Getting Educated

The crocodile caught my eye at once. I realized that any lack of spiritual fulfilment in my previous eighteen years could be ascribed to the absence of a stuffed crocodile over my desk. Dumping a few hundredweight of luggage on that desk to mark it as Langford's (a mysterious room-mate was in the offing), I looked eagerly around for the first impressions so vital to any autobiography. It was princely accommodation, not so much because any attempt had been made to stop up the draughts or cull the mice as because Edward VII (then Prince of Wales and not yet First Bounder of Europe) had been stowed in this very building, years ago – Frewin Hall, annexe of Brasenose College alias BNC. With that keen sense of history typical of England, the BNC authorities had painted over all the oak panelling in Edward's palatial sitting-room and converted it to a breakfast room for quantities of students: before, of course, it had been too luxurious by far to waste on hoi polloi. But my shared study had real oak panels containing real woodworm, and as well as the crocodile there was a real stuffed antelope labelled Blue Nile 1901 whose nostril trickled disapproving sawdust whenever you did anything violent such as breathing or allowing your heart to beat.

Then there was no more time for first impressions because Martin Hoare – who'd been there a year – came bounding in to explain how things really were.

"Disley," he said, "used to be in your room. He hired the croc to a photographer for two whole terms until they complained and said it was on the Frewin inventory, 'crocodile, stuffed, one'. He used to take it to pubs and give it double rums, that's why the mouth looks a bit rotted – but happy...."

There followed a conducted stagger about BNC, where Martin and I were suppose to have all knowledge (of physics) decanted into us. Martin had other views about decanters and his tour was a little idiosyncratic: "This is Hall – that's the Brazen Nose over High Table, the old college doorknocker – the paintings all lean out because of the piles of buns and things behind them – you'll see a bun-fight at dinner before too long – some of them throw buns soaked in beer, and you can order beer in Hall and it comes in old silver pots with dates like 1670 on the bottom...." (I later got to know the silver quite well, but never saw a bun-fight.)

Or: "Here's the Junior Common Room – they mostly read newspapers here – you have to move fast to get Playboy or Private Eye – see how there's three copies of the Times and none of them unfolded? Don't miss JCR meetings when they happen, there's all these boring speeches by lefties but you get free beer...."

Or: "The New Quad – this is where the Vampires club had a contest tossing beer mugs over the college wall into the High – only they were too pissed to throw far and most of them just went through windows – the Dean banned the Vampires forever after that – you can play croquet here in the summer – and watch for the cocktail party every year out on the grass – get pissed with the dons on Jack's secret punch, it's like rocket fuel...."

Or, inevitably: "The Buttery's down here – mind the steps – I should have told you to mind your head too, are you all right? The usual for me , Jack, and what's yours Dave?"

Mine, at the time, was cider; the cost was 8p a pint. It seemed that Oxford's rigorous intellectual life had its compensations.

BNC and Frewin Hall seemed stuffed with eccentrics, perhaps because loathsome bits of the personality which were squashed flat at school can at last burgeon, proliferate and generally hang out in the university atmosphere. Of course I was perfectly normal in those days, not yet having been corrupted by fandom, but they unjustly called me odd because I read stacks of SF and sometimes could even be found guiltily trying to wr*t* it. Luckily for shy retiring me, my room-mate Stuart was quiet at first, having no weirder habits than the endless forging of Arth. Guinness signatures as seen on the famous label. (We could only assume that he hoped to find one of the Beer King's lost chequebooks one day; I hadn't the heart to mention that Arthur Guinness was dead.) Later he became prone to fits of furniture-smashing and college-dismantling under the cruel aegis of BNC Boat Club suppers: a dinner jacket and a few bottles of wine bring out the beast in a man. He also took to bicycle-repair work, strewing the organs of partly convalescent bikes and even tandems across the floor for my naked feet to discover in the morning. Reasoning that this was a natural spinoff from his studies as an engineer, I gave thanks that he wasn't doing medicine. (He now erects mighty bridges and flyovers, I understand – am still nervously looking for one with the characteristic deformities he built into those poor bicycles.)

