A Life in Questions
Jeremy Paxman

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The fact that these institutions are so successful in attracting overseas students testifies to their reputation. It is not surprising that a school like Eton sails on from decade to decade. The remarkable thing is how many of the Second (and Third and Fourth) Division schools also flourish. They do it by a clever combination of fear and flattery, and an insidious moral pressure on domestic parents which goes as follows. Most of us are not going to leave our children anything much when we die. You may be able to give them a sense that they’re loved, but don’t you think you should do what you can for their education? The key figure in this is the head teacher, who is increasingly a public relations smoothie.

It would be unfair to call ‘the Dome’, who was headmaster during my time at Malvern, a smoothie. But he was a visionary. Throughout my childhood and adolescence most of the British Empire, for which the school had been churning out young men, was being hastily returned to its rightful owners. Left to its own devices, the school would doubtless have succumbed to irrelevance. But Malvern embraced change in the nick of time, and the place I left at the age of eighteen was not the place I had entered as a thirteen-year-old. It became the first independent school in the country to have a language laboratory, in which we sat, wearing Bakelite headphones, in front of great reel-to-reel tape recorders. A few years later, new science courses were introduced. Mr Blumenau was encouraged to teach an art history course. The black jackets and pinstripe trousers were replaced by grey suits. Personal fagging was abolished. A few years after I left, the school went co-educational.

Too late for me, of course. As the Canon of Coventry Cathedral had recognised, all adolescent boys are sex-obsessed. So when my study-mate Richard Atkins and I advertised ourselves in the pen-pals slot on the music station Radio Luxembourg as ‘two frustrated schoolboys’, it seemed just the small-change of life. We forgot all about it until one morning a furious housemaster came into breakfast with dozens of letters and postcards cascading from his arms to the floor. He had better things to do with his time, he said, than to carry around all these stupid letters (and many of them, in pink envelopes and reeking of cheap perfume, were clearly very stupid indeed). He didn’t know what we’d done, but as punishment we were to reply to every single one of the letters tumbling onto the floor. Since this would have taken most of the rest of term, we pulled out the half-dozen that looked most promising and sold off the rest as ‘red hot dates’ to junior boys at a few pence a time. One or two of the letters – particularly one from a couple of girls which began ‘It would be unladylike to commit our feelings about you to paper’ – came from local schools, and led on to rather bizarre dates in the hills. How other letter-writers reacted when they received a letter from some thirteen-year-old confessing his passion, one can only guess.

Some months later I managed to make a date with Georgina, the head girl, no less, of one of the local schools. We arranged to meet at midnight in one of her classroom blocks, and on the appointed night I crept out of my boarding house, having stuffed a couple of pillows beneath the stripy rug on my bed. I was undone by Scribe, yet again, who noticed my bed was empty during a late-night tour of the dormitories, and discovered where I had gone from a friend. He immediately telephoned the headmistress of the girls’ school. The head girl and I were just getting acquainted when suddenly all the lights came on.

‘You again!’ shrieked the old crone, as if she was about to throw a bucket of water over some wailing tomcat.

‘But I’ve never even been here before,’ I protested, bizarrely outraged at the thought of being considered a repeat offender.

The following morning I was called before the headmaster, who generously explained that he didn’t think I was a bad person, but he really couldn’t have boys slipping out of the school at night – that way there’d be chaos. I had to be punished, so he was rusticating me for the rest of term. Again.

‘Why did you do it?’ my mother wailed when I finally reached home that night. She made it sound as if I had murdered someone. There was really no way of satisfactorily explaining what had happened. I was just a teenage boy. My father was, mercifully, away on business, but when he returned there was a curious sense of déjà vu about our conversation. Again, he said I should have to return to Malvern for a further term, so as not to ‘leave under a cloud’.

A couple of days later a letter arrived from Georgina. ‘My headmistress has explained to me that I have ruined your life, that you will never go to university or be employed by anyone respectable,’ she wrote, ‘and I am very sorry.’ As it happened, had it not been for our midnight assignation, I would not have had to return for one final term at Malvern, during which the only thing I could do was to sit the special exam required to get into Cambridge.

