Class dismissed: how I went from homelessness to Oxford, and what Richard Dawkins has nightmares about


Say this city has ten million souls
Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes

* * *

A letter in a too-large envelope came five years ago this week. The paper had shifted in the excess space so the plastic window meant for the address showed its initial lines of text instead. I am pleased on behalf of Wadham College, it began, to offer you a place. Oxford’s 2013 interviewees sit, as I write, in hope of such a letter.

Legends abound about the Oxbridge interview, referred to always with a definite article as in ‘the Eucharist’ – an arcane, unalterable rite shrouded in mystery. Oxford and Cambridge hopefuls have stories thrust on them of rugby balls, bananas and trick questions, and access workers’ first task (I was one once) is to dispel these myths. Interviews in reality amount most of the time to cordial, relaxed if mentally rigorous exchanges – nothing worse. Oxford’s bizarrenesses are many, but kick in for the most part only once successful candidates take up their spots. You might imagine by my fourth year there, I’d have acclimatised, but you’d be wrong: few ever wholly do. Memories of finals, now eight months ago, are among my most surreal.

Oxford’s exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper – looks centuries out of date because it is. Amendments made to rules in 2012 eliminated reference to gender, making my year the first whose men could wear ordinary black ties rather than ivory bows, an aesthetic and practical step up that nonetheless resembled funeral garb. (Appropriate, I felt, for long dead academic prospects’ burial.) Tradition, though I’d no time for it, dictates white carnations be worn on top for first exams, pink ones thereafter and red for the final one, a colour scheme it’s always seemed to me suggests loss of virginity. Finalists in most subjects file thus dressed into Examination Schools – venue, incidentally, of next year’s World Humanist Congress – to sit exams between ornate wood-panelled walls, observed by ancient portraits, gazing periodically up at giant clocks that may or may not be as Victorian as they appear. The whole ritual feels close to religious; I can tell you, since he once told me, that Richard Dawkins has nightmares about it.

Being, unlike him, an academic slacker, I never felt much strain during my finals. I didn’t expect a very good degree, nor feel in need of one. (Upper second, as it turned out, English and Modern Languages.) One memory persists, though. Returning to college down Queen’s Lane from a twentieth century English paper (I managed a first there), three stocky, plum-voiced undergrads fell boorishly about ahead of me, red carnations near-invisible through baked beans, flour and confetti. ‘Trashing’, as it’s known, is another Oxford custom, inflicted on students finishing exams. I’m thankful I escaped it. Stumbling on down the road, the boy on the right shook vigorously and then uncorked a bottle of champagne, dousing the middle one in the resulting spray of foam. His accomplice on the left, still guffawing, restrained their target as he tried to flee, and the boy with the bottle upturned it over him, releasing every drop till none remained.

More than half Oxford’s students are state-schooled. Few attended England’s ancient public schools, as alarmingly many did in Britain’s cabinet, and it’s lazy to equate the two: Oxford is no costlier than any major university, and the ten percent of students with parents on less than £16,000 a year pay fees of three thousand instead of nine. It’s true though that an air of privilege pervades. Trashing is harmless fun for students in historically male garb well off enough to dry-clean it. It wouldn’t have been for me. My stomach turns recalling that champagne, but only since it spoke to the whole practice’s louche insensitivity. I saw this often at Oxford – in colleagues who wore designer clothes to bed and insisted a time passed when their parents ‘only’ made £250,000 a year; in those who casually forked hundreds out to replace a blemished croquet set; in the drunken braying outside pubs of boys in tailcoats who thought they owned the place. (Perhaps they did.)

The day I arrived, hauling luggage from a taxi to my first year room, a woman in her fifties with a warm Oxfordshire accent greeted me whose name was June, and whose role my fresher’s pack had told me was to clean my room, make the bed and change the sheets. Her job description, like the figure she earned, should have been longer: when it turned out I’d no duvet of my own, June snuck me a college owned one reserved for conference guests; when I spent my first week bedridden with swine flu, she brought food to my door; when I failed to lock it, she chided me good-naturedly. A surrogate mum a hundred miles from home, I loved June as I’ve read England’s public schoolboys love their domestic matrons – but flinched inwardly at how clearly this seemed the basis of her role. Early on, she referred in passing to wealthy parents funding my degree – the truth, I told her immediately, was that I belonged to that poorest tenth of students, reliant on a student loan and grants. A bedmaker who cleaned my floor felt as embarrassingly alien as meals served in the college hall by staff in black bow ties. (Their supervisor held the telling title of Head Butler.) When possible, I ducked these to eat privately or in the cafeteria.

