J. R. R. Tolkein was still living when I was an undergraduate at Oxford, but he had retired to live in Bournemouth. Tolkien was still teaching at Oxford while my sister was at LMH reading English in the 1950s, but the Eagle and Child had long since ceased to be the meeting place of the Inklings. His youngest son Christopher, who later prepared the Silmarillion for publication, was still lecturing at New College however, and I attended a series of lectures he gave on the Vikings during my first year. Since then I have become very interested in the Vikings, but of course I have entirely forgotten what his lectures were about.
The Tolkien name was already world-famous well before I went up to university; in this article I intend to refer to those people who were then completely unknown to everyone (except to those who were undergraduates at Oxford in 1970), but who have subsequently become household names. Even back in 1969 most of the people I will mention were obviously going to be stars in the world of the media. This was because they were already columnists in the university organs such as Cherwell. There were many university rags at that time, most that lasted only a term or two.
Libby Purves was at St Anne’s in the days before all the colleges became co-educational, as they were by the 21st century when my son went up to the college. Libby was a regular writer in 1970, who we all followed on a weekly basis, and she is still a regular broadcaster nearly 50 years later, together with her husband Paul Heiney; but she came second in importance to Gyles Brandreth. He was a real star from the start. His journal was another long-running university periodical named Isis. He was also President of the Oxford Union in 1970. Gyles has been principally a journalist all his life, but he was for a period in the 1990s a Tory MP. Another even more prominent Tory parliamentarian has been Ann Widdecombe, but although she too was a contemporary of mine I did not come across name her during my Oxford years. She obviously did not write for the student press.
I could write of various youthful indiscretions of these now-famous writers, but on these matters I will remain mute. The children’s poet Michael Rosen was another well-known character during my student days, but more for his politics than for his verse. Whatever out later political affiliations, we were all at the time rather left of centre. I cannot remember Michael Rosen writing in Cherwell or Isis, only for a piece of rather amusing but slightly rude graffiti he chalked on Balliol wall in Broad Street. He may not have written in the student press, but he was certainly written about in it.
Another writer was the late Christopher Hitchens. His politics were very left-wing then and he remained a strong atheist until his death. His 21st century conversion to American Foreign Policy (although not to President Clinton, another Oxford contemporary) was certainly something that I would not have anticipated from his university days. I have never been a Trotskyist as Hitchens was, but my left-wing opinions had been quite marked. I had however already begun to grow out of such juvenile attitudes by the time I left university; it is a puzzle to me how many of my fellow baby-boomers have never abandoned their childish political and musical tastes. Christopher Hitchens was another personality who was obviously going places, even in his student days. I remember squeezing into a pub near the Examination Schools on Oxford High Street during Finals in 1971. He was there with a voluptuous young lady, a fellow-student who was bursting out of her sub-fusc. He was always keen on the delights of the flesh.