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.’

And these were just the students. Next he had to face the Master, heir to the fabled Jowett. At a welcoming interview, Mehta was asked, ‘Do you play games?’ and when he reminded the Master that blindness barred him from most sports, the question was determinedly pressed home: ‘What games do you play? Cricket, Rugby, Tennis?’ Such tenacity, such singlemindedness. And it was much the same with other dons he met. A philosophy tutor gave him the titles of five hefty-sounding volumes and told him to read them by the following week. When Ved protested that five might be four too many – after all, the books presumably were not in Braille – he was advised to ‘just look at the books and see what catches your interest’. Another don, met in the quadrangle, stopped to chat for a moment, then enquired: ‘By the way, Mehta, which way was I going?’ ‘You were coming from the SCR, sir.’ ‘Then I’ve had my lunch.’ Indeed these Balliol men were not as other men. Some of them seemed to be blinder than the blind.

Most of Mehta’s Oxford recollections are recorded in this way. The manner is dead-panworshipful throughout. No one Ved meets is not in some sense to be envied: for effortless superiority, lightly-worn scholarship, upper-crust connections. And Mehta regularly pauses in his narrative to wish that he could have been born a British toff or to blush at some heinous social gaffe he thinks he has committed. His Indian relations are usually a source of shame. When Ved’s father visits Oxford, Ved gives him a sound ticking-off for speaking Urdu: ‘I was afraid they might take us for wogs who couldn’t speak English.’

The narrative itself, though, reveals an Oxford more to be laughed at than admired. At Ved’s Balliol, grown-ups behave like unstable adolescents and adolescents pretend to be all-knowing adults. These twitching dons, Mehta reflects, had once been nonchalant high-fliers. They too used to discuss the distinction between the spiritual and the physical. Was there some dark significance at work here? Was it normal for 18-year-olds to spend their time translating Matthew Arnold into Greek? Was it healthy for such striplings to behave as if they ran the world? But then Balliol men did run the world, or used to. They used to run India. Was Mehta the victim of some deep colonial brainwash?

At the time, he was in no mood to pursue such tricky questions, although they seemed to beset him from all sides. He was too eager for enchantment, too anxious to inhabit and to conquer the Oxford of his dreams. Whenever he is disappointed or offended – and he often has good reason to be both – he is invariably ready to accept that the setback is no more than he deserves. After all, who is he, a novice and a wog, to challenge seven hundred years’ worth of brainpower and social finesse? Who is he to chuckle if a celebrated tutor fails to speak during tutorials, or habitually gives handshakes with his little finger, or deliberately cultivates a stammer so as to ‘underscore the transition from thought to speech’? Mehta had come to Oxford to learn how to be an Oxford man and Oxford was not going to stop him.

Up at Oxford has been written for an American readership, so about a third of it is devoted to basic background information. The 11-plus exam is explained (with illustrations) and so, too, is the tutorial system. We are given pocket histories of Balliol and All Souls, and definitions of odd words like ‘scout’ or ‘sconce’. A brochure-like ploddingness informs these pages. If Ved runs into a chap from Christ’s Hospital, this is the cue for a detailed rundown of the school’s origins, ethos, distinguished former pupils, class-rating, and so on. If he befriends a Classics scholar he instantly requests, and gets, a spirited defence of Greek and Latin. The English call their private schools public schools and Mehta tells us why – which seems a bit much in a book published by John Murray. Christopher Hill – he of the little-finger handshake – is asked to explain the attractions of Marxism in the light of the Hungarian Revolution. Lord Oxmanton’s mother is asked to explain the rules and rituals of pheasant-shoots. Useful stuff if you happen to be a foreigner of snobbish inclination and are thinking of visiting Britain in the Fifties.

Some of these long set-piece speeches are indeed set in the Fifties, causing us to marvel at Mehta’s down-to-the-last-comma recall. Others were elicited during a research-sojourn at Balliol in 1988-9. It is not always easy to tell which is which. And this is an aspect of the author’s overall elusiveness. Which Mehta are we meeting here: the grown-up or the boy? At first, Mehta-now seems to be mocking the absurdity of Mehta-then: how could I have been so callow, so craven, so easily impressed? Later on, though, we come to suspect that Ved, the 60-year-old memoirist, is still under Oxford’s spell, or under the spell of an Oxford he never quite managed to locate.