My appetite – in one sitting, I can polish off whole cakes or quiches – was a subject of fun now and again in my tutorial group. They discovered it as time went on, but never why. I’m able to do this for the same reason I’m able, more or less, to function normally for two or three days without food: I know how it feels to be hungry for years.

It wouldn’t be true to say my mother and I starved at any point, but nor were cupboards ever adequately full. The two of us were homeless before I turned a year old; fleeing her then-husband, a man who broke her heart and numerous other parts of both of us, it took officials the best of two years to house us properly. The benefits on which we spent the next few years allowed, after expenses, a household budget of £70 a week or so, meaning that on my mum’s trips to the shops, counting the pennies wasn’t a metaphor. From the staples of our diet, bread, cheese, pasta and potatoes, she fashioned an uncanny range of meals, many of them my comfort foods today, but supply was limited. I still recall her voice, frustration masking despair, telling me when circumstances bit that there was ‘no food in the house’. Free school lunches, such as they were in the nineties, meant I rarely went without for longer than 24 hours, but if it was a weekend when this happened and no neighbours, church members or friends were forthcoming with help, nothing could be done about it. If I overeat at times, it’s because the concept still feels new.

Mum was 42 when she had me, but lived for the following years as students are imagined to. Our furniture, food itself if still vacuum-packed, came out of skips. Even the fridge in which the latter sat, she got by swapping the inferior original with another single mum’s named Shirley; the washing machine next to it, her first husband bought us. Almost all my clothes were second hand, donated by parents from church or the school gates, though always in good nick. It’s hard to get across just how poor we were, except that it shows in subtler ways too. Some nights, Mum taught keep fit at the local primary school, unpaid monetarily (a stipulation of her benefits) but provided in exchange with household goods – among them, a stereo. CDs from Woolworths being an unthinkable expense, I grew up with her cassette tape collection from the sixties, seventies and eighties, and my childhood’s songs as a consequence were by Dusty Springfield, the Pointer Sisters and Diana Ross. I was seven before I listened intently to contemporary music (a copy of Cher’s ‘Believe’ bought in a fit of decadence), and half way through my teens before I paid real attention. A gap of fifteen years or so in my musical knowledge, despite attempts to close it, has resulted.

The cost of a bottle of champagne, even from the cheap end of the shelf, would for us have meant an extra two or three days’ food. The hatred stirred in me by seeing one used as a water pistol is as incommunicable as our thriftiness back then, but prompts even now a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out. I felt it at Oxford many times, though never more acutely than then – when a friend schooled for a six figure price complained a degree unfunded by his parents would saddle him with debts; when alumni of such places, 7 percent of Britain’s populace in total, mentioned their attendance as casually as if discussing where to buy socks; when I heard it said my feeling in response, called class hatred by those who’ve never had it, was the last accepted prejudice (a stupid phrase if ever there was one).

Pointing to class in any personal context is considered impolite. Praised by the Daily Mail last year, actor Tom Hiddleston – a product of the prep-school-Eton-Cambridge assembly line – complained the ‘artistic, political or intellectual has to be refracted through [a] prism of class consciousness’. Even a left wing, feminist friend opposed politically to fee-paying education shot me down for saying I wouldn’t date Eddie Redmayne of Les Mis fame since he went to boarding school with Hiddleston. Analogies in these areas are treacherous, but it’s tempting to think class, like gender or race, is something a friendly liberal politics encourages us not to see from day to day – dismissing and disregarding it as academic or off-limits, concerned as we might be in principle for that elusive thing, ‘equality’, in case the marginalised should make the privileged uncomfortable. Doing so prompts frequent accusations of bigotry, spreading the politics of envy and having a chip on one’s shoulder – canards, surely, that feminists and progressives like my alma mater’s ought to recognise.

