I noted before the wife of a tutor telling me the joy of coming back to Oxford for one’s second year, and she was certainly correct. The letters of this period record an almost ecstatic joy in the experience. This includes much that seems absurd, forty years later, but at the time nothing else in the world seemed of consequence. Even the very real turmoil in Ireland at the time, for instance, is seen through the prism of how it affected the Oxford Union.
But the range covered suggests why one might be forgiven for thinking all this was world enough. Politics and philosophy, music and literature explain why I was more sociable then than at any other time in my life.
6th November 1972
Very sorry again for the lengthy delay – life is just too complicated to communicate effectively. In fact, due to an essay crisis for tomorrow morning, I’m forced to abandon College bridge tonight after nearly falling asleep at a lecture in the morning and a class this afternoon – should, however, have some sort of freedom from work after tomorrow – for essentials like playing bridge and carpet bowls on the quad at 3 am and climbing on the roof and watching the lunacies of Labour Club Elections. I’m safe on Committee for another term, and encouraging freshmen at the Union so as to build up an effective Univ machine. I have a tellership on Thursday and I’ve already got my borrowed Dinner Jacket and am contemplating wearing a frog instead of a rose like my tutor at the dinner.. Incidentally, I start serving in Chapel in a few weeks time, while telling this time in favour of ‘Christianity is a Myth’ – my conscience salved by the fact that I was going to abstain if I spoke from the floor, instead of against. Auden was at dinner on Tuesday and we’re organizing an expedition to see him on Friday – I keep seeing him all over Oxford. Last Tuesday I fell asleep during a special lecture of Dr Popper – a famous German Philosopher who’s quite loony – yesterday the Dean tried to teach me squash and I kept missing the ball.
This week I had only one essay and I finished it yesterday – even though I am writing during a lecture I ought to have gone to, especially as I’d arranged to play someone at chess afterwards, but I only got to bed at 5, due to an importunate 3rd year consuming my coffee – and mangoes – having lost the key of his bicycle and preferring to work all night rather than walk back in the cold. Since we’ve taken to playing hide–and-seek through the college after 2 am, I’m not getting much sleep at all. Also, this morning I’d left all my essentials in the laundry so it was too late to get them in time for the lecture anyway – so I excuse myself, guiltily since it’s the only real one I go to now anyway. Incidentally, before the hide and seek, certain lunatics were pouring water from my windows onto passers-by in the High Street, only male students to salve our consciences.
Since my last missive, I’ve been elected onto the Food Committee with another Gorran Haven lunatic to battle the Domestic Bursar, who actually dared to introduce a cafeteria system into lunch, with blue-coated ladies from Woolworth’s – made a not unsuccessful tellership at the Union with a superb dinner beforehand – being equipped in DJ, velvet bow–tie and violent geranium in my button hole by my 2nd year friends while the 1st year protégés of the Univ Union machine dutifully applauded thunderously and indicated to the rest of the audience where they had to laugh during my apologies for jokes – the laughs were in the right places. Incidentally I got a 40 pound bursary for buying a DJ. Leslies being terribly generous with some rich old American’s money.
Had an audience with Auden at the coffee-house where he hangs out waiting to talk to undergraduates, under the impression he’s Dr Johnson; organized a minor Univ charabanc, though the other organizer got cold feet and didn’t come – the conversation was halting but both sides tried and, approached in the proper spirit of reverence, was quite marvellous – the physicist who didn’t was quite bored. Progressed with my Union Chess competition, won my first game and filled half the 2nd round with Univ men; failed to dine with Peter Shore, since a traffic jam prevented him from coming in time to the Labour Club.
20th November 1972
I had a day off today, seeing Canon Keble in Fairford – persuaded a friend to drive me down – he was delighted with the day ultimately, so it didn’t matter – got a super lunch and tea and a guided tour of a 16th century country church – typical country society ladies in attendance – the Canon and his wife have 3 cats and a dog and a rabbit that chase each other during lunch under the table – super!
The Labour Club Elections went along much as the Univ machine wanted them to – even though its component parts were tugging in somewhat different directions – I wasn’t contesting as I was on E.C. for 2 terms automatically. Union elections next week and the machine grinds into action – 8 candidates – my next letter will be either extremely elated or extremely depressed!
Just had a visit from our principal freshman cog, to report on the latest details – terribly exciting.
Lady Maud had her music quiz last week – the Dean and I and two freshmen who knew even less than I did sat in a corner confusing each other and imitating schizophrenic cats – after which we plotted a take-over of the JCR – official blessing being unofficial, of course. After long heart-searching the Chaplain has decided not to travel to Ceylon over Christmas – not because of my serving last week, which went off rather well – we had a race down the aisle at the end!
On Thursday, the Union had Jack Lynch – and 35 policemen – and we had to be on guard from 4 pm till 11. It was great fun, even though no attacks took place – just a demonstration, with someone supposed to be Bernadette Devlin at its head – not a siege like last year.
