Who needs swots?
By Stanley Johnson. Published in The Times, Saturday 13th
Remember when brio, not brains, could open the gates of Oxbridge? Stanley Johnson does.
When my maternal great-grandfather took his son, my grandfather, up to Oxford for his first term in October 1899, he left some clear instructions with the tutor at Lincoln College. He would, my great-grandfather said, be extremely disappointed if the young man spent too much time working. He had no objections in principle to someone reading for an honours degree, but he would regard his son as having wasted his time at Oxford if he attained anything higher than a 4th class.
Happily, my grandfather failed to disappoint and was in due course rewarded with the statutory 4th.
My mother (St Hughes, Oxford, 1925-28) told me this story when I myself applied to Lincoln in 1956, 57 years later.
"Don't forget to tell them about Grandpa," she urged. "I'm sure it will help."
So I took the train from Sherborne to Oxford (quite a complicated journey, as I recall) and in due course found myself being interviewed by a small panel that included the Rector of Lincoln, Walter Oakeshott.
"Why do you want to come to Lincoln?" he asked.
"My grandfather was here, Sir."
"What did he read?"
"He concentrated on sport. He was in the College VIII when Lincoln made four bumps in three days during Torpids."
The Rector of Lincoln beamed and a day or two later wrote me a letter admitting me to the college.
I didn't in the end go to Lincoln. We had been farming on Exmoor since 1951 and when I discovered that Exeter College (Lincoln's Turl Street neighbour) was offering the Stapeldon Scholarship for boys with a strong West Country connection, preferably sons of sheep farmers, who wished to read Classics, I sat the exam and was duly successful. It turned out that the Stapeldon Scholar (as a quid pro quo for some fairly substantial emoluments) was responsible for pinning up the notices in the porter's lodge. One day I pinned up a notice about a wine and cheese evening with the Oxford University Conservative Association and the rest, as they say, is history ...
This may seem like a fairly flippant story. It is. But the serious point I would like to make is that in those far-off days, it wasn't just universities that were free to operate their own admissions policies. Individual colleges, certainly at Oxford and Cambridge, guarded their prerogatives jealously. Some insisted on A levels as a precondition of entry, some didn't. (My first wife, Charlotte, was accepted by Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, with just a handful of O levels and a portfolio of drawings. When she finally took her degree, Boris (now Shadow spokesman for the arts) was just a year old and she was eight months pregnant with Rachel. I still have the photograph of the champagne party on the grass as Charlotte came out of the examination schools in the high street after her finals. Nowadays, of course they have banned champagne parties after finals in case someone gets hit in the eye by a champagne cork and sues.) Ironically, the university admissions policy which was operated then was far more egalitarian and open than the earnest advocates of social engineering and the Office for Fair Access -Offa or Offtoff as it has been dubbed -would have us believe. The college interviewers looked at the young man or woman in front of them and tried to make up their mind on the basis of all the evidence. Academic achievement was a part of it, but potential was probably more important. And we aren't just talking academic potential. They looked at you in the round, those beaky dons. Would you be good on the rugger pitch, would you make a career in the Union, would you go out to rule a (fast disappearing) empire? Would you, mirabile dictu, be a credit to your college and university?
Ironically, the proportion of children at Oxbridge coming from the state sector is lower today than it was 40 years ago.
As I write this, I have in front of me the Exeter College, Oxford 1959 freshman photograph. I know for a fact that well over 50 per cent of the intake that year came from the state sector. The pool of talented boys and girls for Oxford to choose from was immense. I shared rooms on Staircase VII in my first year with a boy from a grammar school, Mike Masterson. It was, in fact, the first time I had ever met a grammar-school boy. I remember him telling me once how his father had walked to Scotland to find work, only to be peppered.
"What do you mean 'peppered'?" I asked.
"The laird had no job for him but he anyway gave my dad a blast with his shotgun as he was walking away."
This was my first introduction to compassionate Conservatism and I'm most grateful to Mike , with whom I still correspond, for his guidance 40 years ago.
By Stanley Johnson, Copyright © The Times Newspapers 2004. Published in The Times 13th November 2004
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