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Killing my first German.

January 29, 2017

My father couldn’t spell “Italian” but he was meticulous when dealing with mines and booby traps.  His commanding officer had a different skill set. He could spell “Italian” but was killed by a butterfly mine.

“I shot my first German when I was your age” is what my father said when I told him I was leaving Oxford. He occasionally told stories about the War, but that was the only time he said anything about killing.

I had discussed Oxford with him when I was still at school. “You’ll make a good chemist” he said. Based on my school academic record, that seemed obvious. I doubt he knew about my school headmaster locking me in the examination room after I arrived late for the entrance exam, and the headmaster’s subsequent weirdness. I didn’t tell my father, and I doubt my mother said anything. My father left school at fourteen, and my mother at twelve, so they didn’t have the information to advise me academically.

Dad was right, though. If I’d been able to take a detached, unemotional view, I’d have put in the minimum laboratory work to pick up my third class degree, and used the time to try whatever Oxford had to offer. If Oxford University had somebody to mentor me, and who was on my side, that attitude might have been sold to me.

I panicked. Going straight to Oxford from a working class background seemed like a terrible mistake. If I had taken a year out, I’d be collecting my first class degree, or at worst a very good second, from Manchester, or perhaps a suitable Cambridge college, at the same time I was due to collect my third class degree after four years of chemistry at Oxford. I was distraught. I felt the need to get out and correct the mistake as soon as possible, although rationally it was never likely to be possible. Window punching was definitely not a rational response.

The chemistry tutor at Hertford College showed no apparent interest in encouraging me to stay. I only spoke to him very occasionally after my finals humiliation. Perhaps he was embarrassed about Hertford College’s chemistry open scholarship having been awarded to the Oxford University chemistry professor’s son, when I, the only other chemistry student, received just a place, in spite of my three A-level grade “A”s. His only encouragement – “In ten years’ time, you’ll wonder what you were worried about”, he said.

He amongst others have described Hertford as a “progressive” Oxford college, as does Hertford College’s promotional literature. What was so progressive about awarding the college’s only chemistry scholarship to the Oxford University chemistry professor’s son?

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