Many decades later, my old housemaster’s widow showed me a note she had discovered while clearing out her late husband’s desk. It was from George Sayer, the head of English. He thought I was ‘neither stable nor industrious’, and ‘would not make a satisfactory university student’ because ‘his enthusiasms are short-lived, and he is very bad at working when he does not feel emotionally involved with the subject of his study’. It was a fair criticism, though Sayer did believe that in a year or two I might grow out of it, because I had ‘a good mind, logical as well as intuitive, with a literary imagination and genuine, if rather narrow, appreciation of great writing’. Reading the note so long after the event made me fondly recall his endless instruction to enjoy life – ‘Do it!’ – and all the marmalade on the returned essays. I was embarrassed by the contrast between his sensitivity and my own boorishness. He was a model for all teachers.

That last term at school made up for all the years beforehand. There were half a dozen of us taking the Oxford and Cambridge scholarship exams in English. We sat around a big table, arguing about books and ideas. George Sayer encouraged us to spend the rest of the day reading anything at all. It was bliss.

The trick for the entrance exam, I discovered, was to learn a few seemingly profound observations by heart, ready to deploy them in any context – a vital tool in journalism, too, as someone or other has doubtless said. Quite by chance, in the school library I found a copy of Walter Pater’s The Renaissance, and was seduced at once by his talk of all art aspiring to the condition of music, of the transitory nature of perfection, which, if only one could ‘burn with this hard, gem-like flame’, one could appreciate. His writing was like a chocolate fondant – too rich to take too much of it, and the sort of thing you can really only enjoy as a teenager. But his ideas blew through my head like organ bellows. He obviously also appealed to someone who read my essays at Cambridge, because St Catharine’s College offered me an Exhibition – a minor scholarship worth a grand total of £30 or so a year – provided I passed the universally required Elementary Maths O Level. (I had already made five attempts to master this exam, each one conducted in a slightly more comical frame of mind than the last. Now that it mattered – Cambridge promised freedom – I wasn’t going to let some stupid quadratic equations get in my way.) The promise of schools like Malvern was that they offered those who could afford it a chance to alter the odds in what is supposed to be a fair and open race for the glittering prizes. Whatever my feelings about the place, the school had delivered on its promise. But I still left it feeling that when it came to how Britain was run, there was a party going on somewhere to which I had not been invited.

* (#ulink_bc6dae10-d8b9-5c59-8eed-be5f424b961a) The house has since been turned into a care home for the elderly. Coincidentally, our previous home, on the Old Birmingham Road, has also now been turned over to medical use, and trades as Tranquil House – ‘the leading independent provider of psychological services in the Midlands’. I am not sure that either holds quite enough of a draw to persuade me to move back in.

* (#ulink_e46c73e1-fbfe-5333-a1c0-e371fabdb417) Don’t misunderstand me – I shall be happy if no one ever again asks me to give a talk at a school. But it is striking that the same places send invitations again and again.


What Do You Really Know? (#ulink_e1a3e0ae-b04d-507d-96c3-b6019d7b775d)

Before I could go to university in the autumn of 1969 there were nine months to kill. For the first few I worked as a waiter in the Angel, a whitewashed, bow-fronted old coaching inn on the High Street in the nearby market town of Pershore. It was very different from my previous jobs as a builders’ labourer, Christmas postman, hospital porter or fruit-picker. Catering was something else: when they were sober, most of the rest of the staff seemed to be either fighting or fucking each other. It was only Paddy, the head waiter, a short Irishman in an ancient dinner jacket and with thinning, slicked-back hair, who kept the place functioning.

It takes a moment or two to appreciate how bad – and yet how good – British food used to be. At home, our mothers worked with ingredients which were generally unprocessed, and which certainly hadn’t had huge quantities of sugar and salt added to them by multinational corporations with not the faintest care about what they were doing to the nation’s health. In my childhood, eggs were stored in a solution of isinglass in a preserving pail. Meat was kept in a pale-green metal meat-safe with a grille on the front to keep the flies out. When refrigeration became widely available it seemed like a work of magic. But how many people could have imagined that the provision of potentially life-saving temperature control would see the triumph of junk food?