Huxley the Mad Mathematician, another Frewin inmate, introduced himself after a few days by flopping on the sofa and reciting 'The Walrus and the Carpenter' complete and unexpurgated. This roused my competitive spirit, not to mention raging jealousy, and during the next vacation I memorized all 141 verses of 'The Hunting of the Snark' as the only possible come-back. Meanwhile, from the higher reaches of Frewin there came an eerie wailing which warped men's minds with its baleful spell of insomnia: in a third-floor room converted from an old chimney, seekers after truth would find strange Dave Scoins improvising on his Northumbrian Pipes. These are either the rude ancestors or the decadent aftermath of bagpipes proper; their screech and moan became part of the Frewin atmosphere, so that visitors' apprehensive enquires would be met by blank looks from residents, and puzzled remarks like "What eviscerated cat?"

At Frewin I picked up the enthusiasm for fiddling with mains electricity which, much later, caused me to rewire huge tracts of 94 London Road before even considering fancy touches like paint, or wallpaper, or plaster. The first fruit of this was the immense Christmas tree of adaptors and extensions whereby Stuart and I drew unbelievable torrents of power from a single 2½ amp socket which proved to be unmetered. (BNC had just installed a bank of fourteen power meters in the Frewin hallway, a Big Brotheroid attempt to monitor our slightest doings.) Gadgetry connected usually included a 3000 watt electric heater as well as sundry lamps, kettles and even a toaster until my fellow-idiot made his disastrous experiment with toasted cheese. Did you know it's easy to boil eggs in an automatic electric kettle, merely by dangling them in a cradle of paperclips whilst holding down the little button which is trying to pop out and turn the kettle off? Extra room heating was supplied by the warmly glowing wiring conduit leading to that fateful socket. I never worked out why the fuse-box failed to disintegrate in smoke and pyrotechnics, the way the USS Enterprise controls signal that someone hasn't fastened his seat belt.... Even better was the wall-heater in the tiny alcove which, too small to serve as a cupboard or toilet, had been drafted as a second bedroom when Frewin 1 became a shared study: we tossed for the big room actually leading off the study and I lost. But I won, acquiring a wall heater which was connected to another meter altogether, that of the hell-room Frewin 14 where hot and cold running water was provided on every wall and from which generations of students – including Martin – had been removed with interesting respiratory ailments. It was now empty, but as I basked the meter spun, provoking new legends of haunted rooms where vampiric Things sucked hungrily at the power sockets.

(Two potent memories of that micro-bedroom linger. One concerns the recurring habit of Stuart and his BNC Boat Club friends of smashing down its door after their every dinner or celebration – and the enormous contrition with which they'd make their hungover apologies and pay for the shattered timber next morning. [I wasn't that unpopular, but mine was the first door your average questing drunk could find on entering Frewin.] And I remember sitting in bed all day under that heater, dosing a cold with small quantities of rum and for the first time reading the Tandem paperbacks of James Branch Cabell's Figures of Earth, The Silver Stallion and Jurgen. Whoopee!)

Something with terrible and lingering effects happened in my very first week at Oxford, so early in my college career that I hadn't even learnt how to skip lectures. On the BNC notice-board, half obscured by flapping invitations to archery, go, Trotskyism and true religion, I saw a strange cartoon. At first blink it appeared to be a sphinx; at second, its single eye and silly grin hinted that SF was in the air. The text was: SFinx. No address. No explanation. Mysterious. By and by I was caught in the rush to 'Freshers' Fair', a free-for-all in which university clubs showed off their salesmanship by enticing neophytes to join more clubs than they could possibly afford or attend. For some cunning psychological reason this event is always held in the vasty halls of the Examination Schools, where at the end of three years there occurs the event of which one does not speak.... Inside was a great groaning and heaving of too many people carrying too many flyers and membership cards (afterwards the street outside, the High, looked like a paperchase). The crowds carried me helplessly this way and that like some pitiful fanzine borne on the vast tossing sea of the postal system, until with an agonizing switch of simile I was ejected like some unusually athletic grapefruit pip into a circle of calm. You may well ask what could be so horrific and weird that even the indiscriminate hordes drew back. The SFINX stared at me, antennae akimbo: this was it. It was (I read) THE OXFORD UNIVERSITY SPECULATIVE FICTION GROUP! The young lady behind the stall encouraged my advance with a smile, so that the pound notes slithering from my wallet almost burst into spontaneous flame with the speed of their motion: in less time than it takes to hurl oneself under a bus I was a paid-up member of OUSFG, clutching their fiction zine SFinx as though desperate to rush to some nearby toilet and inject it into my veins. And the lady was DIANA REED, who was EDITOR OF SFINX and WROTE SCIENCE FICTION and I almost swooned.

