory chance of sitting the examination again before Michaelmas. It was back to intensive tuition at Davies’s; back to boots, boiler and best Darjeeling tips. In September I sat Prelims again, and passed. Now, Oxford could be resumed. I had lost statutory undergraduate time and would therefore be obliged to stay on at the university for another term after my finals in order to qualify for matriculation and my degree. In 1952 the fact seemed catastrophic, but the time was to come when I saw that my failure in Prelims had been one of the most benevolent ill winds that had ever blown my way,
The Bullingdon. Social club notorious for its loutish excesses.