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Oxford mothers, by their sons - Max Hastings, Peter Jay and Ferdinand Mount

Blog | Oct 07, 2022

1931 Freshers’ photo, Somerville College, Oxford. Circled, from left: Lady Julia Pakenham (later Mount); Peggy Garnett (later Jay); Anne Scott-James (later Hastings)

Ninety years after three young women started at Oxford, their sons pay tribute to them. By Ferdinand Mount, Peter Jay and Max Hastings

Ferdinand Mount, writer and journalist, is author of Cold Cream: My Early Life and Other Mistakes and Kiss Myself Goodbye: the Many Lives of Aunt Munca. He remembers his mother, Julia Mount, née Pakenham (1913-56), sister of the prison reformer Lord Longford. She married Robin Mount, a writer and amateur jockey.

My mother laughed when she was described as Junoesque because she knew perfectly well that what people meant was ‘fat’. Like all her siblings except her eldest sister, Pansy, she was large-boned and not naturally graceful.

‘Pakenhams have no spring’ was one of her pronouncements about her family. ‘Pakenhams are too odd to get into Parliament’ was another.

So far both claims have proved correct.

The novelist Barbara Pym was at Somerville with her, and wrote in her diary for 27th January 1934, ‘In the afternoon I went shopping by myself. I saw Julia Pakenham looking superb in a turquoise blue frock and new halo hat. She was wearing a fur coat, so one couldn’t see how fat she was.’

I like to think of my mother swinging along the High Street or more probably the Cornmarket where the clothes shops were, dolled up in her turquoise frock and halo hat with her fur coat flapping (otherwise how could Barbara Pym have seen the frock?).

In 1934, Barbara Pym, then aged 21, began to write a novel featuring her sister, Hilary, and herself as spinsters in their fifties – an odd project and oddly prescient, for they were to live together spinsterly most of their lives except for the period when Hilary was married.

Some Tame Gazelle, and is the only one of her novels whose characters are drawn directly from life. My mother features as Lady Clara Boulding.>span class="Apple-converted-space">

I hoped that Barbara Pym’s sharp eye would tell me something about my mother at the age of 21. But the book turns out to be a sprightly spoof. The two sisters, Harriet and Belinda, spend their time knitting their own underwear and swooning over the local clergymen, while Lady Clara has only a walk-on part as a stately widow who finds solace in opening the village garden party.

I am sure my mother would not have minded, had she lived to read Barbara Pym’s diaries. I would like to ask her what she thought of Barbara who in her photographs looks not totally unlike my mother (or perhaps that is just the period look, the way the hair flops, the cut of the jacket) but that too is not possible.

I have a photograph of the 1934 New College Commemoration Ball, where my mother is trying the fur-coat strategy again. Although the ball is being held in high summer, on 22nd June, there she is in the front row with a dark fur cape thrown round her shoulders. None of the other 50 girls in the picture is wearing anything of the sort – so it is clearly not the fashion.

My mother is sitting in a characteristic half-turned posture with her eyes shying away from the camera. I am not sure whether she is genuinely nervous or half-flirting with the lens.

Next to her is a young man in spectacles who appears almost equally ill at ease. He is dark, a little plump, owlish, certainly not handsome, and looks as if he would much rather be somewhere else. This impression, like my mother’s shy look perhaps, is misleading.

Isaiah Berlin loves parties and gossip and intrigue and is already a legend for these qualities as well as for his intellectual brilliance. After taking my mother out, he sends her little notes datelined ‘All Souls 2am’, going over the events of the evening and embroidering the points of interest.

The dateline suggests that he cannot get to sleep for thinking of her, but he does not actually say anything of the sort because he is shy with girls and adopts a certain formality of address – addressing them as Miss so-and-so, partly as a joke and partly as a kind of protection.

My mother is just taking her finals at the time, and to her chagrin is placed along with the dregs in the third class.

Isaiah, or Shaya as everyone calls him then, writes to her in a state of high indignation:

49 Hollycroft Avenue, Hampstead NW3

August 1st

Dear Lady J (you don’t, I hope, mind this slightly Regency style of address?)

I want principally to express my horror, amazement and sympathetic indignation at the act of the PPE examiners. I approached Mr Sumner, whom I met shortly after seeing the Times, and succeeded in giving him a very considerable sense of guilt: he admitted that were he to have had his time again he w’d have acted differently perhaps, and pleaded weakly that the enormous brilliance of a certain Hitch, of Worcester College, I am told, blinded him to your merits...

Peter Jay, journalist, economist and former British Ambassador to America, recalls his mother, Peggy Jay, née Garnett (1913–2008). A Labour councillor in London and President of the Heath and Old Hampstead Society, she did much to save Hampstead Heath and its nearby buildings. She married Douglas Jay, a Labour Cabinet Minister.

My mother was very much at home in Oxford, with grandparents living at 56 Banbury Road, now the university careers office.

For her, Oxford meant, as her memoir records it, ‘candle-lit dinners, walks in bluebell woods and long conversations over cocoa…’, from which two serious concerns emerged: a Diploma in Economics and Politics; and, in her first year, joining the Labour Party.

Oxford also reunited her with her Hampstead next-door neighbour and boyfriend, to whom she became engaged by Christmas, my father, Douglas Jay; and to whose contemporaries she quickly became attached – Goronwy Rees, A L Rowse, Dick Crossman, Adam von Trott, Herbert and Jenifer Hart and Isaiah Berlin – as well as her close friends at Somerville.