If this post was unexpected, I know why. With my tweedy prose, unfashionable vowels (the ‘a’ amuses friends and enemies alike) and Latin postnominals, I’m something of a caricature – but ‘caricature’ is the word. Look closely for the giveaways: teeth affluent parents would have set in braces, hair only recently cut by professionals, voice without the real upper crust’s affected twang. I spot signs like these from a mile away: a partner of Hiddleston’s or Redmayne’s ilk, like the boys on Queen’s Lane who used champagne like water, would mean a barrage of emotional slaps in the face, a reminder in Wystan Auden’s words that they lived in mansions while I lived empty-stomached in a hole.

Try telling me I oughtn’t resent that. Try.

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Comments

  1. Stella says

    Whoof. Thank you for this. It hit me right in the gut.

    I lived like that; I still own only a very few pieces of furniture, but I put my daughter through undergraduate education and got her to a PhD in science from Harvard.

    But my story doesn’t end well. May you go onward and upward.

    Stella

  2. csrster says

    Moving and fascinating. One factual slip I spotted

    “Oxbridge exam dress – gown, mortarboard and suit or skirt-and-jumper”

    You wrote “Oxbridge” for “Oxford” there.

    I was at Cambridge in the early 80’s and in my memory everybody else there was, like me, lower middle-class! I suppose I was just blundering about in a self-satisfied fog and didn’t really notice the more complex story, but I think it’s more likely that my choice of college, subject, and freetime activities had the side-effect of bringing me into contact exclusively with people who resembled myself.

  3. duncanbooth says

    Cambridge(or at least the college I attended in the early 80s) requires gowns for matriculation, formal hall, and graduation. They are most definitely not required or even expected for exams; I know of one person in my year who wore subfusc for exams and I believe got told off by the examiners for not getting it quite right (the point being that Cambridge encourages pedants but only if they are sufficiently pedantic). Mortar boards I believe are permitted but certainly not normal.

    I will admit that when I sat my final exam I brought a bottle of Champagne with me, but that was most definitely for drinking by myself and my friends. I wouldn’t agree with @csrster that everyone was lower-middle class, but a good few were.

  4. cartomancer says

    I don’t think this is at all unusual for Oxford students from less well off backgrounds. It certainly seems familiar to me.

    I never felt comfortable with the scouts or the hall porters at Wadham. So uncomfortable, in fact, that I never ate in college as an undergraduate, and I left a note out at the beginning of each year to ask nicely if I could clean my room myself. Mind you, the first of those was probably just as much thanks to my crippling social anxieties, which meant that I dreaded being in close proximity to strange people. The second, perhaps, because I felt guilty about the nocturnal lifestyle I led to help facilitate keeping others at arms’ length. Complete social isolation spared me from encountering class issues among other students. I didn’t even know about things like “trashing” or the carnation code or the Bullingdon Club until I came back for my doctorate and tentatively spoke to a few other students for the first time. I still refused scout service though, when I was in Library Court, and Merifield didn’t have it.

    When I did meet the Public School set, though, I found them a very alien and unfathomable breed. Their profligacy and blase attitude to money certainly did infuriate me. One of the reasons I never applied to teach undergrads in that time was because I didn’t trust myself to give tutorials to such people without letting my resentment colour the experience. A boyfriend from their number would obviously have been out of the question, but since I never managed to find one from any other social stratum either that never struck me as a class thing.

  5. says

    Thanks for writing this Alex. It’s been 15 years since I was there and this brought back some uncomfortable memories. My background is totally different – Indian student from upper-middle class background. The class system at Oxford (and the UK in general) came as a shock to me, in particular I remember my discomfort over my “scout”, Sheila, a white woman in her 50s. Or in my first week, the first time I saw white construction workers and did a double take. The derision towards “townies”. A letter in the Cherwell from a “posh” person complaining about having to “dumb down” their accent at Oxford. Etc.

  6. jonathangray says

    To sum up:

    You had a tough childhood.

