Passed/Failed: An education in the life of Lord Patten, last governor of Hong Kong and university Chancellor

'I was taught to think for myself'

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:30

Chris Patten, 64, was the Tory Cabinet minister recently described in 'The Independent' as "the best foreign secretary we never had". Losing his seat in 1992, he was appointed governor of Hong Kong until it was handed over to China in 1997. He is now Chancellor of Newcastle and Oxford universities, and his books include 'East and West', 'Not Quite the Diplomat', and 'What Next? Surviving the Twenty-First Century', which is out now

When I was five, I was walked to school with my sister, and can remember the rather frightening journeys through the London smog, when you could barely see your hand in front of your face. Our Lady of the Visitation in Ealing was a very good traditional Catholic primary, where you learnt to read and write pretty early. I was an altar boy and can still say the catechism rather better in Latin than I can in English.

At 11, I got a free place at St Benedict's, the local Catholic direct-grant school. It was a day school, and it was only later, at Balliol College, Oxford, that I met for the first time somebody who had been to a boarding school. I was extremely happy. Life has been particularly kind to me; I sometimes think I should be able to sue for deprivation of literary royalties from a "misery memoir"!

I was captain of games teams and good at the academic side. I had a wonderful English master – Ken Connelly was a pupil of the great critic F R Leavis at Cambridge University, and he got us to read writers I still enjoy: Christopher Isherwood, the metaphysical poets, Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. I didn't do science. The cleverest boys did Latin from the age of 11, Greek from the age of 12, O-levels at 15, and two A-levels at 16. At 16-and-a-half, I was awarded an exhibition to Oxford.

I think that the school should have said, "Go off round the world", but I stayed on for a year and a half because I wanted to be captain of the cricket team, and I became head boy. I got A-levels in history, English and Latin. I did debate at school, but didn't really have a political thought in my head until I was 22. I also used to act and got lead parts –it must be in the genes as my daughter is a professional actress, and my mother was a very good amateur actress who wasn't allowed to turn professional because her parents thought this was one step away from being on the streets.

I was blessed at Balliol by a very good history tutor who taught me to write a decent sentence, to think for myself, and to work out the difference between sense and nonsense. We had four world-class teachers, including Christopher Hill, the best Marxist historian of the English Revolution. I did modern history, which began AD 410, when Alaric the Goth stormed Rome and the Romans left Britain, and ended in 1939.

Balliol had a great tradition of public service. Between 1850 and 1947, over 350 men from Balliol had gone into the Indian Civil Service, and there had been previous Hong Kong governors from Balliol. When I went to Hong Kong as an MP, the governor was a Balliol man; and after two more governors, I held the post.

I suspect that the students at Oxford and Newcastle today work harder than we did. I spent most of my spare time acting. I performed in the annual college review and toured the country with the Balliol Players. I edited Mesopotamia, a satirical magazine, and played a lot of cricket and rugby. I was vivaed for a First but didn't cross the line and got a Second.

I only went to the Oxford Union once. What turned me on to politics was getting a travelling scholarship to the USA. In New York, I got involved in the mayoral campaign of John Lindsay, a liberal Republican who wound up a Democrat, and I got the bug.

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