The first term of my third year saw the last set of student demonstrations to really rock Oxford. The Examination Schools next door to Univ were occupied, in pursuit of a demand to establish a University Students’ Union (previously the University had worked only in terms of Colleges) and there was much high drama though it all fizzled out in the end. OUSU was finally established, but just when student radicalism was dying out, with greater concentration on obtaining well paid jobs. I should note that, whereas the brightest in my year sought Civil Service appointments, and the brightest in the next thought of the bar, the intake of 1973 was the first in which a job in the city became the preferred occupation.
A constant factor during my time at Oxford was my father’s efforts to help others too to get in. It is a mark of his unparalleled generosity, as well as his deep commitment to promoting education for all he came across (notably the children of staff in Parliament and at home) that he devoted time and energy to finding youngsters places at good educational institutions. In the case of our neighbor, Gajan Pathmanathan, after a place had been secured and his father died suddenly, my father financed his studies at Oxford – though he was helped by my getting a British Council scholarship for fees in my final year, and Gaji getting the same from I think his second year onward.
These letters also include the first mention of the Vile Bodies, a dining club based on the Evelyn Waugh novel, which became quite a cult, so that in time our photographs, in sepia, were displayed in period decorated cafes. It was the precursor to two other clubs in which, started in my graduate days, I served as Senior Member, the Keats Society, and the Piers Gaveston Society which I believe still flourishes.
12th November 1973
Life’s been excessively exhausting, and I’m only writing now because the Proctor’s party for Presidents has had to be postponed due to sit-ins and demonstrations and other lunacies – opposing all of which, as well as organizing an election for JCR Secretary (the right man won) as the old one resigned, has taken up quite a bit of time.
The JCR unfortunately approved of the demonstrations, but luckily I succeeded in falling asleep whenever any were on, or worked, and avoided them. In addition, what with bi-weekly freshmen entertainments, solid Union hacking as I’ve decided I want to be President, ludicrous committees and endless and endless dinners – in addition to being told by Cawkwell that my work’s improving, – I have succeeded in sleeping solidly for 14 hours twice last week. Also my philosophy essays are getting shorter and shorter and might soon melt into nothing. The noises of the sit-in finally dissipating are floating up to my room, none of the issues resolved, and everyone as uninformed as ever.
Sorry for some sort of non sequitur – I’ve just had a neurotic friend round who doesn’t trust the Dean or the Chaplain and talks to me for hours about his problems – this in addition to arguing on behalf of someone who’s being rusticated, for not even pretending to work over the last 4 weeks. I’m hopeful he’ll be kept on but it’s rather in the balance.
For the rest, I’ve dined on Trinity High Table with Ravi Tennakoon, discussed ‘The Waves’ with Helen Gardener, Clive James & the Warden of all Souls – part of Union hackery – had to refuse a play with Claire due to a Society Dinner, set up the Vile Bodies society in memory of Evelyn Waugh – Secretary, Mr Chatterbox, the gossip columnist whose identity changes weekly should be suitable? – already had my one completely drunk evening for the term at a rather seedy party, and not yet had a game of bridge. No more letters probably till term ends and I start unwinding.
18th December 1973
I am just to beginning to enjoy the Vac., having gone down last week with a ghastly attack of flu which lasted till yesterday, which meant I couldn’t look after candidates as I’d been meant to – I shall probably have to return my salary, if I’m feeling virtuous or want to set a good example which no one will notice. I had the nurse twice a day and antibiotics thrice, two doctors – at different times – and even in 9th week quite a lot of visitors who found my box bedroom quite uncomfortable. Leslie floated in between interviews and gave me my temperature as at 108 degrees, but that, as the nurse said, was because he hadn’t understood. Univ people left on Saturday but a few Union hacks still around had been informed by then and they’ve been here – I’ve changed rooms for the Vac. – and it’s really quite boring getting well again and having to start thinking of work.
After the flu I decided to change my mind and finally accept a hack invitation for a long weekend in the country just before Christmas – this is the house where all the goodies get lunch at the end of each term, and whence I returned Friday before last an hour late for my Master’s Collection. We needed the lunch, though, after the chaos of the previous week, when so many nasty bits of work were elected. It’s nice to have got on myself, especially as my JCR term of office runs out next term – isn’t it touching? I’m told quite a few of the freshmen want me to stand again! – and I can hack ruthlessly in the Union – which doesn’t mean no 1st because I wouldn’t have got a 1st anyway and exhortations from father aren’t really going to help. Sufficient that I’ve kept an Exhibition for 3 years on ludicrous pretences.
