I was in the attic killing some Taleban on Medal of Honor when Girl interrupted and said: ‘Dad, what’s this?’ What it was was a pile of memorabilia which I’d stuffed into a plastic shopping bag on leaving university and which I’d barely looked at since.
We picked through the contents rapt with wonder. To me it seems like yesterday but this was a window to a world that no longer exists — an Oxford at least as remote from current experience as my Oxford was from the version attended 30 years earlier by all those clever grammar-school boys with their pipes and tweed suits, fresh from doing their National Service. ‘Wow!’ I thought. ‘I’m living history.’
Probably the biggest change has been in communications. In my day, everything happened not via texts, phone or email — which effectively didn’t exist — but through your pigeonhole in the porter’s lodge: summons from your tutor, plaintive letters from your mum hoping you’d soon get in touch, and, most important, party invitations.
There were lots of these in my bag: from the Sunday Club to a Drunk and Disorderly Party at Oriel Square; the Hedonist Club to a Lacustrine Sunset on the Sainsbury Terrace, Worcester College; the Narcoleptics in Christ Church Cathedral Garden; the Keepers of the Plunger, ibid; the Editors of Tributary in the Fellows’ Garden, Magdalen; something ad hoc and scrappy from the legendary performance poet Micalef; etc.
Many of these events required you to wear black tie. Generally, you were expected either to bring a bottle of sparkling white wine or to pay £5 on the door, which would buy you enough cocktails or Bellinis to get so properly sick that you would probably need a ‘tactical grom’ before you retired, so as to avoid the horror of bedspin.
To give you an idea of the going rate for booze in those days, I have the menu from George’s Wine Bar, in Wheatsheaf Yard, next to Christ Church. A Brandy Alexander — which is what we quite often drank, because Anthony Blanche did — cost £1.80; a champagne cocktail (champagne, brandy, Cointreau), £2.75.
This puts into perspective the gobsmacking £21 demanded of me via a note from the secretary of the Arnold and Brackenbury Society in Balliol for a black-tie dinner. Translated into modern money that would leave little change, I suspect, from £150. And for what? The pleasure of hearing the society’s flaxen-haired president deliver a speech to the society’s mascot, a stuffed owl?
God knows how we afforded it. -Actually I do know. We didn’t have to pay tuition fees. Plus our accommodation seems to have been relatively cheap. My bill for Michaelmas term 1984 came to £321.68, including £263.70 for board and lodging and £23 for central heating. Next to this bill, I found some slips for £60 and £70 for my grant (yes, you actually got paid to be a student in those days); plus an application — completed but never sent — to Oxford City Council for a rent allowance. I never had to do paid work in vacations, let alone during term-time. Indeed, in the holidays, you were actually allowed to sign on the dole and claim unemployment benefit. I didn’t but lots of my contemporaries did.
It makes us sound like a bunch of horribly spoilt brats, which I expect we were, to a degree. There’s a lovely set of photos I have of some of us enjoying a champagne picnic, pretty girls and handsome chaps, all a bit squiffy, clearly without a care in the world — as is the way when you know without really thinking about it that the future owes you a living. The florid-faced chap in the cricket sweater, I note, did particularly well for himself.
But we did work. I remember visiting friends in Bristol and being appalled by how little they had to write. In English at Oxford we usually had to do two lengthy essays a week that required much thought, effort and background reading — or you’d be shredded mercilessly in your tutorial.
Do the kids work harder today? Almost definitely, I would have thought, because the competition is stiffer and the price of failure (when you’ve racked up so much debt and when the jobs market is so tough) higher. A contemporary of mine popped into the Bodleian Library the other day for old times’ sake and found it so packed with earnest little spods beavering away (‘It wasn’t even exam season,’ said my friend, appalled) that she couldn’t get a seat. What this doesn’t necessarily mean is that standards are higher. Since I left, education has been so dumbed down that school-leavers barely have the concentration to read a whole book, where they’ve been taught to appreciate literature only in gobbets of ‘text’, and where — especially with languages ancient or modern — the first year is spent on basics that would formerly have been covered at school.
Also, undergraduates are much more cosseted these days. Their parents — instead of being barely tolerated providers of the occasional lunch at the Elizabeth — now lurk anxiously in the wings, monitoring progress, available for comfort or rescue at the drop of a hat, as if university were the same as school. The authorities, meanwhile, now treat rancid, spotty students with the kind of fawning respect a five-star hotel manager might accord a tricky oligarch.
My Oxford would never have tolerated stuff like that Rhodes Must Fall nonsense. You were an independent adult, heir to an intellectual tradition going back to the Middle Ages, and expected to behave with the requisite self-discipline and think with the appropriate rigour — or, quite rightly, face the consequences. Occasionally, going back, I see glimmers of glories past. But only a few. Jesus, what a bunch of whiny, politically correct, joyless, overindulged, sex-drugs-and-rock’n’roll-free, workaholic milksops.