Islands in the mist

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“Islanders are never afraid, if they were they wouldn’t be able to live here,” reflects the resourceful Ingrid, one of the only family scratching out a living on a tiny island off the coast of Norway in Roy Jacobsen’s novel The Unseen.

The title has layers of meaning. We begin with a view from the outside; a local pastor who finally visits the island and his charges there after deferring his pastoral duty for years due to his fear of sea travel. He makes a quick assessment of their character, feeling a certain pity for the way Ingrid’s childish hands will soon be scarred by hard work, regretting the feeble-mindedness of another sister, eating his dinner and falling asleep. The islanders help him back into the boat and go about their lives. His usefulness to them is limited.

The rest of the story is told from their point of view. Those expecting romance and blissful solitude will be disappointed. This is a powerful, yet laconic account of back-breaking hard work, wild weather and a great deal left unspoken. Mysteries are mentioned but barely, if ever, explained. It reminds me of the German TV series Heimat, which reproduced the banality as well as the beauty of everyday life in a rural community, getting under our skin until we knew the characters intimately and saw a tumultuous period of history through their eyes. There is minimal dialogue in The Unseen, and the nuts and bolts of daily life seem mundane but leave you marvelling at human resourcefulness and the constant battle for dignity and meaning.

Islands fascinate many people, myself included. The idea of being in charge of your own private kingdom, albeit a tiny one, combined with their natural beauty and air of mystery, can be intoxicating. But we romanticise them at our peril. The important qualifications for island life were until modern times, and often still are, stoicism, courage, resourcefulness and the capacity for unremitting hard work and prudent management of scarce resources.

They are not, however, without their magic. Roy Jacobsen writes lyrically of the flotsam and jetsam blown in by the tide – some useful, some faintly bizarre – an entire wheelhouse, messages in bottles that fail to reach their destination, the slimy casket of a wealthy lady’s personal effects. Sometimes the most unpromising blow-ins turn out to be the most valuable. Family is not simply defined by ties of blood, which in The Unseen can be convoluted and best left unexamined. It can include those who are washed up by circumstances, rejected by mainland society – the odd, the backward, the illegitimate and the dispossessed. Only one character in this story is unequivocally rejected by the island community; an escaped convict whose primary crime is to expect bed and board without making any contribution to the domestic economy.

Here is a book that stands squarely on its own terms and makes few concessions. It is about an elemental place that seems changeless but is in fact as vulnerable as anywhere else on earth to the vicissitudes of history. War, economics and technology all bring their own challenges and opportunities. The islanders choose their battles, battered by long experience. Some things cannot be changed, particularly the extremes of weather. Their projects are sometimes rebuilt two, three or more times because of its ravages. Jacobsen  is a master of linguistic economy. Deeds tell us more than words. A major extension to the family house is changed into a water cistern because it obscures someone’s view of their childhood home on a neighbouring island. And when a telescope is found, the conclusion is drawn that perhaps humans are not designed to see beyond the all-important horizon, because such encounters awaken dreams and raise unanswerable questions.

It sounds like a grim read, this account of exposure, stoicism and mortality. In fact it is nothing of the kind. It is as invigorating as a breath of sea air filling the lungs of a city dweller. Few of us would hanker after such a life. But it has its moments of intense happiness, and they are best savoured when they come, for who knows what tomorrow may bring? And there is a refreshing egalitarianism in its knitting together of unlikely characters in a stubborn and independent domestic commonwealth.

Islands are easy to fall in love with. They are also, both physically and psychologically, very difficult to leave. Most of us only see them from the outside. We will never fully understand them, or what motivates their denizens to cling to their exposed and arduous  lifestyle. It is a mystery that Jacobsen evokes perfectly, and does not fall into the trap of trying to explain. Instead he relies on the gift of any great novelist, the capacity to evoke empathy with people whose lives seen unlike our own.

