Being there

Ian Hamilton

  • Up at Oxford by Ved Mehta
    Murray, 432 pp, £17.99, September 1993, ISBN 0 7195 5287 7

When Ved Mehta enrolled as an undergraduate at Balliol in 1956, he thought he had arrived in heaven. He was at ‘the holiest of holy places’. For three years he would be dwelling ‘among the world’s liveliest minds, in one of the most beautiful spots on the planet’. As a child in India and as an adolescent studying in the United States, he had been told, by his father, his teachers, by the books he read, that Oxford for the British was ‘like the Hardwar of the Hindus, the Mecca of the Muslims, the Golden Temple of the Sikhs’. To be an Oxford man was to enjoy a ‘state of being’ akin to the sublime. He also learned that, of all the Oxford colleges, Balliol was the tops, the cream: it housed young men who would one day ‘grow into some of the most notable figures in British intellectual and social life’. Had not this one college supplied India with three viceroys?

On arrival, Ved’s only worry was that he would be unworthy of such company. Blind since the age of three, he would find it hard to engage with the college’s dauntingly brilliant social life, its dining clubs, its debating societies, its sherry parties – whatever they were: was sherry a wine, ale or spirit; did you sip it or just knock it back? As an Indian with an American academic background he could not expect to compete with Oxford’s classically-trained Etonians and Wykehamists. Such as they would shortly get his number. They’d tag him as an upstart wog, and rightly so.

Mehta had been a prize student in California and he had published a book, an autobiography, but these successes would be scoffed at by true-blue Balliol men. His self-belief was self-made, artificial. Theirs was ingrained, time-honoured. ‘I walked through Balliol in a daze, haunted by the thought that I was going to be part of a college that was nearly seven hundred years old. Seven hundred years old.’ The college plumbing was also pretty ancient. Ved shivered in his room but took comfort in the knowledge that Harold Macmillan had shivered there before him. (One day Macmillan dropped into his old quarters and found Mehta stretched out on a sofa. ‘He must think that the college has gone to the dogs.’)

Would Ved’s co-students also take this view? At dinner he overheard two of them locked in literary-critical debate. ‘All Irish writing is boring,’ said one. ‘What about Yeats?’ replied the other. ‘I don’t like poetry.’ ‘And Beckett?’ ‘Pointless drivel.’ My God, he thought, so this was what father had warned him to expect: such self-confidence, such nerveless poise. At another table, ‘Jasper and Roger were soon engaged in a rather abstruse yet lightheaded discussion of the distinction between the spiritual and the physical. They quoted Plato, Aristotle and Virgil, in Greek and Latin, and threw out definitions and manipulated words and phrases. Such discussions could take place only at Oxford, I thought. It’s so English. People here are so intelligent.’

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