FROM SCHOOL TO UNIVERSITY (AUTOBIOGRAPHY 37)

(The following piece was written in 1967 [apart from the notes in square brackets], which accounts for a slightly immature style. The photo I took from the cupola on  top of the Sheldonian Theatre during my last term at Oxford. It was a different age; single sex colleges and 11 o’clock lock down for a start. Nearly all undergraduates were minors, as in 1967 the age of majority was still 21. Nobody had to pay a penny; your grant covered all your living expenses as well as university fees and left you some pocket-money too. Because we were so well provided for we did not have to think of money at all. There was none of this concentration on future earning potential that you get today, which I regard as a regrettable feature of modern university life. The Oxbridge entrance exam was still the way into those two universities. They ignored your A level results almost entirely. The entrance exam was held in late November which is why interviews were held just before Christmas.

Oxford and Cambridge were more socially diverse then than they have subsequently become. My best friend at college was the son of a welder from Runcorn, and you couldn’t get more working class than that. The dominance of the privately educated in the elite universities is a fact, despite their best efforts to redress the balance,  but it is not the universities’  fault. It has been brought about by the destruction of the grammar schools. The undoubted social inclusiveness of the comprehensive system has been bought at the expense of the bright state educated children who have found it much harder to do well. )

This unusual view of Blackwells in Broad Street was taken from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre. The block cottages to the left, which appear to be ancient, had recently been completely rebuilt.

This unusual view of Blackwells in Broad Street was taken from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre. The block of cottages to the left, which appear to be ancient, had recently been completely rebuilt.

 

 INTERVIEW

Wednesday Dec 13th, 1967. Caught the bus from outside Farfield about 8.20.  Reached Sheringham to find that the next train to Norwich left at 10.25, so I went to see the sea. There were men with adzes -I think that they were adzes-  were chopping away at piles for the sea defences, the groynes or breakwaters. The tide was out and there was a morning mist. At the new train station in Sheringham there was a distressing number of turds on the track.

I had a peep or two at the at the North Norfolk Railway’s stock in the old station. All of it was there, the B12, the two diesel railcars (they looked in very good condition) the J 15 and Gresley Quads. The J15 has had the cladding replaced and has an undercoat of blue on. There is lot still to be done before anything is open to the public. In Sheringham I bought Trevellyan’s Short History of England at Bertram Watts’ bookshop and had breakfast (which I had missed at school) of sausage egg and chips at the Go-Go café.

I left on the warm train and chugged into Norwich at 11.15. I booked a three-day return to London and got on the mainline train. I considered the Times crossword and got 2 clues. Also The Spectator (articles about foot and mouth etc) and got 3 clues in that crossword. I had a snack in the buffet car between Colchester and London. We arrived about 20 minutes to 2.  I thought that the train from Paddington left at 2.15. I got on what  thought was the Circle line but it was the Metropolitan, going south! Then got on the Circle going in the right direction.

Got to Paddington to find the train was leaving at 3.15, an hour later.  I booked a 3 day return to Oxford. Had lunch. I boarded the train, which was leaving from platform 4 not 2 as I had been told, and was lucky to get what must have been about the last free seat. All around me were ex-schoolboys reading books with titles like ‘The Practice of History’. Opposite me was an Etonian, rather a floppy sort of character and heavily accented but a very fluent speaker; a lanky fingered, bejowled and spotty caricature of an Eton boy I decided.

Arrived in Oxford at 4.28 and had time to buy this book after having found Pot Hall [St Peter’s College]. I went off to buy this note-book among other things and was met outside Woolworths (where this book came from) by Sinclair, Keyworth and Lees. [Keyworth and Lees were up with me for interview; Sinclair was a former Gresham’s pupil who was doing post-graduate work at Nuffield College. Now Emeritus Professor of Economics at Birmingham University.] Sinclair was taking them to tea at the Oxford Union and he invited me too. We talked there until half past five, when I had to leave to check in at college.

Dinner was at 7, not much of an improvement on school dinners but it had an extra course. Tomato soup; pork with apple sauce and roast ’taters, Brussels sprouts; trifle. Then went out for drinks. Had many ‘memorable thoughts’ which escape me! I phoned Mum and Dad and got into confusion unlimited with the operator. I gathered enough change to phone Jonny [Jonathan Royds-Jones], and Roger and Charles [the Marshall twins; all three my friends at Farfield] were there too. When I got back the college door was closed but not locked, so I did not have to climb in – though that would have been an experience. (This was at 10.40.) I saw lots of colleges in the dark; tomorrow in daylight? Tomorrow I get an interview at 10.30. I hope I will wake up in time for breakfast at 8.15. It now 11.15 p.m. the previous night. There was more, much more that I intended to record like the drops of moisture on the roof of the gents, the hot dog costing 1/4d for which I handed the fellow only 1d; the nature of J. E Corran (my room holder); the multitude of student magazines -ISIS, OXY-MORON, THE OXFORD FREE PRESS, COVER- to name only the readily memorable.

I had intended to comment on my next door neighbour, the fencer; the porter; my phone call which cost 2/6 – but I have already commented on that, haven’t I? And various travelling thoughts like the maintenance of cottages, the shabby state of the railways, the ban on racing because of foot and mouth and the restrictions we should be prepared to face because of such like disasters. Other interesting things – Britain’s trade gap; seems very unimportant.