 

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See that girl

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Vita Sackville-West’s writing desk, Sissinghurst, Kent (National Trust Photo Library)

Long ago as an Eng Lit undergraduate, I endured a term on 20th Century literature with a tutor who could have come straight out of a Malcolm Bradbury novel. Bearded, corpulent, booming-voiced, with a bottle of booze constantly at his elbow, he never wasted an opportunity to bully me because I liked Virginia Woolf. Lawrence, he thundered, that was what it was all about! Woolf was effete, privileged – she had servants! What did she know about real life? If I encountered him now I would say at least two things – one that bonking on the rug in front of a roaring fire in the household of a thinly-disguised Ottoline Morrell isn’t exactly social realism, and two that Lawrence had a servant, too. She was called Frieda, she left her husband and kids to service his monumental ego, because a wandering social pariah, and at least the Woolfs paid their domestic help.

I worshipped dead men for their strength, forgetting I was strong.

Vita Sackville-West

I found myself thinking about this yesterday as I walked past a house that’s presently being renovated, and had to move into the middle of the road because the pavement was fully occupied by a bloke in a white van eating his lunch with the doors both wide open. That’s the thing about toxic (and occasionally non-toxic but thoughtless) masculinity – it is based on the assumption that men take up space and women squeeze around them. The first women to challenge this, and to literally demand their own space, tended to belong to social and/or intellectual elites. Vita Sackville-West, with her glorious book-lined tower writing room at Sissinghurst, comes to mind. As does Woolf herself, with her country retreat at Monks’ House and her accommodating, possibly celibate, marriage.

Elites have a bad press these days, but they have their uses. When privilege is really deeply entrenched, they are in a particularly strong and visible position to challenge it. Yes, I hear you all cry, what did Vita and Virginia ever do for the suffering unemployed? Fair enough, but how many of the people who throw rocks at Virginia know about the devastating series of personal losses she’d experienced by the age of twenty, and her horrendous struggles with severe mental illness before the era of anti-depressants? Let’s be terribly understanding and sympathetic about mental illness, let’s wear the T-shirt and tweet the supportive slogans, but God forbid that we should include someone wealthy in our circle of empathy.

Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.

Virginia Woolf

I am sure that Virginia, Vita and their circle could be ghastly, self-indulgent snobs. But that is because they were human, not specifically on account of their class or gender. And roistering males who expressed their creativity through titanic bouts of alcoholism and strings of wrecked relationships don’t seem to be exposed to the same scrutiny. Nobody’s social class or gender ought to give the a free pass. But in all fairness, that should apply to everyone, not only those considered to be cool and authentic.

There are an awful lot of people around like my tutor, who broadcast their personal preferences as self-evident truth. They congregate on Twitter, quick to mock Abba and say they got into The Clash. Fine, I’ve no problem with that. But this very quickly turns into bullying, forcing dissenting, more marginal voices into the middle of the road while you eat your lunch. Please, let’s call it out for what it is.

I can imagine the eye-rolling if I get back onto the subject of Dancing Queen. But one of the reactions that saddened me among the flood of tweets was that it was “the saddest song ever written.” It’s all about death, apparently. A sad old person watches a young girl lost in the moment of joyful self-expression, and mourns the loss of their youth. Sorry, but I don’t see it that way at all. That’s an interpretation, but mine is different. I see it as someone rejoicing as they observe a young woman’s confidence and freedom, her indifference to what anybody else thinks about her.

It’s quite possible to be older than seventeen but not particularly want to be on the dance floor yourself, to rejoice in the simple pleasure, confidence and freedom of others. Middle age has taught me that. We should probably spend more time watching young people find their joyful space, and cheering them on. It doesn’t matter what they are dancing to. It’s the dance that counts.

 

How dare Mrs May appropriate “Dancing Queen”?

Mamma Mia is the biggest bloody celebration of freedom of movement ever

dancing queen

So Teresa May, the most racist, small-minded, reactionary Prime Minister in living memory, has just ruined the best party song ever written, ABBA’s wonderful Dancing Queen.

