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Loneliness of the A-level overachiever.


Alan Sillitoe in 2009

I might have saved myself a great deal of pain if I had read Alan Sillitoe’s “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner”, before Warrington Grammar School Head P.M. Jackson began his machinations to get me to apply to his preferred university. The relationship between Jackson and me could be compared to that between the Risley Towers Borstal governor and the young offender, Smith, in Sillitoe’s story.

Headmaster Jackson, educated at a private school in the South of England, owned the power. As a thinking, feeling person, I was of no interest to him. His masturbation obsession was more than just a peculiar eccentricity. He used it to confuse through his repulsive behaviour, so he could pretend concern yet avoid asking questions like “how do you feel about Oxford?”, and “what would you have done if I hadn’t locked you in the examination room when you arrived late for the entrance exam?”

I took part in a school visit to Warrington’s police station once. The constable showed us a hatch in the door, and told us that only one person had ever escaped through it. The constable said it was a petty offender he identified as little Reggie Pugin (not his real name). Reggie Pugin used to live next door but one from us in Broadhurst Avenue.

Manchester University seemed very keen to have me. They gave me the same A-level offer as Hertford – 2 “E”s. To Manchester Uni., I wouldn’t have been a disposable object in a social experiment. They would have taken me seriously as a student, and would have valued my 3 “A”s. If they had a chemistry “open” scholarship to offer, I doubt they would have given it and the associated accommodation entitlement to Manchester University chemistry professor’s son.

Headmaster Jackson wanted to brag about sending proletarian type students to Oxford. Going to Hertford College was a rotten, lonely, alienating, damaging outcome for me.


Piers Gaveston: My part in his downfall.

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.


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.

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.

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).