FINALS (Autobiography 44)


It’s what you have been working towards for three years of your life, or in a sense since you began at your first school, so it is a stressful experience. There is absolutely nothing laid back about it. You are dressed in your sub fusc, a dark grey suit with white bow tie, with your mortar board and commoner’s gown. It is a rather ridiculous way to clothe yourself (especially the white bow tie), but a recent referendum among undergraduates voted decisively to keep it. You queue up in the High to troop into the Examination Schools. It is the first exam you have sat since Prelims in your first term, so in a way you are lucky. (History Prelims included papers in Latin and French.) The exam took place near the Botanical Gardens, one of my favourite haunts in the Spring and Summer. Outside exam time the Examination Schools were used for lectures.

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 Blackwell’s in Broad Street was taken from the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre in my final  year, 1971.

Compared with what I know now, my knowledge was very limited, but that is only to be expected. After more than 40 years of accumulating facts I should know rather more than I did aged 22. Anyway, the exam was intended not so much to test my powers of memory as my essay writing ability and my originality of thought. What my tutor was always after in essay writing was a new and convincing approach to a subject, and that was a very hard thing to achieve. I was still learning the trade, but basic essay writing I have always found quite easy. But in the real world, outside the university history school, who wants to read an essay?

My Finals ran from the 2nd to the 8th June 1971, a week with a weekend break in the middle. It covered a lot of history. I began on Wednesday morning with the Anglo-Saxon Invasion of Britain and by the time I broke off for lunch (which I had back in college in the buttery) I had reached King John. In the five days I sat in Schools I covered great swathes of English history including the Wars of the Roses, the Tudors, the Commonwealth, the Industrial Revolution right up to Queen Victoria’s reign. I could have gone right up to the Second World War had I wished. My best essay was on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in my opinion at least. Needless to say I have forgotten why I though it was so good. As far as foreign history is concerned my essays were on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.

My special paper was on English Baroque Architecture, a brief period which covers 1660 to about 1725, when Baroque went out of fashion and was replaced by the Palladian style. Wren of course is the most famous architect of the English Baroque but Hawksmoor was the most original. Of all the subjects I studied during my three years at Oxford I enjoyed architectural history the most. The fact that the fine example of the late Baroque, the Radcliffe Camera, housed the history reading room of the Bodleian library only added to my appreciation. Some people say it is the finest example of Baroque in England, although it has to compete with Blenheim Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. My tutor for this subject was Howard Colvin (later to be knighted for his work), the pre-eminent architectural historian of the time. His monumental History of the King’s Works, published in 6 volumes by HMSO, would not be finished for many years after my time at Oxford.

On that first morning I woke up at 4.30, although I dozed till 7.00. By the following Monday I was up quite late, and was not helped by the traffic into town, but a kind motorist gave me a lift. Running, he said, would raise my adrenalin levels. There was no doubt what I was doing, dressed as I was! I was living in Summertown in North Oxford, and every day I met my friend and fellow historian Andy to walk down to Schools together. Andy was living in digs in Walton Street which is nearer the centre of Oxford. I calmed my nerves with a glass or two of whisky that first Wednesday evening. Penelope (my landlady) gave me some strawberries when she got in from work. The relief on the following Tuesday evening when it was all over was enormous. We didn’t even worry about the results. We were one of the first groups to take our finals and those of our colleagues who were still to sit their exams were very envious. “ I can’t bear to see you looking so happy” said one.

The remaining weeks of term were free for us to do things like eat out, watch films (The Graduate had just come out by happy coincidence) and punt on the Cherwell. On Thursday after we had finished we explored the Isis (the name of the river Thames through Oxford) in a rowing boat. In the lock which we shared with a motor cruiser Andy gave the occupants a natural history lesson on the bleak – a number of which fish were also sharing the lock with us. It is marvellous the sort of things an intelligent historian knows! By the time we got to Port Meadow there was rain storm and we got out to shelter under a tree.




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