I take this very, very personally. This is an anthem of female empowerment, every bit as much so as I Will Survive or RESPECT. In a music industry saturated with the sexualisation and objectification of women’s bodies, it is a rare, no-strings celebration of a young woman on her own, in no need of a partner, dancing to music and having a wonderful time.

And ABBA tell us to watch her. Learn from her. Stop treating woman as objects to be controlled. It’s actually a very Scandinavian message.

But the recent Mamma Mia movie gives another twist to this act of musical abuse. Because that movie is the biggest bloody celebration of freedom of movement ever. It’s about a young woman who can travel throughout Europe and do whatever she likes. It’s about the joy of different cultures, different nations, different outlooks, all coming together in one big joyous party.

Yes, it’s cheesy as hell. But dammit, we’ve never needed that dream more. And it shouldn’t be a dream. It should be a reality. The reality, the joy, the opportunity, the freedom that Mrs May is taking away from a generation of young people – with enthusiasm and glee.

I hope ABBA sue the pants off the bloody Tories.

Whatever happened to our world? I wish I understood

It used to be so nice. It used to be so good.

I

Ship, oh ship, I seek the West

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A Summer Afternoon at Lamorna, by Frank Heath
Oil on Canvas 20″ X 24″
Aileen (left) and Nancy on the cliffs above Lamorna circa 1925.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
Sea Fever, John Masefield

I have been in a state of raging restlessness for days now. I knew I was longing, but I hadn’t been able to put a name to what I craved. Then I saw a picture of Mounts Bay and it all fell into place. That doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. If my life was a movie, this would be the moment when I threw things into a suitcase and boarded a westward train, never to return. The moment when I Found Myself, and began to live authentically, which in many cases seems to mean a total disregard to the wishes and feelings of anyone else.

I didn’t ask to fall in love with West Cornwall. It chose me. Perhaps it goes all the way back to the Treleavans, my ancestors from Tywardreath near Fowey. Probably they couldn’t get out of the place fast enough; they seem to have lost little time relocating to Plymouth as soon as the railways made it feasible. And Emma, my great-great-grandmother, was only sixteen when she eloped with a Scottish bandsman from the Royal Marines, changed her name to the unromantic Harrison and began a new life in the Lancashire textile industry.

My family connections since that time have been overwhelmingly with the North West of England. I was born in Manchester and have lived there for most of my adult life. We have a desirable, if somewhat neglected, house and a wide circle of interesting friends. We can go to movies, talks and theatre performances whenever we want to. We love Manchester, its warm, indomitable people, its rich cultural and musical life and its vainglorious Victorian gothic public buildings. We have a good life here. My husband, though semi-retired, is closely involved with the University and has work that fulfils him. Why would we want to move?

Nobody ever said that love was convenient. Love, as Simon Callow once said, is where it falls. Mine fell many years ago on a windy promentary steeped in history, with wide skies, pounding seas and gorse flowering yellow against the blue. I have never felt more at home anywhere. When I stepped off the train in 1985 and found myself in Penzance, I was intoxicated.

Penzance is, in fact, not an uncomplicated place to like. Much of it is frankly tatty. It has its share of ugly concrete buildings, rough pubs and shuttered shops. If you have travelled overnight and hoped for somewhere glamorous, its mundane shabbiness may depress you despite its inspiring setting. Seen on a drizzly day, with the smell of cheap pasties in the air, it’s not uplifting.

But dig deeper. Seek out the Western Georgian terraces, the graceful Penlee gardens with their lovely gallery, the richly charactered patchwork of architectural treasures on Chapel Street. Here you will find the hotel where news of victory at Trafalgar reached mainland England, the glorious eccentricity of the Egyptian House, a sturdy granite chapel used for dancing classes, a pub called the Admiral Benbow with a plaster pirate boy sharp-shooting from its eaves. Try one of the many independent coffee shops and you’ll find flyers advertising art exhibitions, delicious vegan cakes, and individual takes on furniture and decor. We went into one café on Market Jew Street and found an upside-down washbasin hanging from the ceiling of the loo. Then there is the Edge of the World, surely one of the country’s most enticing independent bookshops. There’s a tiny theatre, a range of galleries, a glorious restored 1930’s lido. And a railway station that, despite its functional barn-like design, retains an aura of romance.

