Peter Oborne

Decline and fall of the Hooray Henry

Peter Oborne on why undergraduates dunked Andrew Marr in a Cambridge pond, and why such an outrage would not be perpetrated today

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TWENTY-FIVE years on, Andrew Marr recollects the episode well but insists that it was all down to mistaken identity. They were after the Jews, he claims, and they got me as second best. Marr's account is at any rate open to challenge. There was plenty about the future political editor of the BBC which a Cambridge University undergraduate dining club on its mettle would have found both appetising and provocative.

He affected a little goatee beard at the time. That could easily have done the trick on its own. So might his little flat cap, carefully modelled on photographs of Lenin in exile. The little denim bag he swung jauntily over his shoulders, a fashion statement on the hard Left in the late 1970s, must also be taken into account. If it displayed, as it frequently did, the latest issue of the Socialist Organiser, a Trotskyite rag, then that would have been conclusive.

Marr, in short, was a walking target. There is no need to invoke anti-Semitism - no more in evidence in Cambridge undergraduate circles a generation ago than it is today - to explain why one chilly Cambridge evening, with the wind howling straight from Siberia, Marr was thrown head first into the Pembroke College pond.

The dunking of Andrew Marr was, in short, one of those innocent events that have long been part of English university life. For centuries, earnest students have been debagged, defenestrated, thrown into rivers, and on numerous occasions had the contents of their rooms wrecked by high-spirited university bloods. It is a practice that most people, especially women, find silly and baffling; and it is dying. Perhaps it is to do with the gentler temper of the undergraduates; perhaps it is caused by paranoia, during the current Labour-inspired Kulturkampf over admissions, about anything that smacks of campus elitism. But there seems no place, these days, for the cult of the hoorayish prank.

The classic literary account occurs in the opening chapter of Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall, first published in 1928. Indeed, Andrew Marr bears certain mainly ideological resemblances to Paul Pennyfeather, Waugh's pitifully conscientious undergraduate who smoked three ounces of tobacco a week - John Cotton, medium - drank a pint and a half of beer a day, and liked to attend lectures about the League of Nations with his friend Potts.

Pennyfeather's misfortune was to encounter the Bollinger on its night out: the resultant debagging set him off on his erratic path from virtue. The Bollinger, like the Bullingdon upon which it was partly modelled, used to have periods of abeyance 'because quite often the club was suspended for some years after each meeting'. During one period in the mid 1960s when the Bullingdon was banned from the City of Oxford, the club set up a tent in the neighbouring countryside, going to the lengths of paying an internationally famous string quartet to provide music to accompany dinner. Needless to say, every single one of the musical instruments was smashed to matchwood, including a Stradivarius.

Every university generation, until recently, has had comparable stories of undergraduate high spirits. In the 1970s Damian Green, now a member of the shadow Cabinet, tipped by some as future leader of the Conservative party, attended Balliol College, Oxford. He was invited to a guest night at Magdalen. After dinner, Green was deposited, black tie and all, in the river. His assailants included the Tory MP Dominic Grieve and Tim Clarke, now the chief executive of Six Continents and at the centre of a high-profile takeover battle.

Though amusing for Green's assailants - in all there were about a dozen of them - Green himself did not immediately get the joke. For one thing he was pushed into a very shallow stretch of water - not more than three inches deep, he now says. For another, he narrowly missed being impaled on a set of sharp iron railings. When sobriety returned, Grieve, normally the most mild-mannered of individuals, was distraught, and for days afterwards devoted himself to cosseting and comforting his victim.

Political motivation surely played its part in the humiliations of both Marr and Green. Green then, as now, stood on the wet side - metaphorically as well as literally - of the Conservative party. Magdalen enjoyed a hearty reputation. There may well have been a body of opinion, in those far-off Thatcherite days, that Green deserved to be punished for his heterodox opinions. But the case of Damian Green's shadow Cabinet colleague Bernard Jenkin cannot be analysed in this way. It was hard to find anyone at all, not even the college porter, who stood to the right of the young Jenkin - now the staunchest ally of Iain Duncan Smith - when he was up at Corpus Christi, Cambridge.

The collective decision of Corpus undergraduates to pour a quarter hundredweight of custard over Jenkin was reached without one dissenting voice being raised. Though it is hard to be certain after the lapse of two decades, Jenkin was probably being punished for his incorrigible bumptiousness, a characteristic which has by no means entirely deserted him. Jenkin took it all in good part, and indeed attributed his subsequent success in university election contests to the sympathy vote that he generated. Good humour was also the reaction of Peter Luff, then a svelte undergraduate at Jesus, Cambridge, now a respected member of the Conservative party whips office, when he was set upon and debagged late one night by his college boat club.

This imperviousness in the face of adversity was also displayed by Trelawny Williams, now a City fund-manager, after he was stripped naked at his friend James Wellesley-Wesley's Paris stag night. He found his way to his car and made to drive back to the Insead business school, where he was studying. Disaster struck when Williams was obliged to stop at a garage to fill up with petrol. Showing great resourcefulness, he converted a copy of the Figaro he found on the back seat into a kilt, and passed everything off in style. Monty Don, now the universally admired presenter of Gardeners' World, showed comparable phlegm when he was carried head first out of a party thrown by a college aesthete. The perpetrators included Nicholas Shakespeare, the distinguished novelist, and the Tory MP Owen Paterson.

