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Congratulations to nephew D on winning a place at Britain's second best University - it was 31 years ago for me

Tom Winnifrith
Friday 18 August 2017

In most ways I am, as you might have gathered, the black sheep of my family. Am I allowed to use that phrase anymore? The rest of them work for the State, read the Guardian and believe in money trees while worrying about the poor polar bears drowning on melting ice caps thanks to wicked folk like Donald Trump and Margaret Thatcher. But in one respect I followed a family tradition in that I managed to get into the UK's leading seat of learning, that is to say Oxford.

Little sister N followed me there and that is where my father went. As did my mother (and step mother) and my father's brother and his sister's husband. Both my grandfathers went to the City of lost causes to study as did grandpa Booker's younger brother Michael. The brothers of my father's mother went there as did the brothers of my step mother (who was also my father's second cousin). And in all cases they followed on from generations before them. You get the picture. The black sheep here is my sister T, mother of D, who went to the other place. As, it happens, so did uncle Chris Booker. But they are the the odd ones out.

Getting in to either Oxford or Cambridge is not easy. For some folks, like Prince Charles it is a bit of a slam dunk. My room-mate in my last year at Warwick School, Peter Hu, was a total maths genius who came second in the Oxford entrance exam. For Peter and Prince Charles there was never any doubt as the the outcome of their applications. For all I know, young D might be in this category. His father, a professional classical singer won a choral scholarship to the other place - where he met T - and I sense he might have been a bit of a slam dunk to get in as well. He is gifted.

But for most of us the line between getting in and not getting in is less clear cut. I botched my entrance papers somewhat and double botched my interview when trying to get into Christ Church at Oxford (The House) and, was thus, not that surprised to be rejected some 31 years ago. But to its credit, Hertford College gave me a second chance and after an interview which I found rather confusing I was, rather to my surprise, offered a place. Clearly Professor Malpas saw something in me although, to this day, I cannot really say what. But his inspired call, has allowed me to make the same joke for thirty years about how the two greatest writers of the 20th Century were both shunned by The House and ended up at Hertford: that is to say myself and Evelyn Waugh.

The real shock you get when you arrive at Oxford, or the other place, is that you are not brilliant at all. Like everyone else who gets in (except, I suspect, Prince Charles) you are used to being among the best at your school in an almost effortless way. But then you realise, after just a few weeks, that there are, in fact, an awful lot of people who are far cleverer than you are. My academic woes were compounded by the Booker lazy gene. I do not push Uncle Chris too hard on what degree he finally managed to achieve and as for his really is not something we ever covered.

Grandpa Booker spent four years smoking, drinking, gambling, playing a bit of sport, punting and chasing women. He met my grandmother while punting. She was with some girlfriends in one punt struggling and stranded on one bank. He and his male friends were in another booze laden boat laughing heartily. She claims to have said loudly "you are the rudest men I've ever met". Grandpa always said that she said "rudest man". He was smitten and pursued her through Summertown begging for a chance to make amends.

My grandmother said she bullied him to do some work in what was his final term and that ensured that at least he secured a pass in his finals. But I believe it was not much more than that.

I did a bit better. I remember the day that the degree results were posted. Put it this way, I started from the bottom up. Getting a 2:2 ( a Desmond) was something I regarded as a result. I really would not have been shocked had I been awarded a Douglas (a third). Clearly the examiners saw something in my scripts which I did not but I cannot, for the life of me, imagine what it was..

If I am stressed about something, I still, to this day, wake up in a cold sweat imagining that for some awful reason I have elected to go back and am sitting finals again and am even less well prepared and more clueless than last time around. That is not quite what Fraud described as displacement but I am not sure what the correct term is. You see: all the hallmarks of a 2:2 man, some knowledge but not enough.

But nephew D has two parents who both worked diligently as did my father who technically got the same degrees as me in that, in his day, 2nds were not divided. But, as he points out when this matter is raised, he was Viva'd for a first. So I have faith that nephew D will dodge the Booker lazy gene and prosper. That is all for the future. For now he must be elated and well done to him. Enjoy the moment.

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About Tom Winnifrith
Tom Winnifrith is the editor of When he is not harvesting olives in Greece, he is (planning to) raise goats in Wales.
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