In the October sunshine I have been watching the academic year’s new debtors unloading their electronic possessions from the cars of mothers with hair in 50 shades of grey. After nearly 40 years of teaching in Oxford, I am enraged that the undergraduates have been rebranded. They are now ‘consumers’ and from their first day they are being saddled with debt at a high commercial rate of interest, piling onto the capital sum they also owe. Not one of us has had the chance to vote on this mean-spirited reform. Unlike the vice chancellors and David Willetts, I live daily with the debtors at ground level. When consulted, more than half of them say they will emigrate rather than repay. Otherwise, they are condemned to a nine per cent rate of surcharge on their income tax every year for the next 30 years. The coalition will lose every marginal seat in a university town, including fickle Oxford, and most of the votes of intelligent people between the ages of 18 and 23. I went to bed in May 2010 thinking that at last we had a moderate Conservative government of the type I have pined for all my adult life. Instead we got callow wreckers.
Not that my university has ever been a model of generosity. Over dinner in Brooks’s club I learned from a graduate of 1940 that the wartime route to an MA was a year of study in Oxford, then two years in the forces. When he wrote to the stay-at-home senior tutor of my college to ask for his MA after surviving front-line shelling until 1943, he was told he could have it — if he paid the two years of college dues he had incurred in absence.
I left the fresh-faced debtors so as to attend a dinner with former fox-hunting friends. I was given a pang of nostalgia by the sight of an empty horsebox in the courtyard. Its doors were open and lights on, as if the occupants had just returned from a late-night hunt. Naturally they had only been following a trail. The one guest without hunting experience was Michael Heseltine, but he looked rejuvenated. He told me in compelling fashion about his plans to transform the relationship between central and local government funding. For the first time, a Conservative can express a clear view on how to create jobs and get things moving. Just you wait. He is sitting on a pack of aces.
On Saturday I saw my first-ever bit of Wagner’s Ring. When I was an 18-year-old gardener in Munich’s Botanical Garden, my blonde Brünnhilde of a hay-raking girlfriend used to call me her ‘richtige Siegfried’. Now I have seen it I am not so sure. My most brilliant German pupil last year, the son of a Munich carpenter, sent me a replacement pair of lederhosen to recapture my lost youth. Should I have worn them to the stalls in Covent Garden for Siegfried? They would have been a far better costume than the boiler suits which the director Keith Warner imposed on the opera. My immensely generous host sustained me in the first interval by telling me that she had once been serenaded by the great landscape gardener Burle Marx and his brother at the piano in Brazil. In the next act I pined for a forest designed by Burle, the greatest Marx of the past century. In the next interval she told me that at college in South California she had dated one of the Brothers from the film of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He would have outclassed the production’s lumbering crew-cutted Siegfried. Unlike Siegfried, none of the Seven Brothers would have recoiled in fear on first seeing a lady’s breasts. I loved the plot, especially when Wotan decides to bring the old world down around his ears. I am damned if my world will ever be doomed.
Back in Oxford massive resentment is brewing round the abuse of our former treasure, the Bodleian Library. The reading rooms have been turned upside down. The entire modern history library has been emptied and given to an Institute of the Future without significance for Oxford’s teaching mission. Research now means tracking books whose placing we once knew by heart. It is no use the librarian telling us she ‘shares our pain’. She has presided over a collapse in front-line research all summer, the prelude to a terrifying revolt this coming year. At one point the entire works of Galen were sent off to Swindon because a shelver thought them marginal to the study of the ancient world.
Before bedtime, I have been reading the fourth-century Christian Ausonius and his neglected Latin poems, of which the one on the river Moselle is only the most famous. ‘There are three of us in one bed,’ he begins an epigram, and explains how the three, all men, manage to do so much to one another. I am very surprised that he is not a front-runner to be Archbishop of Canterbury. In later life he was made a consul by his former pupil, by then the Emperor. I am living in hope. If one of my up-and-coming Tory pupils does the same to me, there will be smiles all over those indebted students’ faces. I will slash Lord Browne’s reforms with my fragment of Notung, the richtige Siegfried’s sword, and free the young, in old Tory style, ‘at a stroke’.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 20 October 2012