More aspiring dreams
UP AT OXFORD by Ved Mehta John Murray, £17.99, pp. 432 Ihad been looking forward to reading this book ever since its warm, wise author appeared on Joan Bakewell's television series Memento and its imminent publica- tion was given a discreet plug. It was worth waiting for.
Written with a stripping-the-willows honesty, it joins the apostolic succession of the best Oxford memoirs: Gibbon on the dons of Magdalen (`Their dull and deep potations excused the brisk intemperance of youth'); Cardinal Newman and his blessed snap-dragon; Victorians such as W. H. Mallock and the Rev. W Tuckwell; Sir Lawrence Jones (L. E. Jones) in An Edwardian Youth; Anthony Powell in Infants of the Spring; Larkin on Amis; Amis on Larkin; John Wain on the flagellant E. H. W. Meyerstein and his 'notable col- lection of whips' in Sprightly Running.
I would add to the list Sir Maurice Bowra's Memories, even though the book was sent up rotten in Private Eye, 9 Decem- ber 1966 (`Lord Mary Webble [I shall call him P] was slim and dark with bright green eyes and an engaging lisp.') And you'd have to include Sir John Betjeman in Sum- moned by Bells (`My walls were painted Bursar's apple-green'). Martin Antis in the symposium My Oxford (edited by Ann Thwaite, 1977) took an unrosy view of the dreaming spires, though his Oxford was not quite as grisly as the one he had imagined was in store for him:
Three years of waking up every morning dangling naked from the chapel rafters, my head shaved, my balls blackened with shoe polish, and a sign reading `Yaroo — College Squit!' suspended from my neck.
I say 'apostolic succession' because Oxford dons outlast their undergraduates, as the Sir Humphreys of the civil service outlast their Government ministers. One of the pleasures for the connoisseur of Oxford memoirs is to track a particular don through successive books. So `Sligger' Urquhart, who was to Oxford what Oscar Browning was to Cambridge, appears as an affable saloniste in L. E. Jones' book, still conducting vacation reading-parties like the one described in A. H. Clough's grotesque poem 'The Bothie of Toper-na- Vuolich'; and as 'mild, monkish, white- haired, withdrawn, elusive in manner' in the memoirs of Anthony Powell, who records how Evelyn Waugh and his friends sang under Sligger's window, to the tune of 'Here we go gathering nuts in May', 'The Dean of Balliol lies with men.'
Ved Mehta is fascinated by the Oxford continuity. He had Gerard Manley Hop- kins' room in his first year at Balliol, Harold Macmillan's in his second. One of his friends, he writes, had learned 'his particular shout' from Sir Isaiah Berlin, 'who, in turn, had learned it from Sir Mau- rice Bowra, another great Oxford figure'. In fact, Mehta is almost obsessionally inter- ested in people's backgrounds. Blind since about the age of four, he has an urge to know not only exactly what people are like, but how in heaven they got that way.
This taste for antecedents leads to some mighty digressions which some readers may find mighty irritating. In describing his Bal- liol friend Jasper Griffin (later a don), Mehta treats us to 15 pages on Griffin's schooldays at Christ's Hospital, five bonus pages on Lamb's and Coleridge's experi- ences there, and four pages on Griffin's life before that school, including a long extract from a specimen 11-plus exam paper. But it would be unfair to suggest that Mehta can- not find a tangent without racing off on it. The digressions are reservoirs that feed the river of narrative. Griffin was one of Mehta's best friends, and we understand him better for knowing his social back- ground, his schooling and even his school's 'If symptoms persist, may God have mercy on your soul.' background. Griffin told Mehta that wear- ing that 'extraordinary kit' at school had made him not care so much what people thought of him. 'Everyone stared at you. Well, you got used to that.'
We know a lot about Mehta's own back- ground from his many autobiographical works. The first, Face to Face, appeared when he was still an Oxford undergraduate in 1958. He was the son of a comfortably off Indian doctor. When the child went blind, he was sent to a school for the blind in Arkansas and went on to Pomona Col- lege, California. So at Oxford he was dou- bly an exile — trebly, if one counts his being an exile from the light. That made for marvellous objectivity. Blind he might be, but he was the acutest kind of observer: the outsider who wants to be an insider.
If you are given a translation of a French play, you can tell fairly quickly whether it is a good play. Only by reading the original can you know if it is a good translation. Similarly, a portrait in oils can be a good painting without necessarily being a good likeness. Like Ved Mehta, I went up to Oxford in the late 1950s. I arrived there in 1959, the year he went down — knew some of the same people and read the same sub- ject, modern history. So I saw the original, and this book gave me, what not every reader can get from it, the 'delighted shock of recognition'.
Everyone, I suspect, likes to think that his Oxford is the last guttering (Indian summer?) of an ancien regime. Ours was the Oxford before 'student unrest' erupted in the 1960s, an Oxford of short-back-and sides haircuts — as Mehta puts it, 'a period of decorum . . . Both dons and under- graduates wore ties and tweed jackets'. The Mitre Hotel and the Cadena Café were still standing. So was that wonderful Victorian Gothic shop with a Victorian Gothic name, Grimbly Hughes. The ratio of women to men was one to eight.
The golden-age Oxford of Waugh's and Betjeman's days, which had been divided into 'aesthetes' and 'hearties', had given place to a university divided between the public-school boys and the grammar-school boys. By the time Mehta went up in 1956 the grammar schools had theoretically won the battle: 70 per cent of Oxford under- graduates were from state schools. But that did not end the antagonism. To the public- school people, the grammar-school boys were oiks with Brylcreemed 'quiffs' of hair, uncouth accents, blazers sewn with college badges and a battery of Parker pens in the front top pocket to assert status. Worse, they wore the collars of open-necked shirts outside their jacket collars and rode bicycles with low handlebars.