It cannot be claimed that the disc jockey Tony Blackburn showed the same good temper when accosted by a group of Oxford University hearties at the Notting Hill restaurant La Paesana, West London. According to subsequent newspaper reports, the undergraduates, gathered to celebrate the 20th birthday of Viscount Althorp, ran wild. 'I went into the restaurant with a girlfriend for a quiet meal,' Blackburn complained afterwards to Sun reporter Stuart Higgins. 'Then I got the message that Althorp and co. wanted to get my trousers off. I thought it was all very odd, but the waiters stepped in and asked them to return to their tables. There was a lot of shouting and suddenly a rubber plant hurtled across the room and landed in somebody's meal. A few minutes later another little mob of them came up the stairs, apparently after my trousers again.'

That was almost 20 years ago. It is hard, frankly, to imagine that today's undergraduates would behave with such discourtesy, even towards a superannuated disc jockey.

So far this article has concentrated on the victims of this high-spirited hooliganism. And it has to be said that they emerge, at first glance, as the more attractive characters: punished for all kinds of innocent, even commendable, mistakes - going to the wrong school, not fitting in, being left-wing, etc. By contrast, the perpetrators act in a braying pack, the false bravado failing by a wide margin to conceal a collective moral cowardice. There is in addition every reason to speculate that these rituals contain a subconscious sexual element, something that was exploited by Anthony Blanche in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisit ed (Waugh returned again and again to scenes of Oxford exuberance). Blanche baffled his persecutors by telling them: 'Dear sweet clodhoppers, if you knew anything of sexual psychology, you would know that nothing would give me keener pleasure than to be manhandled by you meaty boys.'

Not quite all the aggressors fall into Waugh's category of hearty. Tony Blair's press adviser, Alastair Campbell, inchoately on the Left while at Cambridge, refused to be intimidated by public-school bullies. He is remembered for launching counter-offensive operations, lying in wait for stray Old Etonians, army officers, or members of the Trinity Foot Beagles, to whom he is said by contemporaries to have felt an especial enmity. Regrettably, in the absence of hard evidence, it is impossible to assert with confidence whether Campbell's one-man guerrilla war met with success.

If you want the epitome of all that Campbell railed against, consider Henry Bellingham, now the upright and irreproachable MP for North West Norfolk. How Bellingham failed to be sent down from Cambridge during his spectacular sojourn there in the mid 1970s remains one of life's mysteries. The story of how Bellingham, accompanied by two or three other Magdalene College bloods, entered the room of their college contemporary Christopher Greenwood - who has since risen to become a brilliant silk and Professor of International Law at the LSE - is mild by Bellingham's heroic standards, but nevertheless of relevance here. 'I rather think that we may have gone to his room late one night,' recalls Bellingham today. 'And he may well have ended up without his clothes.' Asked to account for this act of aggression, Bellingham pauses for a moment. 'He had a beard. That was it.' This incident is made more complicated by the fact that Greenwood emphatically denies it took place. 'I do not remember it. And it is the sort of thing that I would have remembered. Henry must be confusing me with someone else,' he insists.

One of the most unremarked social changes of the last 20 years has been the ending of the high jinks that have been an inevitable concomitant of English university life for the last several hundred years. At Cambridge, the Pitt Club has been consumed by the local Pizza Express. At Oxford, the Bullingdon is in sad decline. For much of the last decade it has been abandoned through lack of interest. The Assassins, at Oxford, is thought to have closed. So has the Oscar Wilde - undergraduates would bar their doors and lay in defensive weaponry against the moment this fearsome dining club sallied forth. This week, in another indication of new attitudes, alcohol was banned at St Edmund Hall. The arrival of women, and the moderation of manners, has doubtless helped bring about change. Many will regard the end of boorish activity among undergraduates as unreservedly a good thing.

But something has been lost. The revelry which deposited Marr in the Pembroke pond has ancient antecedents. It can be traced back to the Greek rout or komos, when gangs of youths would roam the streets in search of their opponents in love or politics, of which the most famous example was the Mutilation of the Herms, when Alcibiades and his friends went on the rampage in Athens ahead of the Sicilian expedition. Such bands of youths went on to fight together, and it may be that in a post-militarist age there is no call for this kind of juvenile bonding. In the chippy era of Gordon Brown and the Access Regulator, it may be that universities are cracking down harder on such outrages, on the grounds that they put off applicants from non-hoorayish schools. Perhaps it is just that students are fed up with aping characters from Evelyn Waugh.

It is no coincidence that the centre of this kind of riotous behaviour in the second half of the last century was Magdalene College, Cambridge, where the senior tutor was T.E.B. Howarth, who has valid but overlooked claims to be regarded as Britain's greatest postwar educationist. A brave man, Howarth secured an MC during the war, and acted as personal liaison officer to Montgomery. Though academically austere, he envisaged a world which, in the words of his pupil James Stourton, was led by lower seconds, ably assisted by first-class degrees. He fully recognised the need to train a breed of fearless young men, dedicated to the service of their country. In the event of battle, wrote Howarth on the young Henry Bellingham's report, this man will definitely lead the first tank in, and he will be the first to be killed.