What has Ben Masters done for the Oxbridge novel?

Is 'Noughties' a fresh take on the genre, or just a pensioner in a hoodie?

Geoffrey Braithwaite, the narrator of Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), imagines that he is responsible for composing a list of subjects, scenes and structures which novelists are to be banned from using. He appeals for a prohibition on ‘more novels about incest…not even [excluding] ones in bad taste’, as well as a case-closed-consensus against ‘scenes in which carnal connection take place between man and woman in the shower’ (his reasons for the latter are ‘primarily aesthetic, but also medical’).

Geoffrey’s terms wouldn’t be too disruptive to novelists. Scrapping incest interludes and shower shagging oughtn’t to be too tight a clamp on plot-writing pulses. And any panic excited by Geoffrey’s proposal to cease staging novels in abattoirs would subside briskly enough -- especially after the news that God (‘bearded head gardener’; ‘wise old sea captain’) is also barred from fiction for twenty years. However, there is one item on the list flammable enough to cremate a paper palace of young novelists’ plans: by Geoffrey’s bell, book and candle, ‘novels set in Oxford or Cambridge’ are excommunicated from our bookshops.

The source of Barnes’ heckling is quite blatant. It might be mistaken as traditional for authors educated at Oxford and Cambridge to write growing-up tales of emotionally inelegant, hazily spiritual studentship. Compton MacKenzie’s Sinister Street (1914) set a tone for the hopeful, bathetic Oxford spirit. Max Beerbohn, author of the Oxford-set, suicide-strewn Zulieka Dobson (1911) praised MacKenzie for giving ‘the actual Oxford experience’, and ‘miraculously [making] you feel what each term was like’; a pattern up-ended in the sympathetic story of Philip Larkin’s Jill (1946), about the callow compulsion to lie in order to fit in a little better. Vladimir Nabokov’s Glory (1932) re-designs his own experience as a Russian exile at Cambridge (with a little less goal-keeping and, by all accounts, no fewer affairs), and Frederick Raphael’s The Glittering Prizes (1976) tracks the careers of a group of Cambridge graduates, whose trails are lit with the memories of irretrievable studenthood.

It would be amiss to neglect The Rachel Papers (1973), in which a precociously bright, precociously sexed Oxford candidate scrambles to sleep with an older woman before he touches twenty. The denouement of Martin Amis’s novel is the ‘arseless’ hero’s Oxford interview, in which his lordly exam papers are cauterized by a curly haired don.

Val McDermid said of her alma mater that ‘Oxford exerts a strong influence on those it touches’, yet there are audible pleas for that influence to be reined in a little. Somewhat bravely, therefore, Ben Masters, a recent Oxford graduate, published Noughties (2012). Set during the protagonist, Eliot’s, final night in Oxford, it writhes through memory and desire to achieve a familiar poignancy. But is it familiar enough to be spat out as an unwanted remake of a dusty recipe?

There are obvious reasons to celebrate this novel. Masters prioritises comic and fresh perceptions. Using images and metaphors to hop-scotch around reality, he describes the spot in which Eliot loses his virginity as an ‘embarrassed bed’, and his girlfriend’s inner thigh as ‘so exquisitively smooth and soft that it feels as if you’re about to slip off the earth’. He modulates his decoration carefully, and one trusts that his style will hulk and sweat into something exuberantly baroque -- an underappreciated prospect. Yet its critics have derided Noughties as an unambitious chip off the old block, with pouting self-pity standing in for affecting story-telling.

The novel does have a primitive structure and scope, and its supporting characters are not drawn with the cartoonish fluorescence which they (and we) crave. Yet this is part of the point. Masters introduces the group of friends as ‘four flat characters…Scott with his question-mark nose, Jack with his inverted-comma eyebrows, Sanjay with his square-bracket ears’. Completing their degrees has flattened them out like paper, and they are inscribed with marks of education -- metamorphosed, even, into the fundamental tools of the only trade they know. They are members of a culture in which ‘everyone goes to university; you just kind of end up there’ (Eliot imagines his friends from home studying ‘Golf Course Management with Experimental PE’ and ‘Socio-Bio-Dance with History’). In Noughties education has become so dispassionately arbitrary that it defines its characters, even physically, to the exclusion of anything else.

Take its epigraph: ‘but to the wise/ Often, often is it denied/ To be beautiful or good’ (W.H. Auden, Oxford). Eliot has learnt a lot about lashing and a lot about literature during university, but we wonder where he will go to learn compassion and kindness. And as for beauty, it brushes by their pub table only briefly. On the second page a ‘droopy man’ falters past them in the King’s Arms, who ‘wears the heady bonfires and dissident blossoms of the cool summer air, stirring fragrances of ale and tobacco’. This natural, softly pervasive beauty which many recognise in Oxford departs with its unlikely bearer. Masters sterilizes his novel of it. It returns only at the very end as Eliot drives away for the last time and sees the ‘shadows of many partings’; common, brief and quietly momentous occasions, crucial to many Oxbridge novels, glimpsed here only in shadow.

Masters is presenting an entirely different view. The novel’s vernacular (the students speak like Amis’s yobs) is important to this. Keith Talent could mingle indiscernibly among the and thats, innits and yeah mates of Eliot’s circle. This becomes especially grating beside passages like the florid tutorial on the place of the poet in The Prelude, in which few but humanities students could take much pleasure. This tension between the inarticulate and the over-articulate is dramatised when conversation between Eliot and his home friends turns to STIs. On hearing Rob’s account of having ‘a fob mathingy up [my] jap’s eye’, Eliot considers mentioning an episode in Herzog, maybe even Rochester’s ‘tingling cunts’, but checks himself (if following instances are consistent, for fear of puzzled gurns and accusations of hermaphrodidity.)

It is this disharmony which is both the novel’s problem and its purpose. Masters gives the Oxbridge formula a nastiness which it hasn’t really held before. It is not the absence of the old gentility, more the neutralisation of the pseudo-mythical quality of the sub-genre which one feels. The Auden quotation becomes an epitaph for the ‘beautiful and the good’ which, in the Oxford of Noughties at least, has been spray-painted over.

So what has Masters done for the Oxbridge novel? Little more than given a pensioner a hoodie and a snakebite and wheeled him into a nightclub? Or is his paradoxical, contorting account, uneasily street-smart and nervously high-brow, a closer representation of Oxbridge’s current condition? Perhaps, if the latter, its disjunctions have shaken up the bones of the elderly prototype, and produced a rejuvenation; perhaps, one of which Geoffrey Braithwaite, at a second glance, might be forgiving.

Oxford students in a display of camaraderie, 1935. (Photo: Getty Images)
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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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