Of Julia Pakenham (also pictured), she wrote, ‘Her stable character and clear mind gave [me] great strength and comfort.’

She was at Oxford between the 1929 great crash on Wall Street, the genesis of the Great Depression of the 1930s and Hitler’s coming to power in Berlin in 1933 – anxious times.

My mother attended the ‘King and Country’ debate at the Oxford Union in 1933, sitting on an exterior windowsill, armed with a kitchen knife, though for what purpose is unknown – hardly a pacifist gesture. Those who voted not to fight for king and country were not indicating that they would not fight against Nazism, if that were necessary.

I went with my mother to visit Julia Pakenham on Salisbury Plain in about 1941; and, like all who knew her, I was, though still a child, utterly bewitched by her stunning beauty.

I did not meet Anne Scott-James until the 1970s, introduced by her Berkshire neighbour, Richard Ingrams, The Oldie’s founding editor, my friend from Oxford.

She had recently married the matchless cartoonist Osbert Lancaster, and kept a most exquisite garden surrounding her country cottage.

He cannot be excused of raging – or, as he was prone to say, ‘roaring’ – homophobia. Yet I cannot but treasure his memory for what is still my favourite cartoon of the dreadful 20 years of the two Harolds (1956-76 – Macmillan and Wilson): cynical, posed, treacherous, effective only in winning elections as shamefully and shamelessly as possible.

Cue beatific choirboys with angelic expressions, singing:

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small,

That clever Harold Wilson

Has double-crossed them all. Max Hastings, historian and former editor of the Daily Telegraph and Evening Standard, remembers his mother, the journalist and writer Anne Scott-James (1913-2009). She married the journalist Macdonald Hastings.

She looks so keen and jolly. And, in striking contrast to most of her fellow freshers, fashion-conscious in her tweed suit.

Anne had arrived at Oxford as a scholarship girl from St Paul’s, where she was happy and a tennis star.

She was thrilled to escape from the thraldom at home in Notting Hill – 12 Chepstow Place was not then the smart residence it has become today.

She found her stern, austere father, a literary critic who wrote as R A Scott-James, oppressively Victorian. He himself had been an undergraduate at Corpus, and promised his daughter all manner of academic delights at Somerville – nothing was said about the social side, save the promise of reading parties with dons.

Thus it was that, in that early Oxford photo, in contrast to the seriousness and even severity of most of the girls around her, she looks smiley and full of hope.

She joined the Bach choir, and prospered academically. She completed two years with a First in Honour Mods.

To the end of her life, she cherished a passion for both Latin and Greek, and in her nineties returned to reading Virgil and Homer, to preserve an unfailing mental acuity. Her enduring regret about her education, both at school and at university, was that she was taught absolutely nothing of science, which remained a closed book to her.

Socially, however, Oxford was another story. Though strikingly good-looking, she was six feet tall, which daunted many if not most of her fellow undergraduates of both sexes. She had a sharp wit that did not give universal pleasure: she formed a lifelong habit of calling a spade a spade, when she might have made more friendships by calling it something else.

She was fiercely impatient of college rules and curfews, which required climbing the walls after even an evening visit to the cinema.

When a guest on Desert Island Discs in the 1980s, she proudly asserted that if other girls of her Oxford generation stayed away from sex, she had plenty of it … and was cross when that passage was deleted from the broadcast version.

Yet relationships proved more elusive. She herself wrote, ‘Oxford was a good place for female swots with their minds concentrated on their degrees, and doubtless for lesbians, although I never consciously met any. It was a tolerable place for the few who broke all the rules and had a heady mixed social life.

‘For the others’ – obviously including herself – ‘it could be a lonely world, with every twinge of melancholy aggravated by the rain-washed spires, tolling bells and miasmas from the river.’

She was bemused and dismayed to discover that, among many male undergraduates of her day, friendships with one another were more usual than with girls. She quoted with disgust the remark of Compton Mackenzie’s priggish hero Michael Fane in Sinister Street: ‘The whole point of Oxford is that there are no girls.’

Times correspondent who exposed the destruction of Guernica to the world, and the doomed Hitler bomb-plotter Adam von Trott. Neither, she ruefully admitted, showed the smallest reciprocal interest in her.>span class="Apple-converted-space">

In her second year, she had a passionate affair with a Balliol undergraduate which atrophied when he went down. She rejected one proposal of marriage from ‘a spotty young historian’ and a second from a Rugby blue whom she dismissed with a scornful mirth ‘which makes me shudder with remorse to remember’.

When she began to study philosophy to complete the Greats course, she became utterly disaffected: ‘I am a worldly person, loving people and places and art, but never happy wandering about in a haze of abstract ideas.’

In June 1933, craving London, she quit Oxford and took a temporary job in Harrods’ toy department.

Thereafter, she achieved a stellar career first as a fashion journalist on Vogue, then as editor of Harper’s Bazaar and a newspaper columnist.

Until her death in 2009, aged 96, she never admitted regret about leaving Oxford, and indeed was flattered to be received at Somerville as a distinguished visitor.

Her one lasting friend from the college was Sally Graves, who ended her career as a political scientist as Principal of Lady Margaret Hall.

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Do as the parents do – not as they say.