My strange dream of Friday night about a failed third interview at Oxford brings back memories of my first two bites at the cherry – the whole process was surreal and almost of another era. The year was 1985.
It had been decided that I was capable of applying for Oxford and that I should sit the exam in the fourth term of my sixth form at Warwick School for boys, an establishment that these days also takes girls in the sixth form. The choice of college was not in doubt. My grandfather (Sir John Winnifrith), my father and his brother Charles Winnifrith had all gone to Christchurch as had Richard Hobhouse who married my father’s younger sister Lucy. My maternal grandfather had studied (very little) at Pembroke and my mother had attended St Anne’s which was just about to start accepting men in the year of my application.
Elder cousins Helen & Corinna Hobhouse had both failed to get into ChristChurch so it was not a family connection shoe in. A rather studious cousin Charlotte Winnifrith was already up and so as I always rather liked Lotte who has a hidden wild streak I went for the family choice.
The day of the exam came and I can still remember utterly screwing up an essay answering the question “Is poverty relative?” Of course it can be viewed in relative terms but it is absolute poverty that we must eradicate and that can only happen through the joys of capitalism which requires inequality of wealth for it to work. Greed, the desire to be richer than the best man is the only way to drive enterprise and so to make all of society better off, including the poor. There. I have answered the question in 45 seconds but in November 1985, sitting in the second desk from the front next to the wall, I made a right pig’s ear of it.
Despite that I was called up to the House for interview. The Christchurch of the mid-eighties was a frightful place, known as the home of the Sloane ranger. Do you remember Olivia Channon who died of a heroin overdose? All her posh pals were at The House. It has always been the college of the establishment so I really do not understand quite where my father, an instinctive rebel, fitted in or how I was meant to fit in.
Hobhouses are the establishment. Money made from slavery in the 1600s bought them a stately home and the veneer of liberal respectability. Hobhouses are Judges or barristers and they are meant to attend The House. My grandfather Sir John was a scholarship boy but he was in the ChristChurch boat club, throwing the college poof into the fountain in Tom Quad – a scene immortalised in Brideshead – and he became part of the Establishment as did his eldest son Charles. But my father and I? I just did not understand what I was doing there or how he had managed to survive four years.
I arrived on a cold December day and was told that I’d be looked after by a current student. A sloaney pony duly took me to a cold room next to hers and marking me down as a bit of an oik promptly abandoned me to go party with more suitable candidates. About two in the morning I heard her vomiting in the loo which served both our rooms and I never saw her again. After a poor night’s sleep in that cold room, I wandered off to be interviewed.
I really cannot remember anything about the interview but came away convinced that I had failed. A few days later my father called a Christchurch Don who had for some reason taught my mother and he confirmed the bad news. A polite letter of rejection followed.
In the January that followed I headed up to Durham, the home of Oxbridge rejects. There was a white-out on the train up and the snow lay thick on the ground in the grim North. The students were friendly and I marched through the global warming between a college (Grey) and faculty (history) interview and really rather liked the place. An offer came and I was all set for an education in the post-industrial wastelands. But behind the scenes my headmaster, a good man John Strover, had been pushing my cause as the best Warwick candidate not to get in. And Hertford College had a spare place for PPE and so plucked me from “the pool” for interview.
There was still snow on the ground as I arrived in Oxford and trudged from the Station to Hertford, a small and unglamorous college in the heart of the City. As I made my way through the global warming, I told myself over and over again that Oxford was indeed the City of lost causes and that Durham was a far superior place.
My interview was with philosophy Don Richard Malpas who poured me a huge glass of sherry and wrote on a whiteboard “WHEN IF OR NOT AND,” then sat back in his chair and asked me to discuss what he had written. I cannot remember what I said but we did an odd one out game and one by one we eliminated the words. We chatted briefly about a few matters of trivia and he said goodbye. I walked out having absolutely no idea what all that was about and stormed back to the station muttering dark words about Oxford and telling myself what a cracking place the Grim North was.
A few days later a letter arrived in the post. My father and I opened it nervously and rather to my surprise I had been accepted to start in September 1987. I was in.
Like Evelyn Waugh I had been turned down by the House and ended up at impoverished Hertford, a college for grammar school boys and Northerners. And among the first colleges to accept women. You will no doubt remember that in the Waugh classic Brideshead Revisited, Lord Sebastian is up at The House while Charles Ryder, into whose room Sebastian vomits by way of introduction, is at Hertford.
I rarely came into contact with ChristChurch during my time at Oxford. By the time I arrived Lotte had left for a career in the City. I went there once in my final year to be interviewed by merchant bank British & Commonwealth about a job after graduation. The House men on the panel assured me that B&C was a well-run firm and that journalists, who were obviously the low of the low, were making up all the bad stuff about their firm, that I seemed like their sort of man and offered me a job. I declined. B&C went bust three months later.
So I did not flunk every interview I had at the House. On balance the place served up two lucky escapes for me.