Rachel Johnson

The oldest fresher in town

Rachel Johnson talks to the Hon. Sir Oliver Bury Popplewell, 76 and sprightly with it, who is reading PPE at Oxford

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He may have caught your eye at the Freshers’ Fair for first-year undergraduates, held in the examination schools on the High Street. He was signing up for the rugger club and the law society; he was a tall, athletic student wearing a navy jersey, chinos and black loafers. Or he may have caught your eye elsewhere over the past three decades, for the tall figure at the Freshers’ Fair was none other than the Hon. Sir Oliver Bury Popplewell, the High Court judge who pretended ignorance of what Linford Christie was packing in his ‘lunchbox’, and decided that Jonathan Aitken’s sword of truth was not so simple after all.

Yes, believe it or not, this pillar of the establishment, a man whose life has been like an effortless golden thread linking Charterhouse to Cambridge to the Bar to the Bench to the presidency of the MMC (Monopolies and Mergers Commission); a man who has four strapping sons and a dozen grandchildren; this man has now become an undergraduate at Oxford, where he is reading PPE at Harris Manchester College on Mansfield Road, just across the road from the department of geography and environment. He is 76 and will be 79 when he graduates, old even by the standards of Harris Manchester, where undergraduates have to be at least 21 to apply.

So Justice Popplecarrot, as Private Eye inevitably christened him, has come up, to be the oldest undergraduate the ancient university has ever matriculated, and when I go to his rooms I find myself thoroughly charmed. So charmed that I abandon my planned little joke about whether that was a lunchbox in his pocket or was he just pleased to see me, because Oliver, as I have been asked to call him, offers me sherry from a tumbler and proudly shows me the kitchenette and bathroom he shares with another undergraduate, and I somehow could nothing common do or mean, etc., in this former Justice’s memorable presence.

Popplewell lives and works in a simply furnished small study-bedroom with bare cream walls. There is a desk, upon which his essay on the law of diminishing returns awaits his attention for Wednesday’s tutorial on micro-economics, along with a battered paperback called Keynes and After; a laptop with a ‘magical bit of kit’ enabling him to dictate his essays just as he dictated his judgments to his trusty clerk; there is a bed bumpily spread with a candlewick counterpane in a cosy shade of plum; a television which does not work; a hanging-cupboard, and a window giving out on to the quad and the chapel, its Burne-Jones stained-glass windows gleaming on this golden Oxford afternoon in the third week of Michaelmas term.

On the way down I have read his memoirs, called Benchmark, and I commend them to anyone who, as I do, likes to read of distinguished men who lead honest and interesting lives, but are not too pompous to recall the time that they drank the last of the milk during rationing (the fiasco of the half-pint of milk is on page 54) or the time they went to France and were disgusted to discover that an éclair is filled not with Jersey cream but crème p