Out in Mount’s Bay, St Michael’s mount sails on the horizon. Over to the left you can make out the Lizard, Britain’s most southerly point, on a fine day. A short drive or bus ride will bring you to the finest coastal scenery you’d see anywhere. The Zawns, virtigiounously plunging clefts through sheer cliffs, beloved of artists and rock climbers. Iron Age villages and old mine workings grace the furzy inland hills. Winding roads reveal new vistas at each turn. Cape Cornwall, its lonely chimney proud against the sky. Zennor, with a mermaid in the church. The glorious Gurnard’s Head pub, yellow as a gorse bloom. Around each corner, a view that could nourish you for a lifetime.

Penzance is just the start of it all. But what a start. Say you want to live there and people will roll their eyes at the thought of being so far away from everywhere else. The hours to get to London! No motorways. A sleeper train to reach a decent airport. Oh, they’ll give you lots of reasons not to go. In fact, there are places in Cornwall that, though closer as the chough flies, are more complicated to reach. Once you’ve done it a few times, even the hardship of the long train journey feels like the frame of a painting you can’t wait to rediscover. Once over the Tamar Bridge, I have never resented the distance. Every station is a well-loved old friend. 

Penzance is too far away to be like everywhere else. It has its own rhythm, its own character, its own alternative and artistic scene. Pirates are a part of the mix, but not the most important one, and mostly there for the tourists. What you will find is a large working harbour, a place where the sea still matters. You smell it in the air. Coming home to Manchester after that air gives you the sensation of filling your lungs with soup, cramming the grey biscuit-lid of low cloud over your spirit.

Every time I leave Penzance I feel more aware that a part of my soul, everything that makes me interesting, unique and creative, has stayed behind there. The stump continues to bleed. For a week or two, there are distractions. There are chores to do, the garden to tidy and harvest from, the girl who knows just how I like my hair done, the health club, all the amenities of a major city suburb long-inhabited. There are the tendrils of memory and obligation. There is happiness, of a sort. But each time, fewer weeks seem to elapse before the longing returns.

If we don’t go soon, I will age and regret that I lost my best years living somewhere I didn’t really want to be. Somewhere that doesn’t fizz my blood and make my heart sing. Already I have osteoarthritis. It will never be sensible to move. With each year that passes, it becomes less so. The excuses multiply. The fear, masked as practicality, persists.

And I remember Steve Jobs, who didn’t live all that long as it turned out, saying “Your time on earth is limited. Don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”

I tell myself not to be silly. I run through all the practicalities, my objections – both moral and ethical – to second homes. But every year, it gets less convincing. I love West Penwith. I never asked to. But love is where it falls.

When the wrong label costs a life – please let’s get serious about allergies

There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time

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Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, 15, who died after eating a baguette containing sesame from Pret a Manger (Picture from The Guardian)

This is a heartbreaking, shocking and utterly preventable tragedy. Unfortunately  it is not the first story of its type. A teenage girl, looking forward to a family holiday, grabs a baguette from an airport Pret a Manger before boarding a plane, unaware that it contains sesame. She becomes seriously ill on the plane and dies in hospital in Nice.

My son has already posted a long Twitter thread about this. He has a personal interest; he has a couple of life-threatening allergies of his own and recently had to spend a day in hospital abroad after falling foul of unclear labelling. We have travelled with him on family holidays, frequently having to explain that milk protein allergy is life-threatening, and not the same thing at all as lactose intolerance. The volume of press coverage given to clean eating and allergy/intolerance of certain foods, not all of it scientifically robust, has only added to the confusion. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Sometimes avoiding a particular food is a personal preference, and many a restauranteur has told a tale of someone who insisted on almond milk only to pig out on cheesecake from the sweet trolley. But for a small but significant minority, it is literally a matter of life and death.

