I’ve spent a fair amount of the last month in Oxford – longer than any time since I was a student there. I’m not a go-back person where Oxford is concerned, and I don’t have the dreaming-spires-in-my-eyes aura of an alumnus (a word of which I’m irrationally unfond). I was working with interesting students on a summer school at Exeter College, Oxford. This is curious only because I worked for 28 years at Exeter College, Exeter – quite a different institution, and one which features in the Exeter College, Oxford literature about the course, as in, Don’t Make A Mistake And Go To Exeter College, Exeter. I do have a vague memory of a student arriving in Exeter looking for Oxford.
I rang my son. Guess where I am? I said. I’m at Exeter College. Oh, he said, have they built another one? Yes, in 1314, I said.
My favourite moment was when a porter, attempting to get from A to B with some urgency, ran across the hallowed grass quadrangle. He was running so fast he was doing a sort of Norman Wisdom run. As he ran, he spotted me watching him. ‘You do realise,’ he called, ‘that you are not allowed to go across the quadrangle.’
It triggered various memories. One was of my father’s innocent delight when he found out I’d been accepted – there was relief in there, too, since I had quite churlishly indicated I wasn’t going there unless I got into the one modern, brutalistically designed college (Harold Macmillan had said it looked like a petrol station. I was therefore attracted). I had to wait about nine months before going. As the time for me to become an Oxford student approached, my father, never one to instigate a conversation about trivia, suddenly said ‘We must get you some new clothes.’
I asked him why.
He looked me up and down, and said, ‘Well you won’t be able to go to Oxford looking like that.’ He ran his eye over my wrecked T-shirt and jeans.
‘Dad,’ I said. ‘Everyone dresses like this at university.’
‘Don’t give me that.’ (A catchphrase of his.)
I can still see him, sitting down to ring one of his friends who had a student son, to prove me wrong. It would have been about forty years ago. I remember seeing the look of incredulity mosey over his face. He didn’t even bother to finish the conversation with me: just went off, shaking his head.