A couple of weeks ago I returned to my old Oxford college for a ‘gaudy’ — posh, Oxford-speak for a reunion. This one was for those of us who came up to Brasenose in 1983, 1984 and 1985. That group includes the Prime Minister but, not surprisingly, he wasn’t there. I imagine he didn’t want to risk being photographed at a black-tie dinner with a bunch of his Oxford pals in the middle of a general election campaign — or maybe he just finds these occasions a bit of a bore.
When I attended my first gaudy about 15 years ago, I assumed that the only people who’d bother to turn up would be those who’d made a success of their lives and they’d spend the entire time bragging about it. In fact, it was much more random than that. The successful and the unsuccessful were mixed up together and if their different career trajectories were a source of tension, it soon disappeared after the first drink. I was expecting my Oxford contemporaries to have become more status-conscious with age, but it wasn’t apparent on that night. It was as if they were able to shed their personal histories and return to a more innocent period in their lives when they still had everything before them.
It was the same on this occasion. The experiences we’d had since leaving Brasenose 30 years ago seemed to vanish in a puff of smoke and we were transported back in time to the mid-1980s. Looking at all the familiar faces sitting in the dining hall, I felt like I was in an Oxford version of Back to the Future. Except in this case the Hollywood special effects wizards had used their magic to make everyone look 30 years older. When I was talking to the people I’d been closest to, I had to suppress the impulse to grab them and pull the pillows out from under their shirts and wipe the ageing make-up from their faces.
This through-the-looking-glass feeling was partly due to everyone reverting to type — falling back into the roles and routines that had defined them 30 years ago. Take the after-dinner speech given by Jim Hawkins, now the headmaster of Harrow. Jim had been part of a group of down-to-earth undergraduates who, after a few pints in the college bar, liked nothing more than to take the mickey out of another group of students known as ‘the left caucus’. Needless to say, the privileged status of these left-wing firebrands, many of whom had been to Eton, was often a source of merriment — and so it proved two weeks ago.
‘Life was not all about dining clubs and carousing,’ said Jim. ‘There was political awareness too: anti-Thatcher demos, the Monday Club visit, the “Why assume I’m a heterosexual” campaign. We even had our own left caucus. Some flirted with it — some embraced the cactus wholeheartedly. Incidentally, it has been good to see so many members of the left caucus at Harrow open mornings in recent years…’
That brought the house down and made me think what a shame it was the Prime Minister wasn’t there. He would have enjoyed that joke.
Afterwards, in the bar, I fell into conversation with some of my old friends and, as I learned what they’d been doing in the intervening 30 years, their present-day selves began to eclipse their student selves. The stories they told were almost all tales of woe — career burnout, divorce, the indescribable horrors of teenage children. No doubt this was partly just good manners, with no one wanting to make anyone else feel bad because they’d had a less happy life than them. But it was also because most of them had genuinely messed up their lives. The striking thing was how much nicer they’d become as a result. Their experiences hadn’t left them embittered, but had enlarged and deepened them, made them more human.
Another thing that took me by surprise was how much sentimental attachment I felt to my old college. Not just to the people I’d been there with and the dons who’d taught us 30 years ago, some of whom were still there. But to the bricks and mortar — the old quadrangle and the porters’ lodge. That’s part of the point of these occasions, of course — to get you to donate to the college fund — and, by golly, it works. A few more gaudies like this one and I’ll be redrafting my will, leaving all my goods and chattels to Brasenose. My children better watch out, particularly during their horrible teenage years.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.