Thursday December 14th

Awoken at 7.30, got up at 7.45, breakfast at 8.15 (egg, beans and bacon), snoozed till 10.20. Went for interview (should have been 10.30 but was 10.45), Very pleasant – had Eric Smith (History Tutor) and the Master [Thornton-Duesbury –T.-D.- the Master from 1940, after C. M. Chavasse, the college’s first master; it was his final year]. The room was warm. Then went Christmas shopping in lots of lovely bookshops; Oxford’s the place for books. Now there is lunch at 1 o’clock in Hall, it is upstairs, oak panelled. The residents rooms are furnished, doored, skirting boarded and picture railed in light oak.

We had sausage and mash, cauliflower cheese and ginger pudding. In the corridor I heard two dons discussing wines for dinner. Did I say I had bought books for Christmas presents? I am beginning to wonder about suitability – they’re books I like but will sister Tig like Archy and Mehitabel or my cousin Jill the Wonderful O? In the afternoon I sat by the fire in the JCR  till past 3. It is early closing day in Oxford and I couldn’t get any Aspros for my headache. I had no more to eat till dinner (at 7). It was vegetable soup, steak and kidney pie with carrots and mash and cold caramel. I can definitely say that tonight’s meal was the best yet.

I rang home at 10.30. I am leaving tomorrow. Parkhurst from Mill Hill school said that he has to stay for a further interview. Hard luck on him – he won’t leave London for Southampton till 7 p.m. Still I am off now. It’s been quite a long stay in Oxford for under ten minutes of interview and I wouldn’t want to wait any longer. TD the Master with his bald head and white frieze of hair, dog collar and benign look is just right for the part. The poor old dons are kept busy at interview time – busier at least than I have been.

I am going to be very tired tomorrow when we are going to Bernard Sankey in Hunworth for dinner [i.e back in Norfolk]. Bernard Sankey was our housemaster at Farfield when we first arrived and wants to entertain the leavers. Well that’s about that for today. At least I know now, and didn’t yesterday, that I will be woken up for breakfast. I think otherwise I would never wake up at all. What will it be like to be back at school for another two nights after this? The old path to the Sanatorium [where my friend was Prefect in charge of Farfield’s annexe] and seeing Bill again, and W.O.T.       [W. O. Thomas, the housemaster who followed Bernard Sankey].

After these last few days, essentially post-school days, it will be like going back into the past. The pubs, the ex-schoolboy comrades, and other things have all conspired to make me no longer a schoolboy at heart. I act as if I am never going back. But I am.

In one way though school is freer than life here (my short life here). I can go out and come back well after 12 and think nothing of it. Here the door is locked at 11. I’m leaving school. I couldn’t go back for two more terms, although I think [tutor] Smith would like it if I were to learn some Latin. If I could say that it would improve my chances I feel sure I would take lessons. I am confused at the moment as to whether I want to come here or not. Last night I had this vision of a lighted entrance to a tower, dark buildings a romantic setting and I thought ‘Yes’. But now would I rather go to L.S.E.? [I already had a place at L.S.E.] I’d like it there I’m sure, although in London yesterday I swore that I would always remain a provincial.

Does J. E. Corran [the resident of the room I was in] keep an animal in that locked cupboard? For two nights I have heard scratchings there. I wonder. The Bronco paper in the lavatories is pink at St Peter’s. WHY did they put pegs on the OUTSIDE of the door? This little pad reminds me of one I kept in Czechoslovakia. These memorable periods of life need to be recorded – the memory needs to be jogged. Anyway I have been making myself remember St Peter’s in case I ever come here again. In the past I have always found one’s first impression of a place is unrecognizable by the time of the second. Am I grown up enough now for this to have changed? Surely three days is long enough to get to know one staircase, two trees, some tufty grass and an old Georgian gate house?

St Peter’s College is next door to a girls school, a fact that caused me some concern when I was trying to find the place. The girls have a blue painted bike sheds and there is a lot of weaving on looms going on, the girls shuttling about like nobody’ business. I almost walked into the building on Wednesday thinking it was St Peter’s –it is a stone building and looks rather university-like and the lights were out. Today I can see the weavers at their looms. [Now in 2014 it really IS a part of St Peter’s College.]

If I do get in I will look on these jottings with a charmed but derisory affection – but how will I look at them if I don’t?

Friday December 15th.

Woken later – 7.40, up at 8 o’clock, breakfast at 8.15 of porridge, scrambled egg. I went to the buttery to pay for my drinks at the bar. I had already packed. I walked to the station and got on the train at 8.55. I got to the station as the train did, and got on about 30 seconds before it left. I didn’t hurry, the train and I just happened to coincide. I got in to Paddington about 10, took the tube straight to Liverpool Street where a train to Norwich was standing at the station. I got straight on and it left at 10.30; this time there was about 5 minutes to spare. What a day – everything going right so far, though it could have been a two-hour train; as it is we on a 2½ hr train – we’re an hour out of London and still only at Colchester. I haven’t had a chance to buy a paper yet but I have plenty to read and this to write. Two and a half hours ago I was in Oxford – not bad.

I have just been for a snack at the buffet car. Archy’s Life of Mehitabel is a bit repetitive.

JOSEPH MASON

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