Gaji seems to have got in, and there weren’t any awards in biology and so forth, so a place is very good indeed. The chap doing Forestry kept asking me about him, and I kept saying I didn’t know him myself but my sister liked him and I trusted her judgment – some of the time – and he was a marvellous cricketer anyway. I think he’ll be expected to do great things games-wise when he appears. We’ve had a very good term right through – beat our 2nd boat in the Finals of the Christ Church Regatta, etc. – even though Oxford did fail to win the Rugger match under Univ captaincy. I am told, however, that next year isn’t as good as the three years in at present – which is very sad, if it does mean a Bolshie red–brick imitation, but it’s also rather nice to be remembered as a very good year, and the staff thought my staff party was the best in years!
7th January 1974
As usual Oxford gave me a very good Christmas, though not enough of it was here as I had 5 days before in Gloucestershire as I felt a need to convalesce and quite a bit of last week at the Gooneratnes’ due to a party – 2 days out in London, at rather bad plays, except for Maggie Smith in ‘Peter Pan’ & ‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ – which had been arranged with friends. I also had a 3rd afternoon with one of my school friends, in the course of which at last I saw a Piccadilly Club – the Liberal one – where we met Tony Fernando holding court, and I just got back today from a weekend with the family I was in France with – in the course of which Union intrigue was not forgotten. It’s astonishing how closely even schoolmasters follow their ex-pupils’ careers – we spent all yesterday evening being instructed in winning at politics by a rather eccentric English master who’s planning coachloads of voters for March the 8th – and I thought we were mad!
As you can see, I only had one clear week in Oxford and now people have begun to come back, which is a bit annoying because it’s lovely when hardly anyone’s here. There were a few more than last year, and we did have two ludicrous sessions of Monopoly, in addition to the usual pantomime with the Dean, and the Staff party, and a reasonable amount of work. The power crisis hasn’t affected me too badly yet, in fact the rooms I’ve been moved to are like a furnace, and I hope to return to my usual set tomorrow. Love cake arrived from home from Aach, and lots of cards. I also got more than the Dean from Undergrads which was very satisfactory. I hope shortages weren’t too annoying there – I can’t help feeling love cake is much nicer than Christmas cake. Snow hasn’t fallen here yet, except for drips in November, but the College still looks magnificent when silent.
17th January (1974)
A quick attempt to reply before term rolls on – the last few days have been full enough, principally with Union lunacies. I inquired in Univ about Kumar – there aren’t any places at Univ and a general shortage for medicine through the University – any hope of success would be through applying via the Ceylon University, and even then something else would probably be better – London? I have thought about the bar though not very deeply – two years of research in America, if I could get some sort of scholarship, might be fun, but I shall give myself another 6 months to decide.
If Aach. does arrive, in reply to Mum, I would meet her, and could assist in transport if I was around, though I’m not sure of my plans. I ought to be here about ½ the summer at least, though I can’t see that transport from one place to another requires particular assistance. I also hope at least some time is spent in Oxford instead of solely in London – details would be welcome whenever available.
Collections are tomorrow and tutorials have already begun to be arranged, though I did finish my 1st week essay in the Vac, which gives a bit of free time – essential due to a bit of bother coming up on Standing Committee next week. The President, a bad thing, has been caught out lying, which is most interesting – he’s also attempting to bar the Presidency for next term of the chap I was in France with.
Milan and Helga sent a card and another invitation, also the Devarajans, and Milan’s sister from Yugoslavia sent me a delightful book with pictures of the mountains I staggered up the summer before last. I seem to have been enormously fat according to last summer’s holiday photographs, but have succeeded in fitting into 29” waist trousers – the trouble is, one eats too much in term, due to the satisfaction of plotting over dinner in cheap but fattening Chinese restaurants.
My term of office as JCR President ends in 3rd week, and college duties cease, though it is quite fun watching the succession stakes. Do write soon, and ditto all round.
20th February 1974
Union politicking is the most tiring thing on earth, particularly in its culminating weeks, and I now end up fast asleep for one whole day a week – in addition to which, work is not of the easiest either, in addition to keeping up my role of elder statesman in the College and ‘enfant terrible’ in the Union, since my successor as JCR President was elected two weeks ago. He has a beard and so has most of the committee, and they’re all called John. It’s quite fun, though, to be rid of one lot of responsibilities.
My speech is tomorrow, though due to a slight fracas with the President I’m speaking 7th which doesn’t require much preparation. Also there are no guests due to the election so not many people will come. Unfortunately our clever plot to change places with the chap speaking 1st – who has no electoral traumas – was upset by the President’s discovery and he was relegated down as well. Still, I’ve got 2 rule changes next week to make up for it.
I’m going to see the Opera of ‘War and Peace’ on Monday at the Coliseum, to get away from it all, which should be fun – though there’s nothing like politics to keep one occupied.