Oxford elitist? Not in my book

Some may scoff at Oxford's antiquated rituals, but not Philip Norman, whose daughter has just graduated there. He relished its history as a counterpoint to his own impoverished past

A couple of weeks ago, my daughter Jessica graduated from Oxford with honours in English language and literature. Arrayed in a black scholastic gown trimmed with white, she bowed to the Vice-Chancellor and was presented with a scroll proclaiming her a Bachelor of Arts. Apart from a few arcane instructions in English, such as "Bow to the proctor on your right", the proceedings were conducted entirely in Latin.

You could easily mock it all as Monty Python-ish farce. Or you could marvel – as I did – that a centuries-old ceremony still survives without any of the dumbing-down or commercialisation that infects so much of our national life. Afterwards, Jessica and her friends hurled their mortarboards high into the air, under dreaming spires that for me represented a dream come true. It was without a doubt the proudest day of my life.

Already I can hear the accusing cries of "Elitist!", "Privilege!", "Pushy parent!", "Sharp-elbowed middle class!" So let me put myself into context.

I grew up as the son of a debt-ridden, alcoholic showman at the end of a seaside pier. From the age of 12 to 18, I lived in a derelict pub belonging to my grandmother, who sold rock and candyfloss from a kiosk on the esplanade.

There was no bathroom and no hot water. The place reeked of damp and stray cats who used the cartons of rock that were stored there as a latrine. I was so ashamed of it that I tried never to be seen entering or leaving.

At my school I was the shabbiest, most unkempt boy. Although my father's business included a café, it was a heinous crime in his eyes to "eat the profits", so I was almost permanently hungry. In those days, I used to envy what I thought of as "the working class" for the cosy respectability of their lives. Resigned, like my father, to failure and squalor, I thought everyone in the world was better off than me.

Despite winning both the English and the sixth-form prize in my final school year, there was never any question of my going to university. I left at the age of 18 to become an apprentice reporter on a tiny weekly paper in East Anglia. On my first day at work, a local clergyman told me I'd never get far in journalism because I wasn't a graduate.

Later, I had the misfortune to spend several months on Cambridge's evening paper, watching the gorgeous life of the university go on around me but unable to join in. To make it even worse, I was sometimes mistaken for an undergraduate. One day (this was long before credit cards), I bought some trousers at a smart men's outfitters in Trinity Street. Before I could take out my wallet, the shop assistant opened a ledger and asked, "Which college, Sir?", intending to give me credit, as any undergrad of that era would expect.

After I did finally manage to reach Fleet Street, it made no difference that several of my most talentless and useless colleagues were Oxbridge graduates. Having missed those three golden years always felt like an irreparable gap in my soul.

When Jessica was born, I resolved that she'd always have the two things my own childhood lacked: a feeling of absolute security, and a belief that anything is possible. As the composer of Oliver!, Lionel Bart, once told me: "There's only one secret to success, mate. You gotta wanna."

And boy, did Jessica "wanna"! When I hear talk of exams becoming ever "easier", I remember how mercilessly she drove herself for her 10 GCSE A-stars and four A grades at A-level. Which was four more O-levels than I got, and one more A-level. I'm hugely proud of that.

She has loved her three years at Oxford – and so have I. For she's done everything I fantasised about when I was her age and reporting weddings and whist drives or collecting the editor's haemorrhoid ointment on Fridays.

She's dined "in hall", messed about in punts on the river Cherwell, attended May balls. She's acted in plays, one of which (The Little Prince) went to the Edinburgh Festival while another (Much Ado About Nothing) toured Japan. She's tried her hand at directing and run her college theatre.

Above all, she's sat in beautiful libraries, reading the very best of English literature and absorbing what Evelyn Waugh in Brideshead Revisited called "the soft vapours of a thousand years of learning".

For me, it was magical to visit her there, even on the trips every two months to clear her college room (Oxford terms are extremely short) and bring her stuff back to London. Just being in that city of pinnacles and cobbles and warm yellow stone always made me feel better about everything. Myself most of all.

Oxford undeniably has its elitist side – most visible in young men who model themselves on Lord Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead, or the infamously foppish and yobbish Bullingdon Club, to which David Cameron and Boris Johnson once belonged. They are a small minority, however, whom most of the students regard with contempt, if not pity.

Jessica's three years at the hub of student life had not a whiff of snobbery or elitism. Her friends on the English course and in the drama set – several of whom graduated alongside her – almost all came from ordinary homes and state schools and had parents just as dazzled by their offspring's achievements as I was by hers.

That same classlessness extended to the dons at her college. Her two main English tutors, both women, outstanding in their respective fields, were far from the traditional image of the Oxford "bluestocking". Both, indeed, were products of state schools and so object lessons in the truth of "You gotta wanna".

Because Jessica always emailed me her essays before submitting them, I've acquired some of the learning I missed all those years ago. Gaps in my literary knowledge , such as Spenser's The Faerie Queene and Milton's Paradise Lost, have finally been filled.

Sometimes, thanks to her, I'd be spurred to reread works I did in the sixth form, such as Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales and Webster's The Duchess of Malfi. Or I'd discover extraordinary things that I never knew existed, such as Thomas Hardy's The Convergence of the Twain, the most daring of all elegies on the loss of the Titanic.

In return, I could help her on a sub-editorial level, give her background about F Scott Fitzgerald, the subject of her dissertation, and suggest Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound as her second play to direct. But in some areas – Middle English, for example – she was on her own.

Oxford has also shown me multiculturalism at its best – the streets throng with young people from all over the world. At her graduation ceremony there were Chinese, American, Middle European and Sikh students.

And now it's all over. Instead of "My daughter's at Oxford", I can say only, "My daughter's just graduated from Oxford," which, alas, hasn't quite the same shelf-life.

For a career, Jessica has chosen acting, that most cruel of all professions, whose greatest stars still live with insecurity and rejection. She's also going out into a world where the ruthless exploitation of young people through unpaid internships and placements, or zero-hour contracts, is reaching Dickensian levels.

By comparison, the weekly £2.50 I was paid as an 18-year-old for writing up weddings and whist drives and fetching the editor's haemorrhoid ointment seems part of a bucolic lost world.

Whatever may happen, Oxford has given her something that can never be taken away. And the same can now be said of me, too.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
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