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25 April 2018updated 28 Jun 2021 4:39am

It’s that time again. The annual phone call from Footlights College asking me for money

Here is the clever bit: they always, for some reason that I cannot possibly fathom, choose a nice young woman to call me up, and be extra friendly. 

By Nicholas Lezard

I am in the kitchen, talking with my eldest son. We are having the conversation about drugs.

“Well, of course, where I went as a student, there was so much beautiful architecture that if you felt you were going to be having a bad time on acid, all you had to do was go and look at it. Whereas where you are, in Manchester…”

The phone rings. It is a number from the very town I have been talking about. The number looks half-familiar, and may be the landline of someone I know rather well there who is having a very bad time. It may be unwelcome but important news. I answer: it is not. As it happens, it is from the college I attended. I will refer to the college, borrowing a joke from The Young Ones, as Footlights College, Oxbridge.

I get this call every year. They get their third-year undergraduates to ring up alumni and ask them for money. And here is the clever bit: they always, for some reason that I cannot possibly fathom, choose a nice young woman to call me up, and be extra friendly. The reason they are being extra friendly is, as I said, that the purpose of the call is to extract money. From me. I always find this a bit of a sauce.

In fact, it shows chutzpah of an exceptionally high order, for Footlights College is not one of the poorer colleges in Oxbridge. As it happens, it is the richest college in all of Oxbridge, and the chances are that if you are in England, and are standing on a bit of land, you are more likely to be standing on land owned by Footlights College than any other landowner, with the exceptions of two other rather large landowners, viz the state and the church.

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My friend Ben likes to get into dialogue with scammers who contact him pretending, say, to be from Facebook, offering him a cheque for $5m as long as he transfers them $1,500 by the end of the day. He wastes their time hilariously, on the grounds that the longer he does this, the less time they will have to attempt to defraud other, more naive souls. Footlights College is not scamming its alumni – far from it, and there’s nothing wrong in asking for money if you want to put up a ghastly new building or remove all the gas rings in the gyp rooms and replace them with microwaves, so no one learns to cook – but whenever they call, I feel a need to tease them a bit. 

“How did you enjoy your time at Footlights?” asks my student.

“I had a terrific time,” I say. “As a matter of fact, I was just telling my son how much I enjoyed being off my nut on acid there.”

“Um… so you studied… English, right?”

“Indeed, if you can call it studying. I only managed six essays in my first year, and three of those were in my first term. What do you study?”

“Oh, it’s very boring. One of the most boring ones.”

“Give us a clue.”

“Er, think ‘cases’.”

“Latin? That’s not boring.”

“No, law.”

“Oh yes, that is.”

“Anyway, around this time of year, we like calling up alumni to see if…”

“Yes, here it comes. Look, at this point, I suggest that you google my name. You will discover that I make my living, if we can call it that, from writing about my indigent and disastrous life.”

“I’m not sure I’m meant to,” she says. Then: “I’m sorry things aren’t going well for you.”

“Oh, I make light of it,” I say. “The purpose is to amuse, which I like to think my degree in English helps with. If you read a couple of the articles, it will soon become apparent why I am not in a position to give you any money.”

“Well, I must admit I’m intrigued now,” she says. There’s a pause.

“Oh,” she says.

“Yes, well,” I say. “Plus ça change. I was always getting into scrapes, and was never going to amount to much.”

“What was the worst thing you ever did when you were here?”

So I tell her.

“I should point out,” I add, “that it was purely consensual.”

I wonder if I have gone too far. I’ve told her the most eyebrow-raising thing, not necessarily the worst. The worst thing I was accused of was spraying the words “cunnilingus boogie” on the college fountain in motorcycle oil, but vandalising 17th-century architecture has never been my thing.

Well, that more or less wraps things up. My allotted student is now a sadder and a wiser woman, and I’ve had some fun. Come to think of it, it’s rather like giving someone an education.

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This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge