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Nepotism of the Profs….

2015-07-04 16.27.20 crop

Marmalade and Raspberry

Would Dr. Marmalade’s career have progressed unhindered if he had written a “real pity” letter to Professor Raspberry’s son? Raspberry Junior didn’t seem to be the happiest of chemistry students. I completed all my compulsory laboratory practical work by the end of the second year, to make space for exam preparation. It was a good plan, though it went wrong because I overestimated my ability to study while having to live in private accommodation in high-rent Oxford. RJ still had a significant proportion of his laboratory practical work to complete at the beginning of the third year. Would there have been ways found to circumvent the “things” that “conspired”, if they were conspiring against the professor’s son?

The unavailability of suitable accommodation was a conspiring thing. It might make sense for a college to allocate limited accommodation preferentially to students who are awarded scholarships for academic proficiency. They could act as a resource in college for the students living out. That didn’t work for me. Raspberry Junior, though awarded a scholarship, lived with his father in Oxford, not in college.

Dr. Marmalade wasn’t my ideal tutor. He was educated at a private school in Bristol, and then at Bristol university. I doubt he had the experience to understand the needs and feelings of an academic over-achiever from a state school in Warrington, a long way from home. I underachieved in all subjects in my finals, but I was worse in his subject, physical chemistry, than in the others, for which I had tutorials in other colleges. I wasn’t far from an alpha on one of the inorganic papers, “physical chemistry 1” was the only outright fail.

A couple of things Dr. Marmalade said to me post-finals were distinctly unhelpful. “In ten years time you’ll wonder what you were worried about”, he said. That might have been true if I had been from a well-connected middle class background and went to private school, like he did. Right then, I was feeling devastated by the Oxford experience.

“Nobody likes exams” he said, when I told him I had a difficult time in my finals. Actually, I enjoyed exams, when they went well. Most times and in most subjects at my state school in Warrington, I gained better results than everybody else. I often felt a sense of achievement. I am familiar with the sentiment that everybody hates a swot. I didn’t expect to hear it from an academic tutor at Oxford University.

Dr. Marmalade eventually became Professor Marmalade, appointed a professor of physical chemistry, at Oxford University, like Professor Raspberry.

Broadhurst Contaminated

Could do with a lick of paint.

Could do with a lick of paint.

Putting those two words into google, the first result I get is Warrington Borough Council’s public register contamination report (Environmental Protection Act 1990) for the street where I lived for my first eleven years (I was born at number 5).

Page 25 of the report, “Table 4.1 Particulars of Significant Harm and Particulars of Substances” gives details of toxicity in the soil, notably presence of arsenic, lead, mercury, nickel, and various polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, including benzo(a)pyrene, a class-1 carcinogen. The contaminants are from a 19th century Leblanc process waste tip, on which WBC built council houses. The washing soda factory itself was in St. Helens, and the waste was shipped in by canal and dumped in Sankey Bridges, some time in the 19th century.

Groundwater from the site is said to be contaminating Sankey Brook with a variety of metals and ammonia.

Fortunately, though I used to play in the garden and in the neighbouring field, which was similarly contaminated, we didn’t eat anything grown there, apart from some mint for mint sauce, and our drinking water was piped in from the Lake District, like everybody else’s.

I think a fracking well under Broadhurst Avenue could only possibly improve the environment.

Seventies humour.

Two comedians I experienced for free in the 1970s:


Pansy’s People

Comedian one – My friend Tim obtained tickets for an Oxford Review show at the “New Theatre”. The most memorable part was a sketch called “Pansy’s People” (might have been “Pansies’ People”) in which Rowan Atkinson pranced up and down stage in the manner of “Pan’s People”. This was in June 1976, just before my Final Examinations, an unhappy time for me, when my academic career expired in disappointment. Tim pointed out a man in the stalls wearing a corduroy jacket, who he said was professor something or other. I heard Professor Corduroy-Jacket predict young Mr Atkinson would go far. How perceptive he was! Rowan Atkinson is by all accounts a fine comedian, but I’ve never much enjoyed him, finding it hard to disassociate him from negative feelings about university.

Comedian two – Bill Medland of the Lion Hotel in Warrington owned the concession to run the occasional bar at the recently opened Woolston Leisure Centre. When I turned 18 I had a part-time job working for him. One one occasion the Woolston bar ran out of glasses, and the bar manager asked me to collect some discreetly at the back of the room, when the comedian was on stage, so we could cope with the interval rush. I had collar length hair at the time, and was wearing cheap black platform heeled shoes, as I imagined might have been worn by Che Guevara. Bernard Manning publicly queried my sexuality from the stage.


Woolston Wit

The cat that killed me.

Well, very nearly.

hertford cat 2

The latest Simpkin.

I was approaching the Hertford College library to attempt some “finals” preparation, when I heard sounds of avian distress in the quadrangle. The college cat, “amusingly named Simpkin”, had caught a blackbird. I approached it, and it ran off behind one of the residential blocks.

There then followed ten seconds of complete stupidity. I chased the cat into the passage behind the building. There were patches of lichen on the concrete, and dappled sunlight shining through bushes. Simpkin sidestepped to the left. Momentum carried me forward. I didn’t see the steps down to the cellar. I touched the middle step of eleven on the way down, and came to rest with my nose three inches from the back wall.

I don’t remember how I got to the Radcliffe Infirmary, but I was very familiar with the way there by then. The doctor suspected a break in my right wrist, and put my arm in plaster.

If the wall had been only a few inches closer to the steps, I’d have brained myself against the wall. I could imagine the headline “Brilliant student dies in unexplained accident” – in the “Warrington Guardian” at least. I’m glad I survived to be a living disappointment.

Hertford Swift Room

Rail and warning paint weren’t there when I fell in.

I learned my lesson. Enjoy your tasty blackbird, Simpkin.

Oxford University blamed the Labour Government.

There’s no accommodation – “because of the Labour Government,” So said the accommodations advisor at the Oxford University Accommodations Office, at the end of my first year. The subtext I heard was “why don’t you xxxx off you northern proletarian xxxx.” My home town Warrington was a safe Labour constituency, and I had indeed voted Labour on that occasion.

Apparently the government was changing some rule about renting. I thought regardless of her political opinions she and the university could have shown a more sympathetic attitude. I had to delay my search because of two stays in Oxford hospitals (The Radcliffe Infirmary, and the Churchill) after an accident fracturing my cheekbone.

I don’t believe either Tony Blair or Ed Miliband had to find private accommodation. For Blair, at the very wealthy St. John’s college, it was college room, college room, college room. Miliband’s experience at Corpus Christi college would have been similar.

Private school chap

Private school chap

It annoyed me to see the ITV article about Ed Miliband leading a rent strike when he was a student. The Government subsidises the colleges, and the colleges subsidise college accommodation. My parents, neither of whom was educated beyond the age of 14, were taxed to pay for benefits given to the wealthy and well-connected, but denied to me. For the wealthy (Blair) and well-connected (Miliband) the costs of accommodation were socialised. There was only harsh economic reality for me.

Professor's son

Professor’s son

Of course there’s delightful private accommodation to be found in Oxford, at a price. I expect that’s what David Cameron (Brasenose College, Oxford) was thinking when he said nobody with a third class degree should be allowed to teach. A decent chap’s wealthy parents should ensure one has the kind of living environment to avoid underachievement in one’s final exams.

I believe I’d have had a better outcome if I’d taken my A-level grade As to Manchester University (who offered me a place at the same time as Hertford).

Dr. Marmalade’s Letter.

marmalade letter

Dear Phillip,

Now that my examining is over I have had a chance to speak to the Part 1 examiners and to find out you marks which, as you expected, are less good than they should be. Overall you got 4 β’s (top was in inorganic II) but you also had 3 γ’s and a non-satis (in physical I). Realistically this means that your most probable result must be a third although there is just a chance that a good Part II would pull you up. It is a real pity that things conspired to cause you to do much less well than you should have – with your ability you should have been at the other end of the school – but there it is and we must accept the situation.

Although I hope you will come back to Oxford I feel I should point out that is is possible for you to finish now with an unclassified honours degree, which might be as good a bet for your career as a ‘third’ in a year’s time – perhaps you could let me know sometime whether you feel you would like to come back.

With best wishes



Dr. Marmalade seemed able to accept the situation without much difficulty.

World’s Worst Banker

BIG bonuses

Hertford College, Oxford awarded its chemistry “open” scholarship in my year to the privately educated son of Oxford University’s “Dr. Lee’s” professor of physical chemistry.

Although neither of my parents was educated beyond the age of 14, and although I achieved A-levels in maths, physics and chemistry, all at grade A, at at time grade A was awarded less frequently than now, I was offered only a place. For most of my time at Hertford, there was just me and the professor’s son. Not having a scholarship, I had to find private accommodation after the first year (of a four year course). Not surprisingly I had a difficult time at Oxford.

Some years later a senior manager at TSB Bank (Mr B.B.), told me I couldn’t be promoted to senior programmer, commenting “you had trouble at university, didn’t you?” Abbey National (now part of Santander bank) broke my contract of employment in order to demote me. Although they reinstated me after I complained to the staff association, they subsequently accused me of vexatious use of the grievance procedure, and then sacked me.

Abbey National sacked me from my £22k p.a. job shortly before appointing fellow but less time-served Oxford graduate Stephen Hester as finance director. I think he was scraping by on half a million at the time.

Stephen Hester is, coincidentally, a Russell Group university chemistry professor’s son.

Thanks to Hertford College and the Tanner Scheme, I worked in banking for 20 years. I could have earned as much as a bus driver, if I’d put the hours in.