After the intensity of term, I had a month of a very different sort of Oxford experience, namely the College to myself – except for the extraordinary kindness of the dons who remained, the Dean of course but also the Chaplain and the most senior don who had been an undergraduate at Univ, Tony Firth. On Christmas day itself, in addition to dinner at George Cawkwell’s – a tradition over five years – I was invited to lunch by a first year I had befriended, whose father had been our Domestic Bursar (before David Burgess, the Chaplain, was roped in to do that job too).
I knew my time at Oxford had been special, but rereading these letters makes me realize how utterly unique it was.
17th December 1972
Life’s been great fun, this last week – term ended with throwing popping balloons down from the battlements, and I went off on Sunday for 3 days with Charlie, one of which consisted of a trip to London for the universities Rugger match, which I regret to say we lost, and lunch at the HC’s where Tilak beat poor Charles at table-tennis despite him being the College Captain. Charles’ family was just as delightful as ever, except one year older. Just before I left, I found out his father died in an accident – his mother must be a marvellous person.
I returned on the Wednesday to find interviews in full swing – one of this year’s freshers had to spend the night on my sofa as they’d taken his room for candidates and he should have left, but he produced some candidates from his school and we played bridge – on the bus from Charles’ I met 3 candidates, all looking very nervous!
I’ve still managed to get quite a bit of work done, despite being taken advantage of for being one of the few with a room still in College – which led to a 3rd year boring me to death on Friday evening for 5 hours, just as I was about to start on a novel, having finished my quota of work – to be followed luckily by a friend, who spent the rest of the night reading poetry, all of which led to great depression when the College finally shut yesterday, in the beer cellar. Luckily the other History Tutor invited me for dinner, with the Dean and the Asst. College Secretary, in his cottage in the country, which was great fun and quite alcoholic – he kept pouring out, or threatening to, that strange Polish drink called Avocat, while consuming chocolates and conducting a Violin Concerto – he was the Tutor who organized carols round the College. Leslie suggested evensong at the Cathedral today and actually came to take me along – it was a beautiful service, with a marvelous choir and a sonorous Dean of Christ Church, about to be a Bishop, about to be Archbishop. Afterwards we tried to gallop back to the Junior Dean’s for drinks, and actually got one before they had to go for dinner in the SCR and the annual fight about who gets in, and I worked in the Library, all by myself, which is a beautiful experience. I’m certainly enjoying the vac.
21st December 1972
Life at the moment is rather sad due to the Dean & Chaplain having had to postpone their Christmas party till the 31st, due to the latter’s illness. However, having had two extraordinary days, I shouldn’t complain. On Tuesday the SCR had an outing for the 1st night of our Admissions Tutor’s play, when we attempted to influence the reviews by applauding noisily – being rather drunk by this stage, due to gin & sherry & wine & whiskeyed coffee at dinner. We had champagne with the cast afterwards – the College Sec. had a hip flask of scotch which she shared with me, since we dislike champagne. Brandy in the bus on the way home also led to fervent singing and a Conga up and down the bus, led by my Tutor, and joined by the Senior Tutor, to everyone’s amazement. Martin also indulged in carols in German, French and Italian, clad in a bearskin cap. It was an extraordinary & marvellous occasion – & the play was super.
Yesterday I traveled all the way down to Sussex for a friend’s party – his father’s Thomas Chitty, Bart no less, who writes books under the name of Thomas Hinde, which you must have heard of even if, like me, you don’t read him. Incidentally I’ve given his publisher, called George Unwin, our address for when he’s in Ceylon next January or February – also Mohan’s for India. The party was for the whole village, ex-school friends, and quite a few people stayed on all night in a drunken stupor, which meant young Chitty and I had to stay awake to put them on the 1st bus, since his mother didn’t feel up to providing breakfast for dozens – as apparently she’s had to do for the last two years. The novelist himself made & dispensed punch, wandering around vaguely and artistically. The house itself is old and quite chaotic, since the family itself sleeps all over the place and low beams keep banging one’s head, and we had to hang curtains all over to keep the guests from straying where they weren’t supposed to.
