DJ Taylor: Want to get ahead? Then form a clique. That's the Oxford way

Ambitious young things always like to cling to their own kind. But a Mossad shark, much like Ena Sharples, prefers to swim alone

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As the row about tuition fees spread from the House of Commons to the streets and senate houses of university towns, and thence to the pages of the national newspapers, one of the most fascinating contributions came in a letter to last Tuesday's Independent.

Here, one Saul Gresham argued that the root cause of the modern politician's reluctance to offer grants and fee-free tuition lay in separatism, a detachment from the processes of ordinary life that began as far back as late adolescence. After condemning the "multimillionaires from Oxbridge" for blaming "those they have never known – the unemployed and council tenants – for the problems facing the country", Mr Gresham noted, of his own undergraduate days, that "it was always interesting at Oxford to observe the students intent on political futures as they mixed solely with their own kind and failed to display any form of empathy with others".

I have no idea when Mr Gresham wandered around the city of dreaming spires, but it was certainly like that in the early 1980s. One of my most vivid memories of the place, in fact, is of coming out of the Oxford Union after a poetry reading, glancing back through the library window and seeing the present Foreign Secretary (William Hague) and a pair of cronies cheerfully caballing under the lamplight. The problem, though, is that this kind of sectarianism was, and is, endemic to nearly every type of career. If the Oxford student politicians formed their own clique, then so did the actors and the journalists. Each threw up people who, from the angle of the average 20-year-old, were quite terrifying in their poise, ability and ambition.

I remember once seeing the actress Imogen Stubbs (or Lady Nunn, as I suppose she must now be called) stalking across a college quadrangle in the wake of some audition or other, and the daisies practically withered on the grass as she sped by. On the other hand, it is difficult to know exactly what to do about this process of self-sequestration. In a society where everything, from politics to childcare, has been resolutely professionalised, you can hardly blame ambitious young people for wanting to jump on the treadmill at the earliest opportunity. No doubt it would have been possible to ask Miss Stubbs to join the folk-dancing club or knit tea-cosies for the dispossessed, but the person who did so would probably have got a fairly dusty answer.

***

The shark attacks in the Egyptian holiday resort of Sharm el-Sheikh provoked a riot of speculation. Some local people have suggested that animals shipped in for last month's Eid ul-Adha celebrations had died en route and been thrown overboard, thereby attracting more sharks to the area. Other commentators declared that the death of a 70-year-old German tourist only 20 metres from the shore was the result of the authorities identifying the wrong predator and mistakenly reopening the beaches. But by far the most bizarre theory involved a plot by the Israeli secret services supposedly hatched with the aim of disrupting local tourism. "What is being said about Mossad throwing the deadly shark [into the sea] to hit tourism in Egypt is not out of the question," South Sina's Gov-ernor Mohamed Abdel Fadil Shousha was quoted as having said on an Arabic news website.

All this, in a roundabout way, reminded me of one of the oddest incidents of my professional career. This was an ineffectual attempt, a quarter of a century ago, to ghost-write the memoirs of a retired SAS man, whom I shall call "Mr Granger". The project failed, but I have the liveliest recollections of the conferences at which its raw material was, so to speak, served up – of Mr Granger announcing that he thought his phone was being tapped or telling me about the time he came face to face with Carlos the Jackal in a Mallorcan swimming pool. If I believed everything he told me, it was because of the absolute matter-of-factness with which he doled these anecdotes out. A fantasist, I told myself, would have been more self-advertising.

Mr Granger had, among his other exploits, been in Egypt in the late 1970s as a member of President Sadat's bodyguard. He maintained that the squad (made up of SAS men) had been purposely withdrawn by the British Government to facilitate Sadat's murder and the destabilisation of the Middle East. Set against this hornet's nest of skulduggery and intrigue, the idea of Mossad sowing the Egyptian coastline with sharks looks like the smallest of small beer.

***

BBC's News at Ten made great play of a Sotheby's auction at which the world's most valuable printed book, a work by the American naturalist James Audubon, was knocked down for a cool £6.5m. Less interesting, though, than the sight of the auctioneer gravely going about his business ("Do I hear £5,200,000? Thank you, sir.") were the expressions on the faces of the two female assistants charged with displaying the book to the audience, which grew progressively more bored as the sale went on. Clearly the £6.5m meant nothing to them, and they would much rather have been somewhere else.

This is not a complaint. In fact, one admires the auctioneer's two aides-de-camp for their ability to appreciate a truth that sometimes gets overlooked. This is that, however romanticised a view one takes of life, in the end it is possible to become blasé about practically everything. There is a pointed little scene in Thackeray's Vanity Fair, in which the Marquis of Steyne, seeking to deflate Becky Sharp's enthusiasm for smart life, reveals that he dined with the king the previous night and they ate stewed neck of mutton and turnips. Presumably there are royal valets and papal factotums bored senseless by the mundanity of their daily routines. No doubt about it, life, as the Marxists used to say, is ordinary.

***

Monday evening's re-run of the very first episode of Coronation Street was an illuminating experience. This, in case you missed it, was the marvellous scene-setter in which Ena Sharples cruises her way into newly-arrived Mrs Lindley's corner shop, and Ken Barlow's dad and brother are found dismantling a bicycle in the front room in the company of the former's decidedly up-market girlfriend. It was horribly funny, while at the same time almost consciously proclaiming itself as a piece of dramatised sociology, in which "issue" after issue fell neatly into place like a series of paperclips obeying the magnet's call: upward mobility (Ken winning his scholarships while Elsie Tanner's jailbird son languished fagless on the dole); provincial non-conformity (Ena) versus the established church; the new cosmopolitan world lurking beyond the horizon (Elsie's daughter who "married a Pole" finds him "moody" and is reminded that "foreigners often are").

If, 30 minutes later, you were left wondering whether the whole thing hadn't been secretly filmed by Karel Reisz, this was to acknowledge the very thin line that, circa 1960, separated literary-cum-film culture of the Alan Sillitoe-Keith Waterhouse northern realist school from mainstream television. Half-a-century later, the gap is well-nigh oceanic. But at its inception Coronation Street looked very like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning's more mainstream cousin.

***

One doesn't have to be a modern-day Scrooge to note that this year's strew of Christmas TV advertisements have been some of the most nauseating ever. "This is sickening," my eldest son remarked the other night as we attended to a raucous Iceland advert whose message seemed to be that thanks to the wonders of the modern retail trade you could now eat yourself into insensibility on the merest pittance. There followed the spectacle of the footballer Harry Kewell, and his wife, feigning a bogus interest in a computer puzzle. W H Smith, meanwhile, were offering 70 per cent off various items ripe to be filed under that useful Latin tag biblia abiblia – "books that are not books".

Then, all of a sudden, my ear was caught by the sound of a well-known voice – distinctive, resonant and faintly menacing – warbling extracts from Christmas carols. It turned out to be Annie Lennox, dressed for good measure in a white robe and sprouting artificial angel's wings. Surely, I asked myself, this had to be a spoof, an imaginative assault on the Harry Hill end of the festive CD market? No, it was an album inspired by the singer's childhood memories, A Christmas Cornucopia. Why is Ms Lennox, who used, in the days when she worked with the avant-garde German producer Conny Plank, to be a genuine sonic innovator, doing this? A trip to the websites reveals that the project is a long-held dream ("I'd held on to this idea for many years.") Well, as the American poet Delmore Schwartz used to say, in dreams begin responsibilities.

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