Thus the first, fateful steps towards the abyss. Ahead lay the doldrums of the BSFA, a waterless waste of rejection slips, and – singing high and clear with just a hint of hiccups – the eldritch call of fandom itself. Had I but known ...

There were other strange initiations to be undergone – like that of the massed BNC physicists, which proved far more insidious and cruel than those hearty affairs described in boys' books (roasting over open fires, tossing in blankets, hearts torn out with obsidian knives, all the routine stuff). We newcomers were lured with invitations to a sherry party organized at the expense of older, wiser physicists who'd survived previous years' ordeals. The party was to last one hour, ending in time for formal Hall dinner at 7.30pm. The 'formal' bit consisted of throwing on a soup-stained gown over one's tie-dyed t-shirt, ragged jeans or whatever. Thus formally attired, we filed into the room, wondering at the strange smiles on the faces of our seniors; there were about eighteen present, all told.

On the table stood eighteen large bottles of sherry.

Of course, having left school, we were all men of the world; most of us had from time to time become quite merry on strong liquors such as cider or even beer. Sherry was a drink for refined ladies of various sexes, and held no terrors for such as we. I remember that the room became very noisy in a very short time. The first body thudded to the floor in something under twenty minutes. People kept tripping over him and spilling drinks; some of them managed to stand up again. The carpet was crunchy with broken glass and the air had transmuted to sherry-flavoured fog. Suddenly the bottles were all empty and it was time for Hall. The people sunk in reveries about the room were perhaps dieting strenuously, though one diehard crawled implacably towards the door: he hurt his head on the jamb and subsided. Feebly twitching bodies were heaped in a log-jam at the foot of the stairs, a menace to all who passed. Another abrupt transition and I was sitting in Hall, confronted by a steak-and-kidney pie. It stared coldly at me, easily resisting the feeble attempts of my knife. A colleague was outstared by his own pie and had to be removed, along with a meal now seemingly coated in thousand-island sauce. Was this what Oppenheimer had meant when he declared "The physicists have known sin"? An unforgettable initiation, the sherry party; already I was looking forward to next year's and the time when I could watch the freshers with a strange smile.

Later that evening I tried to attend a society meeting (The Scientific Society: Mr Darwin's Startling New Theory. Well, Oxford science was a bit like that sometimes). The venue was an energetic building which stayed always just ahead of me as I weaved through every street in North Oxford. I never caught up with the meeting, but I worked out the secret of the universe two or three times and failed to write it down. Returning to Frewin with smoke and flame emerging from my shoes, I played a hazy game of chess with the aforesaid Stuart. Legend has it that I won; memory refuses to make any statement, but somewhere I have or had a chessboard whose every white square is vindictively signed Arth. Guinness.

Such befuddlements don't account, though, for my vagueness concerning OUSFG meetings, which have all coalesced into a single memory of too many people talking too loudly in too small a room. One trouble was that I hadn't mentioned being more than somewhat deaf: most school contemporaries had seemed to regard the affliction as akin to epilepsy, infectious hepatitis or criminal lunacy. Others dismissed it as the shabby excuse of a misanthrope and poseur who despicably pretended not to throb in ecstasy by the Beatles or whoever.... OUSFG, unaware of the truth, generously took me for a moron – little knowing the richly exotic aberrations concealed by my silence, little knowing that one day, armed with a better hearing aid, I'd be OUSFG President and institute a new tradition: compulsory recitations of 'The Hunting of the Snark'. For the time being, I sat and watched.