There are countries – Austria happens to be one – where there is a clear, straightforward legal requirement to list all potentially dangerous allergens on any prepared foods offered for sale. It doesn’t guarantee complete safety but it certainly helps. A great deal depends not only on the system in place but on the training and commitment of staff. Many fast food outlets are manned by a rapid turnover of casual staff who may rarely see a line manager. Requests to see a printed list of all potential allergens may be met with bafflement, delays and rolled eyes from everyone behind the customer in the queue. There is a lingering perception that people who mention allergies are narcissistic snowflakes wasting everyone’s time, and a good cheese sarnie never did anyone any harm. They are treated as a nuisance rather than customers to whom the retailer has a duty of care.

At this time of year thousands of young people will be going through Freshers Week, navigating social life without parental supervision for the first time. They may be anxious and eager to please, or distracted, excited, and rather short on sleep. Keeping safe with a severe allergy requires concentration and planning. I can imagine the feelings of their parents as they read a story like this.

It is not elitist to explain that eating a certain food could kill you. It may be inconvenient, but far more so for the sufferer than for those having to deal with it. Please let us work together to create a climate where no young person should feel embarrassed to ask for the guidance they need to eat safely and stay well. Retailers need to realise that systems need to be robust enough to withstand outsourcing and the gig economy, and make sure their staff, however temporary and lowly, know how to keep their customers safe. It is a tragedy when any young person with their life before them dies needlessly. It can, and should, be prevented whenever humanly possible.

 

What if we told a Shakespeare history play from a woman’s POV?

Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around.

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In an early trilogy, Shakespeare tells the story of Henry VI, a desperately weak king of England who spent much of his reign in a catatonic state because of severe mental illness, and whose formidable French wife, Margaret of Anjou, more or less ran the country – that is, once she had wrested control from the deputies and minders who had ruled on Henry’s behalf since he had inherited the Crown as a baby.

It has been said that Queen Margaret is Shakespeare’s greatest female role. If you add together all her lines throughout the three plays, and the sequel to them, Richard III, they outnumber King Lear’s. So, in these more enlightened times, it seems like a great idea to condense the plays into one, call it Queen Margaret, and market it as the play Shakespeare would have written if he was alive today. Then you cast it inclusively, giving the titular role to one of our best black actresses and several of the feuding nobles’ roles to women.

The whole package sounds like terrific theatre, if a little on the well-meaning side. But there are problems. It is one thing to offer an audience a  new take on Hamlet or Julius Caesar – most theatregoers will be familiar with the plot, if not the original play. The Henry VI plays, however, are another matter. They are rarely performed; even RSC enthusiasts are likely to be unfamiliar with them. They tell a grim, complicated story of violence, rivalry and civil war. They go on, altogether, for eight or nine hours. Also, dare we say it, they were Shakespeare’s early work and – well, let’s just say he got better.

I realise I am plunging into a hornets’ nest here, and want to say that I am very much in favour of inclusive casting. Some of the best Shakespearian adaptations I have seen have been the least faithful in detail – Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood absolutely nails Macbeth, with an all-Japanese cast and aesthetic and nary a word of the original text so far as I recall. I also find that sometimes a complete cultural transfer and reboot works brilliantly – Julius Caesar set in an African republic, for example, or Much Ado About Nothing as an Indian rom-com. I’m looking forward greatly to Sophie Okonedo’s Cleopatra at the NT. I also thought Jade Anouka was brilliant as the formidable Queen Margaret. Her passion and stamina powers the story and lights up the stage. In fact, she deserved better.

How can anything be better than Shakespeare? Ah, there’s the rub. We tend to approach Shakespeare with enormous reverence, delighting in finding a 21stcentury sensibility struggling to fight its way out of even his below-average works, hampered by pesky Elizabethan prejudices about minorities on stage. Jeanie O’Hare, who adapted Queen Margaret from the sprawling Henry VI plays, worked at the RSC through Michael Boyd’s three-year staging of the history plays. ““It was an amazing cycle, but, for three years, Stratford was crawling with men in uniform,” says O’Hare. “I got more and more obsessed by the women in the plays: their place, their role.”

