It was the call I’d been dreading. Roger Cashmore, the Principal of Brasenose College, phoned to ask whether I would be willing to give a speech on behalf of the alumni at the College Gaudy. It was the 25th anniversary of the class that had matriculated in 1983 and I had already RSVPd. How was I going to wriggle out of it?
The reason for my reluctance, obviously, is that it would provoke a tidal wave of resentment on the part of my contemporaries. Thinking about the moment when I got up to make the speech, I could already feel the gamma rays of hatred shooting out of their eyes. Who does that c*** think he is? What the f*** has he achieved? He’s just a bloody self-publicist.
‘You’d be doing me a huge favour,’ said Professor Cashmore.
‘Er, well, all right then,’ I said.
I did have one card up my sleeve. I originally applied to Brasenose because the admissions tutor at the time, Harry Judge, had introduced a special scheme to encourage people who weren’t ‘conventional Oxbridge material’ to apply to read PPE. I certainly fell into that category. I failed all my O-levels first time round and, after retaking, ended up with four Cs and a grade one in CSE Drama. After a gruelling interview, the College made me an offer of three Bs at A-level — possibly the lowest conditional offer it had ever issued.
Having been thrown this lifeline, I made a gargantuan effort and managed to get two Bs and a C. I thought that was that, but I received a photocopied letter from the College secretary that began: ‘I am pleased to know that you will be coming up to Brasenose this October…’ Admittedly, it was not addressed to me personally, but the clear implication was that I had got in.
I was cock-a-hoop and went round telling everybody. It wasn’t until the following week, when I received a letter from the admissions tutor himself, that I was brought back down to earth. ‘Dear Mr Young,’ it began. ‘I am very sorry that the College has not been able to confirm its conditional offer of a place on the reasonable condition of three grade Bs.’
Clearly, the first letter was a mistake, but my father insisted on calling up Harry Judge to ask what was going on. Incredibly, he happened to be in a meeting with the PPE tutors at the time and, after a bit of back and forth — my father distinctly heard the phrase ‘bit of a balls up’ — they decided to offer me a place.
Luckily, I have kept both letters and when the moment came to get up on my hind legs at the College Gaudy I produced them with a flourish and told the story. I had another bit of ammo, too. The Principal told me beforehand that this wasn’t the first time the College secretary had made a mistake along these lines. In the 1950s, Brasenose advertised for the position of chaplain and two brothers applied, both by the name of Styler. After several interviews, the Fellows decided to offer it to one of the brothers, but the College secretary sent the job offer to the wrong Styler. He duly accepted and — poetic irony — went on to become the admissions tutor.
I knew these two tidbits wouldn’t be enough to save me from the wrath of my peers, so I resorted to the only measure available in the circumstances: I made a string of irreverent jokes about David Cameron. ‘Dave’ was two years below me at Brasenose, also studying PPE, and I told the story of the only time I’ve bumped into him since.
It was at the Daily Telegraph’s Great Britons awards in 2006 and Cameron was the keynote speaker. After he stepped off the stage, to rapturous applause, I caught his eye and he made a beeline for my table. ‘Probably going to tell me how much he enjoyed my book,’ I said to my wife.
In fact, he had a different purpose in mind. ‘I just thought you ought to know that Brasenose has made me an Honorary Fellow,’ he said, before disappearing into the crowd.
That brought the house down — I had succeeded in identifying the one old boy who provokes even more hostility than me — and I followed up with my invented explanation for this strange honorarium. Clearly, the College had been intending to offer an Honorary Fellowship to the distinguished nuclear physicist David Bartholomew Cameron, but the College secretary sent the letter to the wrong address by mistake.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.