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College Days

1st February 2014 2525 views

The ‘Old Coffee House‘ of Balliol College, seen below in a wonky download of a postcard which I do have somewhere, but cannot find to scan:

Balliol coffee house

was where I lived during my second year at Oxford, from 1961 to 1962. Later, the building was demolished to make way for more up-to-date student accomodation made of quite elegant concrete. Okay, the Old Coffee House was ricketty, with bent floors, and it probably hadn’t served coffee within living, or dead, memory; but it had character! That’s why I put my name down for a room there, rather than in the outer walls of Balliol which were 19th Century Gothic, such as its frontage:

Balliol front

(By the time I arrived, cars had updated a bit from the time of this postcard, but otherwise all was the same.)
For your first year the college assigned you any room, and I was allocated a small cell overlooking through its barred slit windows the entrance to the public toilets, with a graveyard behind, and directly above the college bar. This meant that if the toilet next to my room happened to be occupied, sporty upper class tiplers from the bar would open my door, if I wasn’t in, and pee in my washbasin. When I discovered a hearty with his cock gushing into my washbasin, I went to the Dean invoking potential eye diseases such as gonorrhea, and my room became the only (or rather the first) undergraduate room in college to be graced with a Yale lock. Back then, gentlemen didn’t lock their doors when they went out; although if you wanted to be private you could shut an outer door, which was called “sporting the oak.
Dinner was eaten in two sessions in the Hall, after a beer in the Buttery bar, where we could also sign for necessities of life such as Gitanes and Green Chartreuse, the resulting ‘Battels’ (a word of obscure origin) bill being payable at the start of the following term; that seemed such a long way off, even though terms only lasted 8 weeks each, followed by weeks of holiday, or rather home study supposing you’d spent the term making merry—as well as writing one essay per week, to be vivisected, or nodded at, by your tutor.


The paintings on the walls are of old Masters—of the college, not ‘Old Masters’. I was alert to the rather unlikely prospect of being ‘sconced’ during dinner, a custom whereby, due to a perceived slight or breach of etiquette, a chap could challenge another chap to drink a yard of ale (two and a half pints) straight off. At the cry of ‘Sconce!‘ a college servant would swiftly supply the necessary from the Buttery bar. Failure to drain the long yard of glass resulted in the victim having to pay for the beer he hadn’t wanted. But if the victim succeeded, his challenger would then have to drink a yard of ale to avoid paying for both. This ritual could continue onward for a while, although obviously the challenger always had the advantage. In reality sconcing very rarely happened. Balliol was traditionally the brainy college; excesses happened at ‘The House’, Christ Church College, home of the Bullingdon Club of rich Etonian toffs who would debag any poets they caught and toss them into the big fountain, then drunkenly wreck restaurants, usually carrying a bag of money with them to pay for the damage—subsequently British Prime Minister David Cameron was one of those oafs.
Back in my days there were precisely two Indian restaurants in Oxford (instead of 200 now): a slightly expensive one in the High Street and, much less exaltedly, The Cobra, which my chums and I used. The menu at The Cobra consisted only of prawn biryani, chicken curry on the bone for 2 shillings (modern 10 pence, about 15 US cents) or, if you were feeling lavish, chicken off the bone for 2 shillings and sixpence (modern 12.5 pence). If you were short of cash after the pub, you could have a plate of white rice with hot sauce poured over it for one shilling (modern 5 pence).
People I hung out with included a velvet-jacketed poet, whose ragged beard hid his acne, and who actually had a girlfriend, sometimes, who adored W.B. Yeats and A Vision and who wrote beautifully and symbolically in the vein of Yeats; whatever happened to William Gibson (not the Neuromancer one)? And another, bardic Welsh poet, Gavin Bantock, won a major national prize for an epic poem he was working on at college and who now lives in Japan. And prose writer Roy Mules, who spent some time in the local psychiatric hospital (which wasn’t too unusual), and who dropped out to live la vie de Bohème in France; whom I met again in the early 2000s, looking dapper after decades of life in communes, but who decided that I hadn’t advanced my consciousness sufficiently, probably due to frivolity. And Lol Donovan, from Oxford itself (well, Headington) who emptied bins to make money during the Summer vacation because he was so strong—once he lifted me one-handed out of a punt on the Cherwell at dawn on May Morning on to the high bank of the Botany Gardens after a night afloat drinking vodka… one of the nicest people I ever met, whom alas I lost touch with due to inattention. And on my staircase in the Old Coffee House was charming Etonian Peter Lascelles, who rowed, and led a butterfly-hunting expedition to the Cameroons while he was still a student, and who is now retired as a potter in the Lake District. And others! The present King of Norway was at Balliol right then, as a mere Crown Prince, but I didn’t mix in his circles, or circle.
I very soon stopped wearing the three-piece suit which my parents had stretched (financially) to buy me, because I felt stuffy in it, and bought my first approximation to a pair of jeans. Here’s a group photo including me at that period in the college gardens, as a member of the college literary society, so that people can guess which youth I am; oops, I think I just gave a clue. The literary society had been founded 50 years earlier; and a commemoratory photo was taken back then, so we were trying to emulate that earlier photo (middle front) as regards poses and general appearance. The person in the back row isn’t actually Oscar Wilde, but he certainly shared Wilde’s mannerisms; I think he went to teach in the Caribbean.

Ian photo

After growing up in the bleak north of England of the 1950s, Oxford seemed like Paradise.
I read my first (very mini!) ‘novel’ aloud to the members of this Bradley Society—lasting for about one hour—probably early in 1963. In September 1962 I’d moved into a sort of flat of disconnected rooms, because 3rd year undergraduates had to find their own lodgings, and besides I got married then precociously, which Balliol didn’t like at all but couldn’t prevent. The Dean said that I wasn’t very likely to get a First (class degree) in any case, but now I certainly wouldn’t—ah ha, I disproved this prophecy of doom. The sort of flat was in the house of a railway worker called Hadrys, whom I thought must be Welsh, from his name, but he was a Pole who came to the UK during the 2nd World War with the Polish resistance air force. His other tenant was a batty, heavily made-up woman who pinned paranoid messages to the front door. Of her I wrote in my first ever ‘novel’ called Phryne, name of a famous ancient Greek courtesan. I then went on to write another brief ‘novel’ called The Infant Gladiator, about a rich nutter who kidnaps young kids to crew small replica Roman warships in a private watery amphitheatre; for some reason I recall being influenced by Huysmans. My third novel written while a student, Closed Circuit, was about pregnancy from a woman’s viewpoint, based upon no practical experience whatever of the subject, but convincing enough (or peculiar enough) that this was very nearly published by John Calder, publisher of Beckett and Robbe-Grillet and such (also of Ann Quin‘s weird 1964 weird Berg, which I admired quite a lot). Thank goodness Calder finally decided against launching me—though it almost happened—or I might have continued writing experimental novels instead of, presently, seeing the light of science fiction. In 1964-65, while working on my thesis, I also wrote a longer novel called Toby Boy—contemporary with strong fantasy elements—inspired by a lame, doomed, spirited, delusional Irish lad whom my wife Judy became chums with at the Golden Cross pub where she worked as a barmaid. I destroyed all four of those early works, as one does when young, which I now rather regret, though not excessively.

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