Tuesday 29 June 2010

The best thing anyone can teach you

The first rule of reunions is this: never, ever accept an invitation to one unless you have pre-arranged a quorum of congenial friends to shelter you from the crashing bores who are drawn to such events like moths to a flame.

Luckily I had taken this precaution on Saturday night, or I would have ended up sharing dinner with quite possibly the most boring man in the world, and three of his almost equally dull friends. A scenario which would, by around halfway through the first course, almost certainly have pushed me over the edge in quite spectacular fashion.

As it was, I also had three of my old chums within shouting distance, though I would have greatly benefited from an old-fashioned ear trumpet, as sported by Evelyn Waugh.

The occasion for which we were all gathered was a reunion at my college in Cambridge, which every few years invites its old students back for dinner, chiefly to remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe to it and might like to think about repaying. Wills were probably uppermost in their minds on this occasion, given that their oldest guest had come up in 1934, and celebrated his 95th birthday on Sunday, while the youngest was me or one of my contemporaries from the intake of 1972.

Consequently this was an all-male and pretty much all-white occasion, or grey in the case of hair. Even so, the guest speaker might have slightly misjudged his audience when he spoke of our shared memories of the war and national service, and ventured that “even the youngest amongst us have entered the grandparent generation”. I fear that my resultant cry of “Not me, mate!” might well have been a serious breach of etiquette.

Now, the reason for bringing this up is that I have met many people who consider that they or their children have missed out one of life’s most glittering prizes by failing to get into Oxbridge. It would be idle to deny that once or twice it has proved a useful addition to my CV. But be under no delusion that the majority of people who go there, or teach there for that matter, are particularly clever or interesting. Many, like my unchosen companions at dinner, are world class dullards who are now on the final descent to retirement looking back on lives remarkably empty of any meaningful achievement. They, no doubt, could say the same of me.

By contrast, the most interesting and successful people I know nearly all left school at the first opportunity, with minimal qualifications, and went on to work hard to better themselves in what snobs used to deride as “trade”.

Universities are great places to go and have fun for three years, and develop the extra-curricular interests that may sustain you in later life or, if you are lucky, give you an opening to a career you might actually enjoy. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, I now realise that I should have devoted my time at Cambridge to student journalism and writing bad comedy. Instead I wasted it reading the occasional history book and drinking too much beer. I did so because in those days I lacked the confidence to be myself.

It might make life unbearable if we all ended up as braying Hooray Henries, but it seems to me that the best thing the new generation of academies can do for their pupils is to give them the sort of self-confidence with which the products of our great public schools have always been far too amply supplied.

Oh, and it would also add greatly to the sum of human happiness if they could instil enough self-knowledge to know when one is being unbearably boring, and the time has come to give the caravanning anecdotes a rest.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne.

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