In the 1960s it was quite rare to see fat people: the mark of poverty was exaggerated thinness, not obesity, something which is now very often entirely reversed. Those who could afford to eat out did so in dingy rooms with red plush curtains, starched napery and a carpet you didn’t want to examine too closely. A posh meal consisted firstly of a prawn cocktail, which was mainly chopped lettuce smothered in pink sauce; followed by a grilled steak; and finally a Black Forest gâteau – a chocolate sponge with cream and cherries – the whole thing accompanied by a bottle of Blue Nun or Chianti in a straw container. Men who were trying to show off to their girlfriends tended to order a Steak Diane, which the waiter had to cook on a spirit burner at the table. The final stage of this process was a nightmare for the novice such as myself, for it involved the addition of a liberal splash of brandy, resulting in a bonfire in the pan which was more or less certain to singe your hair and eyebrows and leave you looking ruefully through the smoke at the smugly grinning diner, now more confident than ever that he was going to get his leg over. You retreated to the kitchen smelling like a blacksmith’s forge when a horse is being shod. I considered myself lucky the flames didn’t melt the blue jacket I had to wear, which, in keeping with the modern mood of the times, was made of some artificial fibre which promised to ‘drip dry’ if I ever got around to washing it.

After three months at the Angel I had saved enough money to take myself abroad. My politics at the time were even more incoherent than they became later. Conventional political parties were dull, and like most young people at the time I was much more interested in Bob Dylan, the Who and the Kinks. The early years of the twenty-first century have seen a massive withering of support for mainstream political parties (at the time of the 2015 election I checked the Liberal Democrats’ membership statistics and discovered there were eight times as many members of the Caravan Club). Though parliamentary politics was quite as unattractive in the sixties as it is today, mainstream parties still had mass memberships. I knew I certainly wasn’t a Tory, but the spectacle night after night on the television news of angry trade union leaders trooping in and out of 10 Downing Street, demanding the settling of grievances, wasn’t much of an advertisement for the paradise promised by slippery old Harold Wilson’s Labour government either. I decided to take myself off to see what life was like on kibbutzes, the utopian collectives in Israel.

I have never felt more alone than on the night I arrived at Tel Aviv airport, emerging into a crowd of expectant faces awaiting the arrival of friends and relatives and knowing that not a single one of them was waiting for me. I caught a bus into town and spent the night at the local youth hostel. The next day I took another bus into northern Israel, and found the kibbutz I had made contact with from England. I was full of enthusiasm and half-baked ideas about socialism and communal life.

Kibbutz Yif’at, in the great fertile plain below the Sea of Galilee, turned out to be a tremendous disappointment. The kibbutz movement was inspiring in its insistence on the dignity of work and the sharing of earnings. The principles were wonderful: groups would gather, work the land together, and live as small democracies, electing their leaders. Families might have their own modest houses, but children would live separately from their parents for most of their lives. Everyone would eat together from a collective kitchen, and each kibbutz would have a school. Money would not change hands. It was a seductive idea to a young person, and the kibbutzim did a remarkable job in establishing the state of Israel. In the (slightly anti-Arab) cliché, they ‘made the desert bloom’.

It was hard work all right, out in the fields picking oranges and grapefruit, laying irrigation pipes or mucking out the cowshed. Yif’at was a well-established kibbutz, and there were perhaps a couple of dozen foreign volunteers working there. The only other British person was Peter, a croupier from Glasgow. The others included earnest Zionists from Eastern Europe, a deserter from the US Navy, a couple of Vietnam veterans (American and Australian), a Czech, and a brace of quiet Latin Americans. Since the number of Jewish pupils at my school could have been ticked off using the fingers of one hand, it took me a little while to work out what they all had in common. The scales fell from my eyes when I signed up to take Hebrew lessons. The great attraction of these was that if you attended the classes you only spent half the day toiling in the fields, and the rest of the time sitting in a classroom. On the first day the teacher pointed to each of us in turn and asked us to introduce ourselves. I was sharing a desk with my friend the croupier, who to my astonishment answered, ‘Pinhas.’

‘But you’re Peter!’ I whispered.

‘She wants your Jewish name,’ he replied.