I got back quite exhausted and shall probably sleep pretty early – even the Tutors leave tomorrow, though the Dean’s coming along on Christmas to take me to church and, as I’ve said before, I’ve got 2 invitations for Christmas lunch & dinner. Shall be working hard the rest of the time though.
31st December 1972
I’ve had a super Christmas – the Dean came along to take me to communion at Christ Church Cathedral and the singing was superb, and then I had lunch with the Grettons – Sir Peter who played real tennis after lunch with his son, while the daughter, who’s married an Irish Protestant ‘Pongo’ – the Grettons are Catholic Admirals and I hope you’ve heard of him – looked after all convoys from the States in the war – crawled on the floor with her baby, while the other son and I ate chocolates and crawled through the Times crossword. Got back at 6 and had a few minutes with Anil and Avril, before dinner at the Senior Tutor’s, where they’d been discussing definitions of maturity and snobs all day, and dinner consisted of the interpretation of ‘Hamlet’ and the debasement of the word ‘image’, though we did degenerate afterwards to snowstorms and tigers, after which I walked back and through the dark streets of Oxford and climbed up to my tower, which was marvellous.
Boxing day at the Dean’s, with vague bets on horses on TV afterwards – his parents are super – and the Pantomime in the evening, where we roared with laughter, and shouted with the best of the children. Two quiet days then with walks round the Meadows with the Dean – whence we’ve just returned, and it’s a lovely day, and then on the 29th the Staff party for the Dons, with chaotic dancing, when the College Secretary said she wouldn’t enter me for Mods unless I stopped playing Virginia Woolf and observing, but danced, which I did, quite dizzy and drunk, and now tonight the Dean’s Christmas Party, which ends with a Conga round the quad to finish up Christmas at Univ – such a magnificent experience that I hope to repeat it next year. I’m falling desperately in love with every stone in every building here, which is going to be absolute hell in 3 years time, but still, it’ll be fully worth it.
8th Jan 1973
I’ve had a super day myself today – went down to London with the Dean to his publishers, I to the Gooneratnes, unfortunately they were going out and couldn’t give us lunch, so we had it at the Tea Centre instead, and saw a super film, and then came back and had dinner at the Eastgate – he’s absolutely thrilled because all his history people have got through except one, and he phoned them afterwards, and their mothers were delighted.
The rest of the week’s been lovely too, starting with his party on the 31st, when the College Secretary saw a fire first and we tried to find it and the other History Fellow’s key got stuck in a lock and about 4 people tried to get it out, and it was a bursting boiler all the time; then we played a team game in which a referee in turn gave a title that had to be drawn and guessed – the College Secretary’s was ‘Bird’s eye-view of the back of a pig by moonlight’ – and we even had a teddy-bear’s picnic; she cheated outrageously, and when we went on to limericks later in the evening, her taste turned out to be just like Lakshmi’s, and she gave me a book of them next year – from Khartoum to the Mother Superior. We congaed round the quad to the horror of the night porter, and sang Auld Lang Syne at 12; wore paper hats and rolled the Secretary about on the floor, and after the 3 ladies left – the 2 College Secretaries and 1 from Teddy Hall – the other Fellow and I went back to gin and sherry and ended up completely drunk so that, having put my watch away safely when I got back, I couldn’t find it for 3 days, and couldn’t drink a thing at the consumption of the leftovers next day at the other Tutor’s Cottage – when the Tutor for Admissions was also back, and the Teddy Hall Secretary’s name was discovered to be Lalite also which led to her being called an aging nymph and chaos resulted again, though peace was soon established. I’ve also been to Twickenham on Saturday, for England vs the All Blacks, and had a visit from Harin Dias and taken him roof climbing, but having realized that this is both illegible and incomprehensible, I shall cease.
The past week was quite peaceful – hardly any undergraduates were back, except my neighbor, who had a philosophical paper to write and kept reading all he’d written out to me and I pretended manfully to understand; 2 evenings of bridge, including one with Admiral Gretton & family, in the course of which I won 20 pence and made a small slam after mucking up the bidding. Yesterday Senapala came round to see me and I gave them a short tour – tell Thatha the arrack arrived safely – they took me out to lunch, to my regret, since I’d discovered a nice place to take them to where I ate last week due to the toaster I’d borrowed for the Vac. having broken down.