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I long to return to Oxford's dreaming spires

Blog | Jul 20, 2018

I have lived my life the wrong way round. I ‘read’ English Language and Literature at Oxford in the 1950s and now live in Cambridge. I would have done better to study English at Cambridge and live in Oxford, a much bigger and nicer city.

At Oxford, at that time, English was very badly taught. The course finished at 1820, the end of the Romantic Movement (Keats, Shelly, Byron, Wordsworth etc), whereas all my favourite writers, such as Dickens and Hardy in the 19th century and Joyce and Woolf in the 20th, were regarded as inadmissible. Three of the nine papers we sat for Finals were to do with Anglo-Saxon and Middle English. I managed fairly well at these, having German as a mother tongue, but still ended up with a very bad degree, an ‘actor’s Third’. (Cambridge would have been far more up-to-date).

What can you do with a degree in English, in any case, if you don’t want to become a schoolmaster? I suppose I was lucky to get into the media, via the BBC.

Living is another matter. People frequently ask me how I find Cambridge, and my reply is always the same. It is a cold place, not just climatically but spiritually, as well. (It seems to me to rain almost non-stop). I would far rather live in Oxford; not just because it is my alma mater, but because it is a much bigger and more sophisticated city, not a mean little provincial town, with no bourgeoisie to speak of, with a snobbish university tacked on to it. Due to my celebrity, I occasionally get invited to college High Tables, but I try to avoid them because I hate the thin-blooded, stuck-up dons.

At Oriel, we had no English tutor but were farmed out to a lady at Lady Margaret Hall who regarded us tough, ex-National Service lads as second-class citizens compared to her precious ‘gels’, all of whom she was grooming to get Firsts. They all got them. We all got Thirds. She was, actually, a very nice lady who said, when I went to see her to apologise for my poor degree, ‘Never mind, Mr De’Ath, it is always a pleasure to teach somebody intelligent.’

She was a world authority on Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queen, probably the most boring long poem ever written. As Dr Johnson said of Paradise Lost, ‘No one ever found it too short.’

I would sometimes tease my Anglo-Saxon tutor at Brasenose (David Cameron’s college) by including references to Dylan Thomas, Alan Sillitoe, Kingsley Amis, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Colin Wilson, John Braine and other ‘angry young men’ in my essays. He had never heard of any of them.

I suppose it is not too late to go back to Oxford and spend my declining years there. I occasionally attend ‘gaudies’ (college reunions) at Oriel. I am always overwhelmed by bittersweet, mildly erotic nostalgia, particularly if the weather is fine, which it isn’t always. (No use pretending that it doesn’t rain in Oxford as well. Sometimes, it snows).

Oxford was the happiest time of my life but, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, you can’t recapture the past. If I finally despair of Cambridge, it will have to be fresh fields and pastures new. France, probably.