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Piers Gaveston: My part in his downfall.

October 29, 2015
Private Eye no. 503, 27 March 81.

Auberon Waugh’s Diary Private Eye no. 503, 27 March 81

“I wonder what Sunday Times readers will make of some disgusting photographs of the new style Oxford undergraduate with a commentary by Ian Jack …

Oh dear. Perhaps I should give instructions for no more copies of ‘Brideshead Revisited’ to be printed. It really was not written for the modern Oxford undergraduate nor for the modern Sunday Times reader, let alone for the failed Northern chemists who write their drab little hearts out in its terrible pages.”

Auberon Waugh’s Diary, “Private Eye” no. 503, 27 March 81.

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In 1981 I was employed as a programmer in the TSB Bank computer services department. One of the software programmers supporting TSB’s new mainframe dropped his copy of “Private Eye” in the bin, and I fished it out to read. I didn’t know what to make of Auberon Waugh’s comments. I hadn’t read “Brideshead Revisited”, or anything else written by Evelyn Waugh, and I didn’t know anything about the novel. I did wonder who or what Auberon Waugh meant by “failed Northern chemists”. This “Eye” was printed four years after I left Hertford College, in December 1976.

Ian Jack recalled his own 1981 Sunday Times article recently in the Guardian.
http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/sep/25/bright-young-things-revisited-how-camerons-generation-made-oxford-their-playground

Jack describes interviewing Caroline Kellett, then a final year history student:
“Everyone here, even the ‘Northern chemists’, are out for themselves. If you’re at all bright, you know you fuck other people before they fuck you.” In the piece, I turned “fuck” into “screw” and explained that “Northern chemists” were “drudges in the sciences, up from the comprehensives”.
Why Ian Jack translates “Northern chemists” as “drudges in the sciences etc” he doesn’t say. Why would Waugh and Kellett both say “Northern chemists” rather than South Coast physicists or West Country engineers?

Granada tv’s 11 part serial was broadcast in October to December 1981. I was not looking forward to it. I expected to hear a succession of people telling me how much they enjoyed the Oxford scenes, how they would have loved to be a student there, how unfortunate it was that I didn’t appreciate it, and so on. I felt happier discovering that much of the story was about somebody having an emotional crisis in Oxford. The story showed that going to Oxford didn’t guarantee happiness, even for the rich.

The BBC comedy programme “Three of a Kind” included a sketch called “Brideshead Regurgitated” (series 2, episode 3, broadcast late 1982). This included comic narration performed by Lenny Henry in the Charles Ryder role:
“I stayed with Sebastian that Christmas at Brideshead. Brideshead was a baroque dream of domes, ramparts, colonnades, and lots and lots of bricks.
With its Chippendale furniture, Chinese drawing room and great tapestry hung hall, it just needed extensive modernisation to make it almost fit for human habitation.
I tried to draw it and managed to capture its subtle splendour.”

I thought it significant that there is a reference to “Chippendale furniture” in this four minute comedy sketch. “Chippendale” gets a couple of mentions in Evelyn Waugh’s novel, but none at all in the eleven hours of Granada’s tv serial.

This is the back story I imagined. When Granada came to Hertford College to film its serial “Brideshead Revisited”, in 1979, it would have been natural to compare current student behaviour with Waugh’s time in the 1920s. There would have been people around who witnessed my own departure in December 1976. “There was a chemistry student from the North of England, who … his name was Chippendale”. I don’t think anybody in a Waugh novel punched a window through though.

I can imagine the kind of people who created the Piers Gaveston society being both intrigued and disgusted by my existence and my behaviour. Intrigued because they are more likely than most to observe the hereditary principle and the significance of family names. Disgusted because it was a Northern state school science student who unwittingly created a spectacle possibly most comparable with the departure from Oxford of Waugh’s fictional young lord. Piers Gaveston people able to purchase better accommodation and more sympathetic tutors, and with a greater sense of entitlement, are less likely than poorer students to leave Oxford unhappily or prematurely anyway. I can imagine the people who adapted Waugh’s novel for Granada being fed up with Oxford students’ jokes, consequently making a few slight amendments to the script. The “Chippendale” reference in “Brideshead Regurgitated” seemed to me perhaps an in-joke at Granada’s (and my) expense.

“Privileged” was a low budget film set in Oxford, made mostly by Oxford students, and released in 1982. Warrington public library had a VHS copy, and I watched it on my Mum’s video cassette player. I don’t remember much about the film, except at one point one of the male actors punched a wall, bloodying his hand. That seemed to me to reference the very stupid thing I did in my final term in Oxford. “Privileged” the film seems to have disappeared completely, even though it was the first project of several well-known people in the film industry, including the actor, Hugh Grant.

A 2014 article on the “Cherwell” website, on Oxford drinking societies, names both Hugh Grant and Ian Hislop as former members of the Piers Gaveston society (which is said to have been formed in 1977). Ian Hislop is credited as a writer for “Three of a Kind”, and first wrote for “Private Eye” in 1980, and doubtless knew Auberon Waugh by 1981.

It cheered me up to think that the authorities at Hertford College mlght have suffered some slight embarrassment. Hertford College seriously fucked me, to use Caroline Kellett’s word. If I had taken a year out after school I would be heading towards a first or at least a good second class degree when I was due to finish Chemistry part 2 of the four year course at Oxford (June 1977). I hated myself for letting those private school people walk over me. As far as Hertford was concerned, I was disposable proletarian roadkill on their way to Norrington Table success. I would have been much better off taking my A-level grade As elsewhere. I think other people would have been better off too.

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