The Journal of Lynton Charles, Fiduciary Secretary to the Treasury

Monday Into the belly of the beast. By happenstance, I have been booked to attend Rogater's Evening at Claude College, Oxford. I'm not an Oxbridge man myself, but I'm here at the kind invitation of Barry Donnelly, head of ITV and old pal of The Master's.

We leave the car in the Fellows' Car Park and enter the porter's lodge of a mullioned, gold-stoned pile. From thence, we are directed to the Senior Common Room, where a mass of dicky-bowed chaps (and about three women) are milling about, drinking sherry and talking in loud, well-educated voices.

As a minister, I am immediately taken by the elbow to meet my host, the warden, Sir Anthony Weir-Tompkins, who (Barry has warned me) is a historian. Sir Anthony is tall, with longish white hair and a look of perpetually sardonic amusement. He lends me a limp hand and makes a quip involving a Latin word that I am not familiar with. We pass pleasantries, which include his potted history of Rogation Day (it goes back to something Henry VII did with a plough and a spoon, apparently, which is why these implements appear in the college coat of arms).

Various other senior members of the college are introduced to me, including an interesting number of Dutch research fellows. Then the warden calls out that dinner is served, and we make our way to a large, long hall. In the lower part, long refectory tables form four lines from door to the low dais, upon which is a smaller table. "Mr Charles," says the warden, "this is High Table."

"Hi, table!" I joke, feebly, and take my place between Sir Anthony and a very self-possessed and not unattractive young woman, who introduces herself as Stephanie Toot, president of the Junior Common Room.

The first course is execrable, but washed down with a fabulous wine. As we drink it, so I am drawn into conversation with those around me: Ms Toot, the warden, the bursar (who seems to have been a rear-admiral in a previous life) and - most alarmingly of all - a sort of upper-class Heinrich Himmler, who has been given the title of "censor". All these gentlemen are arrayed in long gowns with gorgeously coloured stripes on them.

Inevitably, the subject then moves to Mr Brown and the Magdalen scandal. My fellow diners begin low-key, but I can tell that I am in for a leathering.

"Of course, the timing was most unfortunate," says the warden, "given the huge strides we have made to bring state school pupils into the college. Great strides. Stephanie here is, herself, the product of a Hampshire comprehensive. Indeed, we now take nearly 42 per cent from the state sector. So we are bemused at this attack. And a little hurt, wouldn't you say, censor?"

The censor nods. "Hurt. Yes. We have been at pains to be as welcoming and as egalitarian and modern as is consistent with excellence and the tradition of the college. We go to great lengths to make state pupils feel at home. Which, given the probable nature of their homes, is not easy for us."

"Yes," the bursar adds, "it really cannot be laid at our door if the pupils do not apply. Or - if they do come for interview - their schools have put insufficient effort into producing a rounded man . . ." "Or woman, bursar," corrects the warden. "Or woman," says the bursar. "We at Claude value familiarity with the classics, we seek a bit of verve, a bit of spirit, something extra. And, unfortunately, these are attributes that state schools seem to overlook. And that, minister, is surely your department, rather than ours."

"Yes," I reply. "Looking around and listening to you, I now see quite clearly that the extraordinary bias towards private and public schools at this college is everybody's fault but yours. You have certainly opened my eyes tonight."

This article first appeared in Driving back to happiness

2000-06-05