The young Ved may have been a trifle gauche and smarmy but the old Mehta is quite proud of him. We hear of the boy’s lively debating skills, his conscientiousness, his charm, and we are left in no doubt that, after a somewhat shaky start, he was eventually moving in the smartest of smart Oxford circles. He experienced ‘scintillating’ tea-time chats with Sir Isaiah, he hobnobbed with Dom Moraes’s glamorously raffish London crew, he got invited to country houses for weekends and was often to be found dining at the Elizabeth.

In other words, although the Oxford of his fantasies had largely disappeared, he made a good show of pretending that it hadn’t. He was aware that the majority of Oxford undergraduates were ex-grammar school boys who had never read a word of Ancient Greek but his own associates were brilliant Classicists from the poshest public schools. He knew that there were women’s colleges but had almost no contact with their inmates – although one girl did give him welcome instruction in the U and non-U fad. An Indian girl caught his fancy for a time but he backed off submissively when he learned that she was in love with a Fellow of Trinity – Cambridge’s Trinity, that is, but even so: ‘The disclosure took my breath away. For an Indian to be a fellow of Trinity, a preeminent college, almost a university within a university, where the likes of Newton and Bertrand Russell had gone – it was unheard of.’

Now and then rumours reached Mehta that spoke of social discontent, of a new Britain-in-the-making. He read Colin Wilsons The Outsider and Tom Maschler’s Declaration (which he calls The Declaration) but he had no trouble fitting these disturbances into his Oxford world. Wilson’s outsiderism he look to reflect his own failure to be wholly British and the Declaration book (a then much-discussed collection of Angry Young Men credos) inspired him to compile a rival anthology: a round-up of the brightest and the best young Oxbridge minds. His book was rejected as too boring and pretentious but it won Ved a few handy contacts.

At the centre of Ved Mehta’s present book there is a sequence of character studies, each of them to do with an Oxford promise that went wrong. His three best friends, he tells us, were Wykehamists of mind-boggling precocity: Roger Scott, Alasdair Clayre and Richard Snedden. Each of them had been head-boy at Winchester and had won all the top school prizes; each now ‘seemed destined for great things’ – starred Firsts, fellowships at All Souls, spoils which to Ved were glorious ends-in-themselves. And yet ‘the later lives of all of them were sad.’ Clayre threw himself, or fell, under a tube train on the day before a book of his was to be published: he was a heavy drinker and greatly fearful of reviewers and the book was a television tie-in. Snedden murdered his father and ended up in an asylum. Scott published an unsuccessful novel and then disappeared from the intellectual landscape, which for Mehta is almost as bad as what happened to the others:

I was left wondering whether the turns in the fate of all three were a coincidence or were in some way a consequence of their fast-lane education. It certainly seemed to me that their almost overbred intelligence could have developed only in the milieu of a British public school and the Oxford and Cambridge of the day.

My own time at Oxford overlapped with Mehta’s by one year and of his three friends I knew Alasdair Clayre slightly – and then only after he had, so to speak, grown up. Mehta says that Clayre dreaded no longer being young. What he perhaps should have said is that Clayre dreaded no longer being looked up to by the likes of Mehta. For a blind man, Ved is over-fond of the word ‘dazzling’ and his recollections of Clayre’s brilliance do not in the least accord with mine. When I knew Clayre he was still in the fast lane. The rest of the field, though, had set off on the cross-country.

Clayre was hooked on adoration. Oxford’s internal star-system, to which Mehta gives his quivering assent, was perfectly suited to his needs. Outside the walls of school and university he was never sure where his next supply, his next audience of Mehtas, might be found. His triumphs, such as they were, had been to do with seeming older than his years. Later on, people remarked on his perpetual youthfulness. But when you get on a bit, nobody says: ‘Look at him – to think he’s only 44.’ Not unless you’re prime minister, that is, or dead.