I was twelve years old. My mother had driven me down from Scotland to sit the scholarship exam for nearby Radley College; an heroic twelve-hour journey in a Morris Minor Traveller. We stayed, in what felt like tremendous splendour, at The Mitre, an ancient half-timbered pub on the High Street. We went to look at Christ Church, where my father had been a student, and wandered around the vast-seeming Tom Quad. I wanted to visit Carfax and Turl, streets my father had mentioned, simply because they had such strange names; I don’t remember if we did. I do remember feeling highly embarrassed, but also secretly rather proud, of being made to wear a kilt for the interviews. There were very few Scots at Radley in those days, and I think it caused a stir.
I didn’t get the scholarship, but a kind of consolation prize in the form of an exhibition (to this day I don’t know why they’re so called), which meant I had my name in italics, rather than bold, in the school list. It was worth £80 a year. It also meant that Oxford featured prominently in my life for the next five years. With leave from our housemasters, we cycled the five miles at weekends and loitered, ogled girls, spent our pocket money on records and improbable clothes (it was the mid-60s), occasionally went punting and inevitably, as we got older, pubbing – which involved dodging the dons, as Radley also styled its teaching staff. My home was deep in the Scottish countryside, and Oxford became much of what I knew about the grown-up world throughout my teenage years.
But I didn’t fulfil the promise of the exhibition. I was pushed early into the classics department to study Latin, Greek and Ancient History, a tiny hothouse for which I was neither temperamentally nor intellectually suited. Well into adult life I continued to have nightmares about sitting the Greek unseen exam without having memorised enough vocabulary. By the time I sat Oxford entrance, my academic career had followed a steady downwards trajectory for three years and I was thoroughly demoralised. Christ Church turned me down for PPE and I ended up in Aberdeen reading Law.
I brushed it off at the time, one does at the age of eighteen, and went on to enjoy greatly my time at another ancient university, the other end of the country. I gave the whole thing very little thought until much, much later, only a few years before my father’s death. He had been at a dinner for eminent Christ Church alumni where someone had said to him: ‘not surprising your son didn’t get in in 1967, the college had become very left-wing and the fact that you had been there would have gone against him.’
I was touched that he passed this on; it felt like a kind of apology. But it also reminded me that somewhere inside, the rejection had always slightly rankled. Not because I felt that I should have got in, but because I knew perfectly well that I hadn’t been up to it, the entrance exam the culmination of a three-year failure of education. After taking two A-levels, aged fifteen, and scoring two e-grades, I’d begged to be allowed to change from classics to modern languages. My housemaster’s response was to note in my report that I needed to grow up. I was trying.
And yet, these things are seldom black and white. Those three years of intensive Latin and Greek vastly increased my grasp of the English language and made me the writer I am. Without them I might easily not be at Merton now. On the other hand, my two Dark Angels colleagues, John and Stuart, both studied at Oxford. Sitting here now in a medieval building, at a desk in an undergraduate room, off a spiral stone staircase so narrow I almost have to turn my shoulders to climb it, I won’t pretend I don’t envy them.