Saturday, 12 December 2015

Ooops, is my privilege showing?...

I read this piece the other day, arguing that Cambridge University turned me [that is the author, one Joe Goodman] into an arrogant, entitled brat and my thoughts turned to Helen Hanff.

Joe's problem with Cambridge is summed up in this paragraph:

It's true that not all of Cambridge's excesses are compulsory. Most of the time no one's making you eat in formal hall or buy a ticket to your college May Ball, but there's no denying the resounding expectation. You'd have to be fairly strong-headed to not even attend your own college's May Ball, while "I can't afford it" is the sort of comment that causes uncomfortable looks rather than being the expected response to, "Why aren't you going to an event that costs over £100?"

I have to admit, I did not go to Cambridge, but to the Other Place. However, Goodman is clearly including Oxford in his criticism:

By putting the most promising and ambitious students who haven't grown up with a silver spoon firmly attached to their face through three years in Oxbridge's gold-plated mangle, what are we doing for the future of our country?
All I can say is that my experience of Oxford was very different from this. I rarely ate in formal hall, nor was I expected to. I did go to one Ball, but as a musician*, playing in a band. I never paid for a Ball ticket and neither did most of my friends. There simply wasn't the ubiquitous culture of expectation and entitlement that he describes. And I went to one of the posher colleges, as it happens. 

I am sure that the culture he describes exists; but I am equally sure it was not ubiquitous. Indeed, many of us mildly disliked those who subscribed to it; but we didn't spend much time worrying about them, as we were (as most undergraduates are) rather too concerned with our own interests and affairs.

Which brings me back to Helene Hanff. In one of her books (either 84 Charing Cross Road, or The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street - I forget which and someone has 'borrowed' my copy...)  she recounts how she was looking forward to her trip to London, and talking with a Londoner about it. He assured her that people find the London they are looking for: if she wanted the England of English Literature, then she would surely find it.

I wonder if the same applies to Cambridge and Oxford: that undergraduates find the University (or Varsity) they are looking for. And I bless my late Father, also a Magdalen man, who told me, before I went up, that one of the best reasons to go to Oxford was that it meant for the rest of my life, I would be immunised from any false respect for an Oxford degree.

He was right. I made many friends, and I observed many fools. I watched, from varying degrees of distance, the undergraduate lives of people who went on to become MPs in the three main parties; and made friends with people who made a career in anything from the Health Service to (hiss) Consultancy to (hiss hiss) Banking.

The only extravagance I acquired at Oxford (and the one I maintain to this day) is a liking for the excellent shoes hand-made by Ducker and Son. Other than that, I remain a tightwad. As for a sense of entitlement, perhaps that's not for me to judge; but if I acquired one, I seem to have mislaid it some time ago.


* On reflection, I think I overstate this: I was a drummer. As in the well-known joke: what do you call a chap who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.


Part-time Pilgrim said...

Um, Cambridge is The Other Place

Ben Trovato said...

Indeed it is. But I was attempting humility, and assuming that the point of view of the author I was criticising, a Cambridge man, might be to regard Oxford as the Other Place.

Charlesdawson said...

It's so difficult to comment without promptly being accused of or assumed to be in possession of a massive chip on the shoulder. For the record, I went to UCL, and for myself, and most of my friends there, it was a massive achievement just to get to university; we came from families where everyone else left school at 15 or 16. Sure, there were middle-class, privately-educated students in evidence, and they were on maintenance grants just like us, the difference being, I guess, that we had to watch every penny (no such thing as bank of mum and dad), had to get jobs in the vacations, again, our families couldn't or wouldn't support us, and that we were by and large regarded as freaks in our native communities. That does lead to a rather different outlook and expectations, you know. Those of us who didn't go into research became school teachers, librarians, technicians, rather than bankers or (save the mark!) consultants.

One assumes that what one has grown up with, is the norm. I remember having a pint with a guy from Marlborough (the school) after a charity run, and him telling me earnestly how miners were the salt of the earth. He knew because his school apparently ran some kind of social work scheme to a mining village. Nice chap, I remember the hastily-concealted look of bewildered horror when I remarked that the only "rich" people in my family were an uncle and aunt who owned their own house.

Remember David Cameron, who is reported to have reacted indignantly to the accusation that he knew nothing about working peoples' lives. Of course he did, he said, he met such people at his constituency surgeries.

The point is, that what you expect as normal, reasonable, average, without being aware of it or being in the least arrogant about it, may seem like the fulfilment of impossible dreams to someone with a different backstory. Peace.

Ben Trovato said...


Thanks for your comments: and I don't think I disagree with anything you have said. Nor do I think it contradicts my thesis.

For the record, although my parents both went to Oxford, they were both the first from their families to be University-educated, as far as I know. I certainly had no 'bank of father' as my parents, with their 8 children, had no spare cash. I had to work in all my vacations, (I variously cleaned factory loos, washed up in factory canteens, packed jeans in cardboard boxes, and threw mailbags on trains...) and so on. But I did go to a school where many went on to university, so doubtless that was part of my socialisation, and my home life was 'educated middle class.' Most of my University friends are first-generation University-educated. But I have no doubt that I was very privileged to spend three years in the enchantment of the medieval buildings of Oxford.

Charlesdawson said...

Dear Ben, thank you for your reply. Unexplored assumptions are fascinating, are they not? I know that my own father, who left school at fourteen and went into t'mill and then the army, thought that my childhood and youth were impossibly privileged. He claimed he never wore shoes, only clogs, until he left school and could earn some money; and that he and one other boy were the only ones out of a leaving class of 40 to have jobs to go to. My blithe assumptions regarding clothes, sweets, entertainments, travel (even if it was only my own bike), jobs easy to find, used to drive him crazy - and I thought I was underprivileged in comparison to many of the others at my grammar school. Holidays abroad? Detached houses? Family car? Get out of here! And so it goes on, down the generations.