What the grammar-school boys (of whom I was one) thought of their public- school contemporaries, was never better expressed than by a grammar-school undergraduate quoted by the future Lord Vaizey in The Establishment (1959), edited by the future Lord Thomas:
Physically they seem to be bigger than the rest of us, with especially long legs. Their faces tend to be long and lean, or fleshy; in every case they seem to be permanently twenty-five years of age . . . Their lips are slightly bulging; their voices loud and confi- dent . . . Their clothes do not include zip- fronted knitted garments, gaberdine raincoats or leopard-skin bathing-trunks.
He credited them with 'an abundance of rather ragged and slightly grey underwear', and noted that their clothes were covered in Cash's labels, 'especially on the parts of socks you can see'. They went for runs in very long shorts, with towels round their necks:
As I walk through Oxford . . . I see figures that would be greeted in Lewisham or Birkenhead with shrieks of derision.
He thought that
Public-school boys are bloody rude unless they make a decision to be charming . . . They tend to eat like pigs; it is those poised on social brinks who worry about table manners.
And finally he charged:
They are very confident and emotionally quite uninvolved in what they say: they must never be in a position where it is possible to be snubbed, ridiculed or ruffled.
To this I would add: they wore their hair in lank 'bangs', brushed down to one eye; they left their mouths gaping open when not talking, as if they had just run a race; they tended to barge their way to the front of the dinner queue, bellowing 'Sorry': and when they couldn't hear you they shouted 'What?' (pronounced `Wart?'), as much as to say, 'Why can't you speak up, you snivel- ling wretch?, as opposed to the lower middle-class 'Pardon?' — which derided expression at least politely implies, 'I'm at fault.' As for accent, they pronounced toast 'taste' — a foible Stephen Fry notes in The Liar.
Gilbert Harding once asked a man on a radio programme what he did. 'I'm a gentleman farmer,' he unwisely replied. 'I suppose that means you're neither,' Hard- ing shot back. Ved Mehta with his Indian and American background, was neither public-school nor grammar-school. He wistfully observed that as a foreigner he simply had no place in what he saw as the ruthless hierarchy of Oxford society. The accuracy with which he anatomises the groupings on that distant battlefield is uncanny. Here is his portrait of a public- school friend (friend, mark you!):
Like many public-school men, he moved around with a gang so close-knit that its members could almost have passed for a mythical animal. They had a sort of group personality, as if each were always in need of an audience . . . They were known for strut- ting about — for constantly getting in and out of taxis, for hard drinking, for exchanging jokes and witticisms in loud voices. Indeed, they conducted themselves as if they belonged to the governing class, and the place were part of their inheritance — as if the majority of undergraduates, who were non public-school men ... were interlopers.
Every word of that rings true to me after more than 30 years. Oxford was renowned for 'knocking off the rough corners', but the Polyfilla has not been invented that could fill in the chips excavated in some shoulders in those years. Mehta's book will be valuable to social historians. I am rather ashamed that I did not take his sympathetic interest in the college scouts: he even knows what their wages were (£10 a week). He writes of the famous without malice but with his usual honesty. There is a good pen-portrait of the bibulous poet Dom Moraes ('Vedkins, what about a tiny drinkkins?'). It is a diverting exercise to look up what Moraes had to say about Mehta in his 1968 memoirs, My Son's Father: 'suits of excellent cut' ... 'sleepy air ... misled' . . . 'a rather waspish line in wit'. . . 'attended club dinners frequent- ly, resplendent in evening dress' . . . 'intensely disliked people who tried to help him' . . . 'he would ascend the drainpipe like Sir Edmund Hillary and swing himself from it through the windows like Tarzan of the Apes'.
What inevitably most people remember about Ved Mehta is what he is most keen for us to forget: that he is blind. His text is tricked out with Pre-Raphaelite detail down to the Irish Guards buttons on the then Lord Oxmantown's boating jacket. (Oxmantown — now Lord Rosse — has an honoured place in the narrative as the one undergraduate who invited Mehta home, though there is a poignant moment when the other guests go on a shoot and Mehta is left with the women, 'like a child'.) It is Mehta's one, and very understandable, lapse from naked honesty that he does not tell us the mechanics by which he learns what the world is like. Can you imagine going to Oxford without being able to see Magdalen Tower or the Radcliffe Camera? How did he grasp the nature of the city — by feeling a model? How does he know that the room of a man only he visits is 'shabby'? When he describes a girl as 'beautiful' is he taking somebody else's say- so for that? Or are we talking 'inner beau- ty'?
The book could have done with an index; and there are a few errors to correct when the paperback comes out. From college chauvinism, Mehta claims Balliol as the oldest Oxford college. The latest issue of the Oxford University Calendar, listing the colleges 'in order of foundation', puts Uni- versity College- before Balliol. Some Univ people claim it was founded by Alfred the Great (Balliol men sent round a hamper of burnt cakes when Univ celebrated the alleged 1,000th anniversary of this event); but the first recorded endowment of Univ was in 1249, whereas Balliol was founded between 1263 and 1268. Homosexuality between consenting adults was not made legal in 1957, but over ten years later. Nevill Coghill didn't have an 'e' on the end of his first name. Finally, Mehta quotes John Sparrow's quip that young fellows of his college in getting married were 'giving up All Souls for one body'. Sparrow indeed said that, and was praised for so doing in an otherwise punishing article by David Caute in Encounter in 1966. But Ved Mehta, with his passion for antecedents, may like to know that the joke was first made in the Gentleman's Magazine of May 1748 in this poem: On a College Life: By a Fellow of All Souls
So fond am 1 of a sweet college-life, I would not change for that sweet thing, a wife.
Prevailing nature his weak mind controuls. Who for one single body quits All Souls.