From the High Court to a shared student bathroom: Sir Oliver goes back to college

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The Independent Online

There is nothing in Oliver Popplewell's long and distinguished career as a High Court judge that could adequately have prepared him for the indignity of sharing a bathroom with 13 pimply students.

But the 76-year-old barrister, who once famously inquired about Linford Christie's lunchbox, has decided to revive his university days by becoming one of the oldest undergraduates to attend Oxford University.

In what is perhaps a subconscious attempt to ditch his out-of-touch image, Sir Oliver has eschewed the luxury of private digs, choosing instead the more down-to-earth accommodation in one of the college houses. His basic room has a single bed but no lavatory, leaving the former judge little choice but to join fellow students in the communal bathrooms for his morning ablutions.

Sir Oliver, who was schooled at Charterhouse before reading law at Queens' College, Cambridge, has chosen PPE at Harris Manchester College, Oxford, for his second degree.

It was during Christie's libel claim against John McVicar over doping allegations that Sir Oliver first came to notoriety. He was the judge who asked: "What is Linford's lunchbox?", though he has since said it was meant as a joke. He also heard Jonathan Aitken's failed legal action against The Guardian and Granada TV. He remembers the case as one of the most bitter in English libel history, describing the demise of Aitken as a "sad end to a distinguished political career".

Now Sir Oliver, who began his course last month, finds himself following in Aitken's footsteps. The former Conservative minister also went to study at Oxford after serving most of his 18-month prison sentence for perjury.

While Aitken can justify a late return to education as a necessary stop on his journey of rehabilitation, Sir Oliver's decision is less easy to understand. As a judge based at the Royal Courts of Justice, he inhabited a rarefied legal world where he was loyally served by a clerk and secretary

On circuit, the time when judges sit on benches outside the capital, he stayed in palatial judicial lodgings from where he was chauffeured to and from the court.

His biography, Benchmark, offers clues to why he has chosen the privations of the life of a student instead of a dignified retirement financed by a judge's pension.

"I went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1948. Nothing that had happened before to me in my life or since has been ever been quite so exciting or fulfilling. I look back on the three years at Queens' with unalloyed pleasure." And while his life on the bench may not be the best preparation for life as a mature student at Oxford, his national service will be a much more useful experience.

As a young naval recruit, he recalls: "No one living with 13 others, day in, day out can avoid the communal scrutiny of character. Each has a responsibility to bear in 101 different ways. The skiver is soon detected."

Such sentiments may not endear him to all his fellow students who might be forgiven for suspecting Sir Oliver of benefiting from his privileged background and contacts at the Bar. One of his sponsors for his degree is Michael Beloff QC, president of Trinity College and an old family friend. But to secure a place at Oxford, Sir Oliver, a father of four, also had to send in a piece of written work (he chose a lecture he gave on the arrogance of power), sit a one-hour exam and submit to an interview with the college principal. The former judge was told that he had as much chance of getting in as anyone else.

Another of his famous friends is the actor Stephen Fry, whom he looked after when the comedian briefly lost the plot in the mid-Nineties and went Awol from a theatre production of Cell Mates. Fry acknowledges in a foreword to Benchmark that Sir Oliver is not the typical mature student. "On the surface, our hero might be thought to have had a charmed life, the kind of life for which Telegraph obituaries are so avidly scoured."

But in spite of Sir Oliver's eagerness to continue rounding his education at Oxford he is unlikely to be found in the college bar. If you want to find Sir Oliver, try the college law library.