Her project to bring Margaret out of the sidelines of history as Shakespeare writes it and put her centre stage seems entirely commendable. Jade Anouka gives it her all – it’s a huge, sprawling, emotional part, and yet it somehow seems light on character development. O’Hare says she tried to think of Shakespeare as her co-writer. You get the feeling that she felt somewhat presumptuous and interrupted as little as she could get away with.

The irony is that, while we tend to revere Shakespeare’s lines as Holy Writ, almost a secular Bible for Western culture, he worked in a very collaborative environment. There are credible claims that Christopher Marlowe helped out with Henry VI Part 1 at least. Shakespeare would probably have found the idea of himself as sole originator of a canonical text quite difficult to get his head around. Almost all his works were based on existing stories. If something bombed on stage, he would have happily rewritten it and many of the plays, not least Hamlet, exist in multiple versions suggesting an almost constant process of revision and adaptation.

I think Queen Margaret would be a much better play if O’Hare had strayed rather more from Shakespeare’s vision, or even ripped it up and written something different altogether. For all her fire and courage, Anouka seems constrained by an Elizabethan corset, and the play’s use of selfies and Play Stations can’t overcome that essential problem.

I have been trying for a while to figure out why I find so much revisionist Shakespeare well-intentioned but not entirely satisfying, and I have come to the conclusion that if you are distracted by the minority group the actors come from the production isn’t quite working as it should. It’s not that we undervalue female Henry V’s or black Macbeths. It’s more that we overvalue Shakespeare. We put fresh faces on our stage and yet fear to follow them wherever they take us. I would also like to see more actors not playing Shakespeare, the ultimate dead white male writer, and performing stuff that will make me think about someone else’s story. An experimental two-hander about a gay Muslim performed in a sari shop, for example, or a promenade performance in a warehouse that simulates the alienation and bewilderment experienced by asylum seekers. (In Manchester, over the last 18 months or so, I’ve seen both of the above).

Shakespeare often travels much better than we think he will – his themes are universal, his language and plotting, particularly on one of his off-days, sometimes aren’t. I don’t think Jeanie O’Hare needed a co-writer. Not even him. I rather wish she’d collaborated with Jade Anouka instead, and dumped the squabbling York, Sussex and Warwick once and for all.

Jeanie O’Hare on writing Queen Margaret (The Guardian)

“Frailty, thy name isn’t woman: fresh feminist takes on Shakespeare (Michael Billington, Guardian)

Queen Margaret is playing at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until October 6th.

 

 

 

When the dreaming spires become a nightmare

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Undergraduates pose for a Matriculation photograph at University College, Oxford

I went back to Oxford last week, stayed for a few days, went to a conference and entered a University building (the English Faculty) for the first time since 1977. Also, as I travelled up the Banbury Road to my hotel, I had my first view of St Hugh’s College since I dropped out as a terrified 18 year old 41 years ago.

In those days St Hugh’s was still a women’s college, and women’s colleges tended to be spartan, underfunded places, out in the sticks, beneath the surface of leafy privilege. I had a tiny, freezing room with a bathroom down the hall. I also remember the food being awful, which seemed particularly galling when combined with the need to wear sub-fusc for Formal Hall dinners and bow to the Principal.

Nevertheless, Oxford was Oxford, and nobody was more surprised than me to find myself there. I had come up from a single parent family in a terraced house a few miles from Blackpool, via a grammar school that had managed to get a pupil into St Hugh’s the year before and had desperately wanted “a connection” with the place. Nobody forced me to go, but I only remember one member of staff telling me it would be anything other than blissful to be there, and I was at a very impressionable age.