Mumbling the first thing that came into my head, I said, ‘Very unorthodox family. We didn’t use Jewish names.’

‘Very well, then,’ said the teacher, ‘we will call you Yeremeyahoo.’

And so I remained for the rest of my education in Hebrew, although the only words of the language I can now recall are those for ‘cucumber’, ‘bus station’ and ‘Where is the lavatory?’ Israeli Ambassadors who later came into the Newsnight studio to be cross-examined on their government’s foreign policy tended to be slightly nonplussed by my greeting.

Sitting in a classroom was certainly more congenial than sweating in the fields, but it soon began to trouble me. It was not that I was anti-Israel – at school I had been horrified by accounts of Nazi atrocities in Lord Russell’s The Scourge of the Swastika, and the fact that the country was surrounded by enemy states, its own forces massively outnumbered by their armies, gave it (at the time) the image of the plucky underdog. Most of the British newspaper coverage of the country’s remarkable victory in the Six Day War two years earlier had been pretty fiercely pro-Israel. But kibbutz Hebrew classes were clearly intended for new immigrants to the country, of which I was not, and never could be, one. The fact that our teacher had a number tattooed on her wrist, signifying that she had survived a Nazi concentration camp, made me especially uncomfortable with my dishonesty.

I was, in any case, becoming increasingly disillusioned with the kibbutz. The movement as a whole had made a remarkable contribution to the development of Israel, producing, for example, a disproportionately large number of army officers. But it seemed to me not altogether in the spirit of the movement that local Arabs were employed by the kibbutz to do some of the most menial jobs, which residents felt were beneath them. I really did not like the way they talked about Palestinians, and the nuclear option in any conversation about politics was to be told, ‘Well, you’re not Jewish, you wouldn’t understand.’* (#ulink_6b04d01f-e910-5955-853d-02a7fb60848c) There came the inevitable moment in the communal showers when one particularly vehement Zionist with whom I had been laying irrigation pipes looked through the stream of water, eyed up my genitals and walked out. I left a couple of days later.

You rarely hear people in Britain acknowledge that a good share of the blame for the miserable mess in the Middle East belongs with their country, but it is true. The plain fact is that during the First World War, the British – then the greatest imperial power on earth – made contradictory promises to Arabs and Zionists; to say nothing of side deals they did with the French, the other colonial power in the region, to carve up the Middle East between the two states once the war was over. The Declaration of November 1917 by Arthur ‘Pretty Fanny’ Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, of the British government’s enthusiasm for ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine is still cited as the source of the war raging there a century later.

On subsequent visits over the past forty years I have shuddered more than once at pathetic scraps of paper from the period of the British Mandate which Palestinians produced from old wooden family chests and said were title deeds to land now built over by Israeli settlements. The plain fact is that, with lavish American aid, Israel has turned itself into the superpower of the region. No one seems to care very much about Palestine, including many of the smug regimes in the region which profess concern. Of course, on many occasions Palestinians have been their own worst enemy: desperation makes for bad judgement.

It is grotesque that refugee camps established in 1948 still exist, yet when I asked a clever young Palestinian why he didn’t leave the camp he was living in and get the job elsewhere to which his medical training would surely qualify him, he replied that ‘Without the camps we have no cause.’ You can see his point, but it is quite something to condemn your children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and unborn generations to a life of squalor. One US administration after another has made grand promises about trying to secure a just and lasting peace, but they ring pretty hollow to Palestinians stopped every day on their way to work by soldiers clothed and armed by the United States. Cowering in a Palestinian refugee camp years later, as American-made Israeli warplanes came in on bombing raids, I found it hard to think of Israel as the underdog of my kibbutz days.

I spent the next few weeks living in Jerusalem, which seemed the most magical city on earth, and then caught a boat from Haifa to Turkey. It was a leisurely journey home – too leisurely, as it turned out, because Harold Wilson’s economic miracle had restricted anyone going abroad to £50-worth of foreign currency or travellers’ cheques, plus £15 in sterling. I augmented my budget by sleeping rough, selling my blood a couple of times, and getting occasional odd jobs. I was sleeping on a beach in Crete when Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon: someone else spending the night there had a transistor which picked up the American Forces radio service. There was something astonishing about gazing up at the moon from inside a sleeping bag and knowing there were fellow humans walking about on its surface.

