This week’s confession is that last week, to pass the time on the way to Durham, I bought a Tatler to read on the train. Such vice, it turned out, was rewarded in a way, because they had a feature on the Spires of Oxford – that is, on the new generation of undergraduates, “hot . . . clever and . . . on the cusp of greatness”.
Now, I spend a lot of time persuading perfectly normal and clever kids that coming to Oxbridge is not to enter the maw of Brideshead, that we want to encourage the brightest of whatever background, wealth or race to come here, to feel at home and do well. Reading this sort of rubbish, which was of course about a handful of the glossy privileged and their pranks, makes me want to weep – or scream.
For a start, this featured selection of the jeunesse dorée (and for dorée I mean white -- not a coloured face in sight) were almost all introduced via their Mum and Dad: here was Wilfred, son of a media-knight and his aristocratic wife; then there was the “gorgeous glossy daughter” of a hotel-knight; plus the descendants of Greek shipping magnates and Iron Chancellors. If no obviously glitzy ancestry was in view, then they were hyped as “Oxford’s perkiest blonde” or “the best biceps on the river”.
The pictures backed this up. One of the “perky blondes” leant on a croquet mallet. Others showed a lot of leg on a bicycle or walked hand in hand with a fellow-Oxford cousin, in a plunging neckline. The men, by contrast, were sultrily posed, in various styles (dinner jackets to trench coat) of black and white – except that is for the “best biceps” who was in rowing kit plus (incongruously) a scarf, and a character in a Brideshead dressing-gown, plus teddy-bear (who turned out to be the son of a Beach Boy, and already to have spent 8 years at the University of Bangor -- pictured on the right getting his degree).
The student quotes themselves were as you might imagine. One young lady said that what she particularly liked about Oxford was the “short terms and long holidays” (which, given that – as other sources appeared to reveal -- she has gone on to graduate work, was probably one of those traditional denials of hard work by the hard workers). Another claimed to love her tutor who “wears cord trousers every day’. And indeed I did find a picture of this unfortunate bloke surrounded by three gleaming late adolescent girls.
I know I’m being unfair. These kids had been dressed up to the part by Tatler (“Jemima wears a silk printed dress, £2000, by Gucci’) and almost certainly had been encouraged to spout their silly lines. I am quite sure that underneath all this they are very clever – and the key thing about University access is that you discriminate neither against the clever rich nor against the clever poor. In fact one of my best memories of teaching in Cambridge in watching a burgeoning friendship between a couple of classicists: one a Scottish heiress, the other a London Trotskyite.
I also know that most of the kids who would be put off by this kind of article would never buy the Tatler. So in that sense it probably does little harm. But they might always see it in the proverbial dentists waiting room. . . and then a lot of good work would have been undone, quite wrongly. Needless to say, Oxbridge isn’t actually full of sultry blokes, silk dressing gowns, croquet mallets and the posh off-spring of peers.