So when I hated it, when I started retching and couldn’t keep any food down, when I was terrified of my tutor, baffled by Anglo-Saxon classes, mortified that I couldn’t ride a bicycle, convinced that everyone was much cleverer and more confident than me, when I finally broke down when faced with Gerard Manley Hopkins’ Wreck of the Deutschland and the need to produce an essay in three days’ time, I thought there must be something wrong with me.

It would be unfair to criticise Oxford University based on my experiences decades ago, but Alan Rusbridger’s thoughtful analysis of the barriers still facing underprivileged students suggests that there is still a long way to go. From personal experience I can attest that it’s not just a matter of broadening access, though that certainly helps. It’s a matter of surviving and thriving when you get there, and powerful barriers to that happy outcome remain.

I wonder if the more privileged denizens of Oxford University fully appreciate how very alien their world feels to that vast majority of people? Again, I must qualify my impressions by recognising that they may be out of date. But I remember being utterly alienated and confused by some of the terminology – “collections” rather than “examinations” comes to mind. I knew nothing of the ceremony of Matriculation, a mass procession to the Sheldonian Theatre in academic costume that was far more formal and alienating than either of my children’s graduation days have been (In fact, I suspect that’s one reason why I turned up at Essex for my son’s absurdly overdressed). From the inside, it’s tradition and character and well worth preserving. From the outside, it can be terrifying. What if you’re trying to get by on £20 a week and you suddenly find you have to go to Shepherd & Woodward and pick up a whole set of medieval costume? It’s not easy to phone home to a hard-pressed family and ask for the money to do that.

I had a look round Eton College a few years ago. My main impression was how very similar to the older Oxford colleges it looked and felt. People who have been educated in this rarified atmosphere since the age of seven will have no idea how little their perception of reality accords with other people’s. It’s a subtle and powerful instrument of social inequality. They are prepared for higher education in all kinds of ways; not just superb academic resources but a wealth of cultural opportunities, useful contacts, self-belief and confidence. But I suspect the biggest advantage of the lot is that they arrive at Magdalen or Trinity simply assuming that’s what an educational institution is like.

Oxford prides itself on its one-to-one tutorial system. It seems to me that the Cambridge two-student supervision one is somewhat more humane. At least you’ve got someone to talk to about it, even if they grew up somewhere you can barely begin to imagine. You find out you weren’t the only one feeling completely inadequate and tongue-tied. The Oxford I remember had no formal teaching mechanism between the tutorial and the lecture. The result, for me at least, was loneliness and misery.

When I broke down and announced I was leaving, the lovely girls I’d made friends with all said, “We had no idea you were feeling like this.” Tormented by impostor syndrome, I hadn’t felt able to confide in anyone. I had gone up mentally exhausted after self-preparing for Oxford entrance, a round of university interviews and my A Levels, all within a year, and having to work full-time all summer to earn a bit of money (and this was in the halcyon days of full maintenance grants). Everything had led me to believe that I was stepping into a Brideshead paradise. I can’t blame the University for everything that went wrong. I never should have been there – and eventually I went somewhere else, did well and was happy. If I had had a bit more confidence, I would have turned down Oxford’s offer and gone there in the first place.

Rusbridger’s college, Lady Margaret Hall, now offers a kind of pre-university foundation year for promising potential students identified by charities. They are offered bespoke tuition followed by a chance to apply, and out of 21 candidates 16 have successfully done so. Such a scheme, or even a summer school along the same lines, would have made all the difference to me back in 1977. It wouldn’t just have stretched me intellectually. It would have given me the chance to ask all those questions that felt silly at the time but ended up making the difference between success and ignominious retreat.

I remember the train journey back home at the end of that October. I remember watching two girls with Northern accents share a bag of chips, and weeping with relief to be back in the world I understood once again. It’s taken me 41 years to go back, to spend an afternoon in the English Faculty Library without having a panic attack, to enjoy the place from a secure distance of time and self-respect. And to have the confidence to say, “It’s not just about me, Oxford. Some of it’s also about you.”

Brideshead Revisited image of Oxford University – article from Cherwell (OU student newspaper)