By the time I had hitch-hiked up through Yugoslavia and arrived in Trieste, the money had finally run out. When I couldn’t find even a job washing up in a restaurant I hitch-hiked on to Milan and threw myself on the mercy of the British Consul there, who bought me a train ticket home out of his own pocket.

Back in England, the last few weeks of pre-university life passed by in their undramatic rural way. I dated a girl who lived in the village mill house, and drank good warm beer in the Crown with a farmer who boasted that he still castrated his unwanted male lambs with his teeth. I was as eager to get on with life as any other nineteen-year-old waiting to go to university, though clearly at times I must have seemed an insufferable prig. Why didn’t the local newsagent stock the New Statesman, New Society or the Spectator, I moaned. ‘I don’t suppose many people want to buy them,’ was my father’s sensible response. ‘But they sell lots of copies of Farmer’s Weekly.’ On Sundays Mum still dragged us off to hear the vicar, a bony jeweller who had had a late vocation, preaching on thoughtless texts. ‘How odd of God/To choose the Jews,’ he began one Sunday. As anti-Semitic doggerel goes I suppose it’s mild, but just back from Israel as I was, it seemed especially offensive looking up from the pews to see the vicar’s enormous Adam’s apple quivering above his dog-collar in the pulpit. I mentioned it at supper, and Dad just said, ‘That old nonsense. Why didn’t you get up and say, “Not half as odd as those who choose/A Jewish god, yet spurn the Jews”?’ I hadn’t wanted to make a fuss, I suppose. Plus the fact that it had never occurred to me.

By this time, Dad’s business career had taken a decided turn for the worse. As part of its commitment to ensure what Clause Four of the party’s constitution called ‘the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’, the Labour government had nationalised the steel industry. Father’s employers, the pipe company Stewarts & Lloyds, disappeared into an enormous, hugely inefficient corporation owned by the state and chaired by a businessman appointed by Wilson. When, years later, the whole project turned out to be a misconceived shambles, the chairman, Lord Melchett, let it be known that he had harboured serious private reservations all along about whether the state was any good as an employer. Pity he didn’t act upon them. But they were anyway not as great as Dad’s. He stuck it out for a couple of years, and then decided he’d had enough.

Unfortunately, he quit without really having any idea what he was going to do with his life. The Steel Corporation let him buy what had been his company car from them, but by the time I set off for Cambridge he was unemployed. A farmer neighbour gave him work for a while, driving a tractor, but then he fell victim to a scam – for an apparently sensible businessman, he could be astonishingly naïve. He decided to invest almost everything he had in a company cooked up by a Californian shyster named William Penn Patrick. In theory, ‘Holiday Magic’ sold cosmetics to customers in their own homes. In fact it was a pyramid scheme in which the only way to recoup your outlay was to recruit other suckers to buy a franchise; they in turn would only see any money by finding more victims. The thing was wrapped up in much mental mumbo-jumbo and some sinister-sounding ‘Leadership Dynamics’. Dad bought a mountain of overpriced cosmetic products which he stored under the stairs, and which clearly made Mother feel very uncomfortable – she must have had a sixth sense about the scheme. The mountain never seemed to get much smaller, and the levels of stress in the household became almost tangible. Somehow Dad managed to get out of Holiday Magic with his shirt, and the cosmetics were dumped at the local tip, which was better than the alternative, which was to ruin someone else.

Dad then decided that the future lay in launderettes, and eventually built up an empire of six, in various Midland towns. Who knows where it might have ended, if houses had continued to be built without a place to install washing machines?

Cambridge turned out to be everything I had dared to hope it might be – a beautiful, bountiful feast from which you could pick anything you wanted to taste. No one told you what to do, and the only expectation was that you found something interesting to say or write.