There was Kev Smith with a translucent moustache, looking deceptively harmless and vague: the coming of the Terrible Beard was still in the future, as was its going, pursued by a fleeing hairline. Rob Jackson, huge and giggling, was himself invisible in thickets of beard; he did serious and cosmic-minded things such as writing stories for Sfinx. Diana Reed's firm rejection of K.Smith's submissions to this ficzine gave no hint that more than a decade after, their slow-blossoming romance would [insert suitable Barbara Cartland bits in here]. Secretary and later President Allan Scott was distinguished by a sheepskin waistcoat thing, reputedly carnivorous, and an endearing habit of absent-mindedly laying about him with a four-foot broadsword. Big Mike Rohan occupied a conspicuous fur coat which made him very much bigger until one day he set fire to it with his pipe; I once shared the back seat of a Mini with the coat and (less prominently) Mike, and anyone who's been trapped under a bear will know the exact sensation. Chris Morgan spent his time looking satanic and communicating endless lists of award-winning or Robert Silverberg novels which everyone should read. Debbie Hickenlooper was (surprise!) from the wonderful USA and achieved fame for a declamation of 'Jabberwocky' in German which sounded like something between a hailstorm and a catfight in a car-wash. Deb's imperturbability gave no hint that years later she and Mike Rohan would become spliced, unless you count such subtleties as their moving into the same flat before I left Oxford. And somewhere in the background lurked Phil Stephensen-Payne, then just Payne, who'd discovered fandom and was keeping it to himself. Only recently did Kev and I unearth his letters in old fanzines, complaining of how horribly sercon was OUSFG. I still don't know whether he was protecting us from the cruel outside world or vice-versa.

(What about Hazel? you ask. This was OUSFG as I remember it near the beginning ; I didn't meet Hazel until my last year at Oxford, whereupon it was the work of mere weeks to arrange the engagement, fix the OUSFG voting to make Hazel President after me, sell my first SF story and almost immediately get arrested for criminal damage and suspected affiliations to the IRA. That's my life.)

Besides SF, there were more traditional Oxford activities – times when despite being prosaic modern-day students some of us would assume the personae of legendary Frivolous Young Gentlemen. I say gentlemen because women weren't let into BNC until 1974, making BNC practically one of the daring pioneers of Oxford co-education – Kevin used to sound vaguely proud that his place, Oriel, was the last of the all-male colleges. BNC was short on exotic traditions, but they kept up the rite of Ale Night each Shrove Tuesday. After a Hall dinner featuring pancakes, the gowned but otherwise disreputable students would stand on the tables drinking or gargling hot spiced ale made to another of those secret recipes handed down from the Borgias. While not glugging the potion they would tunelessly sing their way through a pamphlet of specially written songs printed at College expense for the occasion. Invariably these songs were insulting to dons and selected members of the student body, and the rilly triffic part of the tradition was that the dons had to sit there at High Table and pretend to enjoy it as their sexual and intellectual prowess was noisily questioned. In my second year, writing under various names, I managed to provide seven out of nine sets of Ale Night Lyrics, proving to myself that I had all the hidden talent of William McGonagall. In my final year the appalling songs all lewdly foretold horrifying results and the total destruction of all civilized ways when, later that year, our college Let In The Women. Shock horror, etc.

Once I found myself assisting in the transport of an immense water-buffalo's head from a remote college to the railings outside the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street, where it hung rather neatly (I have pictures taken at 5 am to prove it). Did it really seem like a good idea, even then? As Jerome K. Jerome observed after writing Three Men in a Boat, at the time it seemed like the only thing to do. It was the same with the placement of a patriotic leek in BNC Hall on the eve of that great Welsh festival, St David's Day. There seemed no alternative but to improve the hall's carved wooden unicorn – co-supporter of the college arms, thirty feet from the floor – with the happily phallic national vegetable of Wales. My accomplice Warren, another of the BNC physicists, balanced aloft on the huge set of ladders we'd managed to sneak in, leaning hard against the loins of the unicorn and struggling to affix the leek with sticky tape.