    You nevertheless had the great good fortune — the immense privilege — of attending Oxford University.

    At Oxford you (inevitably) encountered students who enjoyed more privileged circumstances than yourself.

    Some of these students blithely revelled in their privileged circumstances by indulging in conspicuous consumption, as immature young men are wont to do.

    This made you resent them, bitterly.

    Hardly an edifying narrative. Some people have the great good fortune to be born beautiful, an unearned attribute that most likely will smooth their way through life. Many plain people probably resent that, which is understandable enough, but I confess I fail to see what’s praiseworthy about waving their resentment as a flag of righteousness. Should beautiful people be expected to mutilate themselves to level the playing field?

  7. says

    @jonathangray (#6)

    I don’t know what your point is. But I’d certainly like to hear why going to Oxford is more of a ‘great good fortune’ and ‘immense privilege than going to Warwick, Edinburgh or UCL, say.

  8. shauncarpenter says

    @jonathangray

    Of course beautiful people shouldn’t be expected to mutilate themselves, that wouldn’t help anything. They *should* be expected to “level the playing field” though (by helping break down the social structure that places them above other people because of physical appearance). Likewise, wealthy people should be expected to use their wealth to help the less wealthy.

    With the analogy you’ve made, beautiful people mutilating themselves (brazenly throwing away their beauty for no gain), is much like the students wasting champagne (brazenly throwing away their wealth for no gain).

    Alex, I really liked the post.

  9. jonathangray says

    I don’t know what your point is. But I’d certainly like to hear why going to Oxford is more of a ‘great good fortune’ and ‘immense privilege than going to Warwick, Edinburgh or UCL, say.

    Oxbridge has a reputation for intellectual rigour. From what I recall of my misspent years there I would say that reputation is (or at any rate was) not entirely undeserved. Whether it is any more distinguished in that respect than the other institutions you mention (or ever was) I can’t say … but it seems to me that the opportunity for an intelligent young man to breathe such an elite atmosphere for a number of years is a great privilege. Many people might find cause for resentment in that. They might even feel ”hatred … a hot, breathless nausea and impulse to lash out”. There is always someone less privileged than yourself who would love to burn your world.

    Men are unequal in every respect other than human dignity (if you believe in that odd, unscientific concept). We all know this — put three randomly selected people in a room and you will see a hierarchy emerge. We also know that attempts to erase these inequalities by “breaking down social structures” (as though the latter were not as much the result as the cause of human inequality) invariably involve breaking down actual human beings and leave society just as stratified as ever. So why not learn to love the principle of hierarchy and appreciate the diversity inherent in inequality?

  10. says

    Deeply grokked, Alex. My family were poor like this, before we sold everything and bought one-way tickets to Canada in 76. We lived in a caravan for a few years, shifting about with the local Travellers. Cracked vinyl winter boots, scraping my legs because short socks were cheaper than long ones. Liverwurst sandwiches, because it’s high protein and relatively cheap (because it tastes like boiled llama arse, and no bugger with any sense wants any).

    So yeah. Understood. When I got to university here in Canada, it was because I worked at least two jobs all the time, and I was still the first (but not the last; my generation has done well by the family records) member of my extended family to ever finish high school, let alone go to university (since, my sister and all three of my first cousins have gone; one of my cousins is a relatively well-known artist in the UK now). I’m still the first to go to grad school, though I didn’t finish.

    It was strange, living at a school where many of my classmates were going on their parents’ cash, where they had money just drop into their accounts every month like manna from heaven, where they talked of their first cars being gifted new ones from their parents. My first was a 10-year-old Civic that no longer had a floor in the back seat, making winter riding a cold, wet, and dismal prospect for my friends.

  11. opposablethumbs says

    I wasn’t anywhere near as poor – only had to be “careful” – but the shock of actually encountering some of these braying asses was still pretty stunning. And I never even heard of the Bullingdon Club until decades after leaving, but it still makes me sick to think these profligate idiots not only exist but wield real power.

    Good post, Alex. Wish I’d known more people like you and Cartomancer (though I was very ignorant back then – even more so than now – if more articulate) (same college as both of you, too. Eh, coincidence!)

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