During a speech just before he took his party down to defeat in the 1987 general election, the Labour leader Neil Kinnock made a resounding declaration asking why he was ‘the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university’. It was typical Kinnock bluster, and probably true. Had I known my own family’s history over a thousand generations, I could almost certainly have made the same claim – but then, so could most of the population: post-war Britain saw an enormous expansion of higher education. Since there was no family memory of university I was forced to rely upon what Dad had gleaned from political and other memoirs. The advice he passed on was that I should join all the main political clubs. My direct experience of mainstream politics had been restricted to listening to the local Conservative MP, Gerald Nabarro, a dodgy-looking bombast who had once arrived to talk to the school sixth form wearing an enormous handlebar moustache and a noisy Prince of Wales check double-breasted suit. In the years I spent studying political life after university I concluded that every politician needed a spectrum of qualities, at one end of which lay noble altruism, and at the other naked egotism. In Nabarro the latter was enormously well developed – his contribution to British political culture was the possession of a fleet of cars with the licence plates ‘NAB 1’, ‘NAB 2’ and so on. He had even successfully claimed in court that witnesses who had seen him at the wheel of NAB 1 as it went the wrong way around a Hampshire roundabout had mistaken his (female, unmoustached) secretary for him.

There was no way I could bring myself to think of becoming a member of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, which was full of braying young people who probably wore tweed pyjamas. The Liberals seemed wet, well-meaning but irrelevant. So I only joined the Labour Club. An hour’s exposure to the scheming and malevolence of the sort of people who took it seriously ensured that I never went to another meeting. For reasons unknown, I then tried to take up with a drama club. My sole acting experience at school had been a walk-on part in Under Milk Wood, when my entire performance consisted of crossing my hands on my chest and intoning, ‘I am Evans the Death.’ Since drama at Cambridge was dominated by people who would go on to direct feature films or run television and theatre companies, I was rejected by every drama society. The Mummers even thought I was unqualified to paint scenery.

I went through the motions of joining the Union Society, where people who fancied themselves as future orators engaged in point-scoring debates on subjects they didn’t really care about, but I couldn’t take it seriously, and was frightened by the strutting self-confidence and ambition on show. I spoke there once, appallingly. The terrifying Arianna Stassinopoulos – later to marry and divorce a bisexual Texan millionaire, and after that to make the revolutionary discovery that if you don’t pay many of your contributors you can run a pretty profitable online media business (the Huffington Post, named after the discarded Texan), earned herself the title ‘the most upwardly mobile Greek since Icarus’ by becoming President of the Union. The BBC judged this sufficiently significant to make a documentary about it. In one scene the Great Greek was filmed reaching out from her bed to pick up a telephone, gushing, ‘Oh, hello, Lord Longford! How nice of you to call.’ At the time she was probably the only student in Cambridge with a phone in her college bedroom.

Sometime in my first term I wandered into the offices of the university newspaper, Varsity, in a dreary brick building next to the public lavatories where Magdalene Bridge crosses the river Cam. Inside was a large room divided into cubicles by unpainted plywood partitions. Two more solid partitions separated off an editor’s office and a ‘boardroom’ – not that the board met more than once a term, and no one was quite sure who was on it anyway. In each of the cubicles was a big typewriter and mountains of cheap paper. Ashtrays overflowed on every surface not already occupied by a cup holding cold coffee. The floor was covered in balls of scrunched-up paper. (It wasn’t that there were no wastepaper baskets, just that they were usually brimming over – periodically someone would clamber inside one of them and trample the contents down, as if treading grapes.) You could have wandered into an am-dram production of the reporters’ room in The Front Page.

In our own way we took ourselves quite as seriously as the putative politicians and theatre people, and were consequently more than slightly ridiculous. I started off by reporting what we took to be news, had an inglorious spell on the diary (I wasn’t social enough), and wrote columns of absurd portentousness (‘If you don’t mind my saying so,’ said Dr Gregory, an engineering fellow at St Catharine’s, ‘I think you’re just playing with words.’ He was right).

