Now is the time for every good Oxbridge journalist to run a piece on his own personal memories of the Oxford Union, to look deep within his soul and say to himself: "Do I have actually have any memories of the Oxford Union? Did I actually go to Oxford? Or was it Cambridge? Given my whole life all over again, should I have omitted university altogether? Might I not have done better to go straight to the big city and started a night club called Stringfellow's, and made a fortune, and thus been invited to be a constant guest speaker at university unions and thus learnt what it was like inside the Oxford Union without the pain of spending three years there as well?"
With me, it was exactly the other way round. I spent three years at Oxford, but I never got involved in the life of the Union. This was thanks to a man called Ian Hunter, who taught me Spanish and French at school, and who, when he learnt he had helped me get a place at Oxford, completed that part of my education with one piece of advice about the old place.
"Have nothing to do with the Union," he said. "No matter what else you do, avoid that hell-hole. It is a place which might have been specially designed to stunt the growth of the British child into an adult. You see, what happens to the normal teenager at a British university is quite predictable. It arrives and spends the first year worrying about religion. It sits up all night, discussing the meaning of life. Second year, sex. It sits up all night, wondering whether to go to bed, and if so who with, and sometimes doing something about it. Third year..."
Hunter's hands spread expressively in a non-stop shrug. (Not only was he a Francophile, he was an actor manqué.)
"Third year – who knows? It's your choice. But there is another class of person, namely people who go straight into the self-worshipping talkshop called the Union, politicians-to-be who spend their whole three years at Oxford learning how to get elected on to committees, how to curry favour with people who can vote for them, and – very importantly – how to discard people who are no longer of use to them, without causing offence. They show a pleasing gift for reshaping the less famous remarks of Oscar Wilde, and getting a reputation as a snappy speaker and a master of a formal style of dressing only 50 years out of date. While the rest of us have been finding out something about life, they have been finding out about a life in politics."
It certainly seemed to be that way, judging from my very few visits to the Union, where people made a habit of becoming Union president and later going off to become leader of their own country and plunging it into chaos. (One thinks of Benazir Bhutto and Edward Heath.) But for the most part I obeyed Hunter's advice and steered clear, only going to the Union to hear unusual guests in debates, such as A S Neill and Alfred Hinds, and never uttering a word myself.
In fact, I have probably been to the Oxford Union more often as a guest speaker since I left than as an undergraduate, a grand total of three times. The first time must have been a long while ago, because my fellow guest speaker was George Mikes and I was chatted up by a young undergraduate called Tina Brown. (She had just written a play she wanted everyone to see at the Bush Theatre.) The second time my fellow guest speaker was actor Bernard Bresslaw, who was thirsting for revenge on the Union.
"I've been here once before," he said," and they never explained to me that I had to make a speech. I thought it was a question and answer session. So I got up and said: 'Any questions, ladies and gentlemen?' I was laughed off the stage. Not this time."
This time he had prepared a mock-Shakespearean monologue which lasted 20 minutes, a tour de force which got him a standing ovation. And the last time I was at the Union, quite recently, it was in opposition to Peter Stringfellow, which is perhaps interesting enough to revert to tomorrow.Reuse content