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5 June 2000

Oxford put me in my place

As class wars rage over the Laura Spence affair, who better to sum it all up than our own Class Cons

By Andrew Martin

I have a certain category of friend who will never allude to my Class Conscious column in this paper. They might say, “Oh you do that thing in the Statesman, don’t you?”, and leave it at that. It’s not – I think – that they consider it to be rubbish, because this sort of person usually has a track record of being charitable about things I’ve done that palpably are rubbish. No, they find the subject matter distasteful, and I sometimes think that even mentioning the word “class” is a faux pas in these euphemistic times.

At the moment, nobody is seeking to anathematise it more than William Hague, which is strange since one aspect of Conservatism is all about perpetuating class distinctions. I’m no expert here, but my Dictionary of Philosophy, presumably with no axe to grind, defines the Burkean roots of Conservatism as being concerned with “allegiance to tradition, community, hierarchies of rank . . . and properly subservient underclasses”. There is the other side of Conservatism, of course: laissez-faire economics, the outcome of which is still meant to be a hierarchy, but this one primarily financial. I suppose we are to take it that the second sort has entirely won out over the first; in which case, hadn’t it better be made official? It would save me a lot of confusion and double-taking at any rate.

Actually, my suspicion is that the rightwingers’ agitation really stems from guilt. Mentioning class in their hearing is like visiting the house of a murderer and raising the subject of the body under the floorboards. No wonder they come down hard on people who do it. Hence the unreasonable amount of mud slung at Gordon Brown over Laura Spence’s unsuccessful application to Oxford.

I must say, though, that insofar as Brown was imputing conscious, snobbish prejudice on the part of the Magdalen selectors, I would wish to disagree. I went to Oxford as a state school pupil, and had the feeling that the examiners were bending over backwards to get me in. In any fair-play competition, I carried bonus points because I had been educated to the age of 16 at a secondary modern, which means I can trump all those people, such as William Hague, who tell of their odyssey from comprehensive to Oxford. I can hear them out and then, like Michael Palin in the Pythons’ Four Yorkshiremen sketch, say: “Compre’ensive school? Sheer luxury. That were Eton compared to where I went . . . ”

Even after transferring to a grammar school, I was not considered likely Oxbridge material, but when, after a mock A-level exam, a teacher said, “Hands up all those who I’ve talked to about doing Oxbridge”, I suddenly raised my hand, even though the subject had never been mentioned within a mile of myself.

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My A-levels, even by the more modest grade standards of the early Eighties, were dodgy: two As, a C and an E; although, after all these years, I am compelled to mention that this E, achieved in geography, was the result of some strange discrepancy between syllabus and examination. (Almost everyone in my year got an E in geography, as a long, agonised footnote on my CV used to explain.) Still, I got in and that must have owed something to my performance in the Oxford entrance exam. This has now been abolished on the grounds that it required a range of reference more likely to come from a private education, but I found it to be an egalitarian instrument. It encouraged you to generalise, and thus I was able to compensate for an education that was full of holes. I was all ice cream and no cornet, but that’s what Oxford has traditionally sought: the dilettante-ish and aristocratic quality of flair.

I chose Merton College because it is so preposterously pretty, and because, as the humourist Stephen Potter noted, it has the most fascinatingly don-like dons. It best represented to me the romantic, aristocratic dream that is Oxford University, the allure of which extends to all parts of our deeply class-conscious society, and if I go back there today I cannot sit in the Fellows’ Garden without tears of nostalgia pricking my eyes. On my last visit, I had to start some silly game with my kids to cover them up.

I have always had a huge capacity to be miserable, but Oxford tested this to the very limit. In my second year, a drama committee gave me a small fortune to mount a big outdoor production of Love’s Labour’s Lost. I had world-class physics postgrads rigging up the lights for me, and women in the cast who’d featured in Tatler. I was so full of myself that I cut whole characters out of the last act because, while Shakespeare was a pretty hot writer, he did have his weak spots . . . I mean, he hadn’t been to Oxford himself, so what could you expect?

But I had to institute an impromptu break in the rehearsals for this play, when somebody blurted out: “You’ve got a northern accent, but you try to sound posh.” I had to lie down on the grass for a while after hearing that.

Class was everywhere around me at Oxford. It was the dominant theme, along with the physical beauty of the place. This is why I’m surprised at the fuss over Brown’s remarks on Laura Spence. I mean, if you aren’t going to talk about class in the context of Oxford, then what are you going to talk about?

Three-quarters of the people in my year at Merton must have been privately educated, and you could spot them immediately. They wore that vaguely Byronic uniform of gilded youth that I’ve half-heartedly emulated ever since, and which is still going strong amid the dreaming spires: flowing coats, undone cuffs, too-long trousers crumpled over slipper-like shoes. And they tended to be taller, about which a medium-sized arriviste such as myself could unfortunately do nothing. They had stiff white invitations from specific personages on their mantelpieces, as opposed to the crumpled, generic fliers (“Come to the Chess Soc Xmas Bash – all welcome”) that I collected.

The public school types could get you into parties because they knew people from other colleges. If you walked down Broad Street with anyone from a sufficiently grand school, you couldn’t help noticing that they were saying hello to every other person they passed. There were just so many public school people there, and I don’t see how the situation can have changed because the root causes are still in place. Today, 56 per cent of those pupils getting three As at A level (the standard requirement for Oxbridge) come from the 93 per cent of pupils who are state educated, while 44 per cent of those getting three As come from the 7 per cent of independent pupils. The upshot is that if you go to a good private school, you are much more likely to get into Oxbridge than if you don’t – why else, after all, would people’s parents pay the fees? Thus is privilege that has been bought perpetuated in institutions that are meant to be meritocratic.

One answer would be to make Oxford into a postgraduate institution. Alternatively, you could abolish private schools. But I can’t quite bring myself to advocate either of these suggestions, because I’m aware that a special part of the thrill of being at Oxford was that sense of noblesse oblige . . .

Early on at Oxford, I became friendly with an amiable Old Etonian from another college. He showed me a picture of his house in the country – or at least part of the house. “Obviously,” he said apologetically, “you can’t fit all of it on to one picture.” Later, halfway through our second year, and a propos of absolutely nothing, he said: “I don’t suppose you and I will mix at all in the same circles after university.” There was no snobbery in either remark; just a slightly melancholy matter-of-factness, as if he were saying: this dream we’re in has got to end, you know.

It was this man who taught me how to tie a bow tie and roll a joint. Throughout my time at Oxford, indeed, I had a dazed sense of having had a rope ladder dropped down to me by some social- rescue helicopter piloted by altruistic toffs. But what that helicopter was doing hovering over my head I was never sure. Maybe I was a genius. It’s an idea that I’ve always been willing to entertain. On the other hand, I sometimes guiltily speculate that the toffs in the helicopter sensed an innate deference in me: they knew I would be grateful. More likely, I was just lucky in the way that Laura Spence hasn’t been.

But she can take comfort on several counts. Oxford is not as pre-eminent academically as it once was. The appeal of the place is increasingly the appeal of a dream: slightly intangible. And in my own case, it did not give me the confidence that is the key asset of most privately educated people, and which was noted as lacking in Laura by her inquisitors at Magdalen. Instead, apart from the potent Bridesheadian memories, and a respect for literature, it left me with a neurosis about class, and bred in me the mixture of arrogance, snobbery, traditionalism, guilt, egalitarianism and so on that I grapple with in my column in this paper while certain of my friends avert their eyes.

It’s a sordid business, and believe me, Laura, you’re well out of it.