"Hey Dave, it's got one already. Carved in the wood."

"A leek?"

"No, not a leek."

"That's all right then."

It took a long time. A nail or drawing-pin might have done the trick at once, but we vaguely understood the rules of this game and avoided any such naughty defacement. Even the people who dismantled a Mini and reassembled it on High table of one college, causing untold inconvenience, had taken immense care not to scratch the old oak table. So we took our time, afterwards putting the ladder back very carefully. Subsequently, over a pre-dawn cup of coffee, Warren said most seriously: "I think that was a good silly thing to do, don't you?" Quite.

A lot of other things happened because they seemed the thing to do. I joined the Oxford Union and had another foretaste of fandom in its elections: as in the Doc Weir Award, the pre-1977 Nova or the Hogus, it was accepted that the committee would fiddle the voting with a creative frenzy worthy of the great Moriarty – as opposed to the languid nonchalance with which one was expected to treat yer actual academic work. It was also accepted that anyone involved in the Union's petty politics wasn't really worth crossing the street to spit on: in a neat reversal of fandom's BNF situation, the President of the Union would have much kudos outside Oxford while being more or less reviled by university members. (The poor sod might as well get used to being despised, since ahead lies the traditional sorry end – Prime Minister or worse.) The great advantage of the Union was its location, so close to Frewin Hall that during the famous debates one could stand in the back garden and – with the aid of a small air rifle – make each of the debating hall's drainpipes go Ping!

Three years of Oxford are impossible to structure into a neat article, at least for me. As with OUSFG meetings, the astonishing events of nine terms are jumbled in my memory, crowding together like clichés in Star Wars. The amazing punt expedition to the source of the River Cherwell! The lecturers like Roaf, who scrawled the entire Greek alphabet on the blackboard whilst hiding it with his body and mumbling advanced mathematics at his feet while keeping his back forever to the seekers after knowledge! Tutors: the egregious Dr Peach assessing a lengthy essay's worth between finger and thumb ("A bit thin this week") before casting it aside unread, the charming Dr Altmann whose accent no-one could follow and whose handwriting no-one could read! BNC Players' regular demands to use the Frewin 1 study as 'offstage' in their open-air productions, and the impossibility of describing an experiment to measure the helicity of the neutrino while the Statue is fidgeting and awaiting his cue to drag Don Juan off to hell.... All too much. There will be more of this.

When I visited Frewin again not long ago I found that the college authorities, with that keen sense of history typical of England, had ripped out and were about to burn all the oak panelling of Frewin 1: this was called renovation. The buggers can't take away the memories, though, so there. I started wondering what else I still had from the Oxford years. Culture? Well, look at me now, and weep. (Or as an uncle of mine wrote in disappointment to my mother, "I was sad that David still retains such a strong Welsh accent rather than the more cultured one I'd hoped for after his exposure to Oxford...." H'mm.) Physics? Pull the other one: five years' hard labour on the Aldermaston computers soon took the keen cutting edge off that. What people most notice as Different about Langford is, actually, table manners. BNC Hall has left its mark. I only have to shut my eyes and there I am again, settling at the long bench while others vault the tables as the only way to the bench on the other side, and here comes one of the college scouts balancing fourteen soup plates up his arm, a sight that still boggles the brain. Down they go on the long table, bang bang bang, and there's a multiple slurping-against-time to get the soup down before another chap following ten places behind whips the plate away again. Bang bang bang again as the plates with the main course arrive; there's a small scurry for the doors by certain folk if the meat's one of the BNC unspecialities like jugged hare ("not cooked but frightened to death on the plate," as more tactful gourmets phrased it). Now, a terrifying air of expectancy, as of starved lions watching the first Christian being poked into the arena ... and the too-small dish of vegetables arrives, and twenty hands flash forward, and from there on it's every man for himself, survival of the fittest, nature red in tooth and claw, spectacles of carnage best not described....

Oxford has left this mark on me to brand me as her own. Programmed Pavlov-style by three years of BNC Hall, I'm still the fastest and messiest eater I know. Except possibly for Martin. Bloody culture.

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