In my last year I was elected editor, and succumbed to many of the usual tropes to try to improve circulation, like sending out questionnaires about people’s sex lives. According to an unfriendly witness, I spent much of my tenure sitting in the editor’s office wearing an army-surplus-store overcoat and exclaiming, ‘Where are all the clever people? I’m surrounded by turds.’ The truth was that there were lots of clever people. Veronica Crichton, who went on to become the Labour Party’s most trusted media adviser, sat in the news editor’s chair. Christopher Frayling, later to become Rector of the Royal College of Art, smuggled endless reviews of Sergio Leone films – possibly the same one – into the paper each week (his interest in the oeuvre of Clint Eastwood was no passing phase: when he was awarded a knighthood years later, he chose as his motto a Latin translation of ‘Go ahead, punk, make my day’). Peter Robinson, the circulation manager (he stuck up occasional posters) became a professor in computing. And Richard Higginson, who reviewed music and ran a gossip column named, for reasons which doubtless seemed smart at the time, ‘Olla Podrida’, was ordained and taught theology. There was a strong sports team, dominated by figures like Steve Tongue, who later founded the first football fanzine, and Stan Hey, who also made a career as a national sports journalist and learned the folly of owning a racehorse. David Randall graduated to become (in his words) the ‘shooting-fish-in-a-barrel columnist at the Independent’. Alan Stewart, killed by a landmine explosion while covering fighting in southern Sudan for Thames Television fifteen years later, wafted around, bringing a dash of glamour to the newsroom. Tony Wilson, best known as the founder of the Hacienda nightclub, Factory Records and the ‘Madchester’ music scene, sat in the office claiming he had just finished his latest essay on Restoration poetry with the words ‘Rochester tried to fuck history. But in the end, history fucked him.’ When I showed a photograph of the male-dominated Varsity editorial team to a Newsnight colleague thirty years later, her only comment was, ‘How on earth did any of you get a girlfriend?’

The paper was a venerable institution, with venerable debts. In the early 1960s whoever then made up the editorial board decided to ape the Sunday Times’s decision to create a free colour magazine, and to plaster its front cover with photos of Jean Shrimpton wearing Mary Quant dresses. The main colour summoned by the Varsity magazine was a deep red running through the accounts – even ten years later we remained in hock to the printers. The paper was still printed on hot-metal machines, and each weekly journey to Peterborough to see the thing through the presses ran the risk of being the last.

Then came another existential threat, in the form of a free newspaper, Stop Press. This was the invention of the newly formed Cambridge Students’ Union, which was nothing to do with the debating club, but wanted to become the sort of place which existed in the non-Oxbridge universities as a focus for student social life and politics – because the university was an association of colleges, no such institution existed in Cambridge. Charles Clarke, the future Labour Home Secretary, somehow managed to get himself made president of this vestigial organisation, and then to be paid to spend a sabbatical year running the thing. A newspaper would give the student union a virtual existence. Everyone said that Stop Press, the freesheet it produced, would put the paid-for Varsity out of business. We contacted all our advertisers, offered them special deals, and somehow rode out the storm: within half a dozen weekly issues, the Stop Press presses stopped.

But the writing was on the wall. The editorship and appearance of Varsity changed constantly – the next term, under the joint editorship of the comic writer Andrew Nickolds and Laura Sparkes, later to become a rather inspirational teacher, the masthead adopted the Variety typeface and appeared on pink paper. Varsity limped on until eventually it was devoured a few terms later by a revived Stop Press. It now appears as a pretty good website plus a free paper edition, and boasts of being ‘The only independent student weekly newspaper of the University of Cambridge’ – which is possibly true, but isn’t much of a slogan.

The fate of Varsity was emblematic of what was happening in the university as a whole. Much of what is now generally called the sixties happened in the seventies – it was not until 1972, for example, that the first male undergraduate colleges became accessible to both sexes. In the suite of rooms I shared in the eighteenth-century main court, my room-mate could occasionally be found wearing a tweed thornproof suit, although I was by now in tie-dyed T-shirt and loon trousers. By comparison with the news sheets of the left that were appearing at the time, like the Shilling Paper, Varsity seemed – was – old-fashioned. In 1970 the military government in Greece spent a week trying to promote tourism in their country. Everyone, naturally, detested the Greek colonels, but when half a dozen students entered a travel agency and threw Greek Tourist Board brochures on the floor, Varsity’s report (I think it even appeared under my ‘byline’) included the sentence ‘A Greek tragedy was enacted on the streets of Cambridge,’ inserted by some smartarse (possibly me).
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