In those days – October 1977 – we still had Saturday morning school. Strolling along the tiled corridor of School End House on my way back from ringing the bell for assembly, I bumped into a boy named Crispin Lambert, like me in the second year of the Norwich school sixth form and gearing up to take his A-levels the following summer. Whether Crispin was actively seeking me out, or what followed was a spontaneous gesture, I never discovered, but he shot me a confidential look, suggesting that great matters were in train, and demanded, "Are you doing anything in the next half hour?". Whatever I said must have been encouraging, as his next question was: "Would you like to come and meet the Prime Minister?".
Would I like to meet the Prime Minister? Somehow this invitation seemed less important than establishing how it was Crispin's to bestow. It turned out that the PM – James Callaghan, then 18 months or so into his tenure – was paying a visit to Norwich and wanted to inspect the cathedral, which lay nearby. Crispin, who belonged to an organisation called the Young Friends of Norwich Cathedral, had been urged, at extremely short notice, to rustle up a delegation of teenagers to greet him. "But I'm not a Young Friend of Norwich Cathedral," I remember saying. "That doesn't matter," Crispin said. "You come with me."
We made for the school gates, and a patch of tarmac dominated by the cathedral's front entrance and a statue of Lord Nelson, the school's most famous old boy. A couple of security men, one of whom clearly had a gun concealed in his coat pocket, lurked under the trees. Various cathedral dignitaries hovered in the background, together with the other young people whom Crispin had collected for his mission. Several of them, including a girl called Cathy Webster, daughter of the Dean, were known to me; others not. If any of them were wondering what this black-blazered interloper was doing, they were too polite to say so.
A minute or two later, a black limousine swung into view through the Erpingham Gateway and Callaghan stepped out. As a rabidly right-wing 17-year-old, elected Conservative MP for Norwich School in the mock-election of October 1974, I had no great opinion of 'Sunny Jim' as the newspapers called him. On the other hand, a political celebrity is a political celebrity, and I was prepared to be thoroughly deferential. A middle-aged woman who presumably kept an eye on the Young Friends at their Thursday night clambakes did the introductions, to which Jim, affable and avuncular, politely attended. When she got to me there was an understandable silence. Jim, who had plainly spent a lifetime diffusing social awkwardnesses of this kind, was the first to break it. "So," he said, "what are you doing?" What I was doing? Supposing that this question referred to my short-term ambitions, I said: "I'm thinking of going to Oxford, Prime Minister".
Unexpectedly, Jim looked slightly put out, not so much peevish as faintly rueful. There was another silence. Finally, with the ironical air of one who has some deeply-felt conviction battling with the need to be polite, he brought out the caveat, "There are other places, you know". There was no reason to contest this, so I nodded my head. Jim moved on down the line to shake hands with Cathy Webster or Crispin, and that was that. It was all very mystifying, and I only disinterred the roots of it several years later when reading Susan Crosland's biography of her husband Tony, Callaghan's foreign secretary until his premature death.
This disclosed that Jim, born into something very near poverty in the back-streets of Portsmouth, and compelled to leave school at 16, had not exactly a chip on his shoulder about not attending one of our great universities, but an awareness that something had been denied him that might in more favourable circumstances have been his for the taking. There is, for example, a scene in which Callaghan tells his cabinet colleagues, "I hear you all think that I wouldn't have got a Second if I'd been to Oxford". Crosland assures him, not quite unpatronisingly, that, no, he could have got a First, but the trouble with him was that he never allowed time for reflection.
Curiously enough, all this has haunted me for decades: not only as a dreadful warning of the consequences of bragging about your aspirations in public, but as an example of what might be called the personal myth that stirs below the skin of public figures – a delicate organism that, on this evidence, needs careful handling. Jim had clearly set out for a demon-free trip to a religious landmark, instead of which, alas, he got me.
DJ Taylor's latest novel, 'Secondhand Daylight', is published in MarchReuse content