I shall be staying over here for Christmas, working, though I’ll have to move into a centrally heated block as the water’s turned off here. It’s got rather cold but nothing uncomfortable except getting out of bed – Christmas lunch has been arranged with Peter Gretton, the well-known-mad-admiral.
9th December 1972
I’m just getting used myself to the idea of spending the Vac. working – not too hard though, encouraged by my collections. ‘Mr Wijesinha is very intelligent and subtle, and a delight to discuss politics with’ – thus my history tutor. The Philosophy one was satisfied too, though he did add that my style was so subtle that perhaps no one could understand it – still, I’m happy.
The last two weeks have been very exciting – Labour Club elections went rather as planned and, with a little bit of judicious insistence. I have got the Editorship of the Club magazine next term – I already have plans to start a gossip column, about who’s slitting whose throat at the moment – a phenomenon that has already started to occur with regard to next term’s elections, when the whole Club hierarchy is determined to oppose the College candidate. Tickets have already started flying around, and I look forward to great excitement. Likewise in the Union, where I came top of the poll in the elections for Library Committee – the most senior of the junior committees – the Balliol psephologists had already predicted this, but it was still delightful.
Unfortunately the College did not do as well as I’d hope, but my chief protégé did get on Treasurer’s Committee, and the candidates for high office whom the College supported did succeed. The present President, whom we also support, was having a vast fight against the majority of the Standing Committee, but he won out, and had a party last Thursday to celebrate – in the course of which I had a drunken conversation with C.P. Snow – besides doing other things like being fed black coffee with a spoon in the President’s rooms at Balliol and being guided to the gate by our faction’s chief female whom I narrowly prevented from ordering me a taxi, before staggering home and being violently sick all over my bed, to my scout’s disappointment and, I think, secret admiration since the last occupant of the room did the same and he got a first and also came from Eton. I hasten to add, as an extenuating circumstance, that the port and whiskey at the Union had been preceded by champagne and whiskey simultaneously at my neighbour’s birthday party – and cider before dinner at a Labour Club plotting session. Incidentally, after my Union success, the lunatic fringe has elected me to the standing committee of the Elections Society, founded this term by all those who failed to get elected to anything, for the purpose of rigging all future elections of any society whatsoever. I hope for assistance at our JCR elections, when I shall be opposed by a Rugby Club heavy, who’ll probably win.
The Dean held a party last week for the girl who prevented his holiday to Cyprus this term from being a complete horror, even though he has decided never to go abroad again. Unfortunately, though a 2nd year Classicist, she’s on the wrong side at the Union. Still, the evening was superb, everyone being slightly tipsy and reading ‘Hay Fever’ and playing consequences with hilarious results, because rather than despite the presence of our Asst College Secretary and the St. Edmund’s Hall Secretary also. Due to there being only eight people, the Dean doubled as the maid and gave a marvellous performance. He’s promised, if his parents don’t mind, to take me to the pantomime with them on Boxing Day – in addition to his grown-up’s party on the 21st, when all the Fellows dance round the College, doing the thing in which you keep going up and down – the College Porter was about to challenge them last year, when he realized who they were.
There’s also going to be an outing, on the 19th itself, to see our Tutor for Admissions’ first play to be publicly performed. A vast bout of cheering should sway the reviewers. This Monday, the Senior Common Room lost their University Challenge match against the JCR, who won the national competition last time – this being the joke conclusion to the whole business. Quite a few of us went up to Manchester, and cheered lustily for the SCR and they were doing rather well, when Tom Parker forgot his Popes, though he still maintains he was right and the quiz-master wrong. The Dean also made a mistake about a Yarborough, and my Tutor failed to spot a tricky question about the Aeneid, but they are said to have fared best of all the Dons who ever took part.
I go tomorrow for a few days to Charles’ – the person I went to last year – to relax from this hectic life and return on the Wednesday to take up residence permanently till Mods – unless I feel terribly bored and rush off to the Gooneratnes for a day or two. The College has already started emptying quickly, since everyone except those doing exams and foreigners have to be out by tomorrow, though, or because, the interview candidates start pouring in on the Monday.
I have decided though to ignore them and start cramming the moment I get back – no one seems to believe I will but it shall be done. The Master, incidentally, thanked me at Collections for what I’ve done for the College, but I believe that was just a reference to the Union success – much as I’d like to think it was my helpful manner. The College did have a marvellous success last Tuesday, when the Choir produced ‘The Dream of Gerontius’ in the Town Hall, with a wildly cheering audience – people being heard to remark on the ability of a College that could produce a thing like that – all the other large College concerts in Oxford having been a flop this term, and our Music Scholar being considered the best conductor in Oxford now. Also, both University productions at the Playhouse this term were by Univ men. I sense a desperate attempt to convince myself that this is the best College in the place, but I do believe I’m right.