Column from *last* weekend

Some very jolly Oxford students in the 1920s.
Just off for a spot of gardening together.

Aaaaaaand another col below. Then think we’re up to date. I also wrote something this week for the Mail about having a naked portrait of myself done (some years ago during my running days), but I so hate the picture they’ve used to illustrate it online I can’t bring myself to post it here. It was from another shoot I did for them, but it’s been flipped or my face has been stretched or something strange and I look like an anorexic horse. So if you want to find that then you’ll have to Google it.

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Even though it’s 2019 and we’re supposed to be beyond judging one another, there are subtle ways that certain British sorts still manage it. By a person’s accent, shoes, haircut and postcode. Also, where you went to university. Not if you went. That’s often assumed. But where? The manner in which some reply ‘Oxford’ or ‘Cambridge’ is often said in the same way I’ve heard men declare they went to ‘Eton’. Boldly, as if a badge of honour and a measure of their own worth, it doesn’t necessarily invite further comment. ‘Ah,’ the other person will murmur respectfully at a drinks party. If you listen very closely, you may even observe a beat of silence while both pay reverence to this achievement. Then they’ll move on and talk about the weather or their dog.

Anthony Wallersteiner, the headmaster of Stowe, recently gave an interview in which he claimed that Oxbridge is now actively discriminating against privately-educated pupils. This caused much scoffing online (and outrage, since he compared the treatment of these pupils to anti-Semitic abuse.) But heads would have been nodding along with him in some middle-class households, where whether or not your child went to Oxbridge remains a social yardstick, along with a chalet in Verbier and the type of car you drive.

It’s all a load of nonsense, and I don’t just say this as bitterly one who failed to get into Oxford myself (twice). Back then, I blamed my dismal interview abilities. During my first attempt, hoping for a history spot at St Edmund’s, I couldn’t name a single landlocked country in Europe. The following year, applying for another history place but at a different college in case I came up against the same geography obsessive, I excelled myself by declaring that the history book I liked best was Philippa Gregory’s Tudor romp, The Other Boleyn Girl. This didn’t impress them much either; another disappointing letter on the doormat a few weeks later.

I later realised I was exactly what they weren’t looking for: a spoiled, spoon-fed public schoolgirl who’d been taught to pass exams like a dog jumping through hoops, but who panicked when asked anything off curriculum and blurted the first answer that came to mind. Rejection was extremely good for me, actually. Up until then, I was a smug little know-it-all who’d never failed at anything. Oxford’s brush-off was the first inkling that life might get a bit tougher.

This is exactly why any parents anxious about whether Xanthe will get into Christchurch or not should relax. Far better if she doesn’t and the place goes to someone more deserving. I’m sorry, I know this means your boasting rights will be dramatically curtailed and telling friends you have a daughter at Leeds doesn’t sound the same. A great tragedy, many would privately agree, but she’ll be alright. I ended up having a more informative time at a London university, dating my tutor in secret for a spell (a story for another day). I can only vaguely remember the odd fact about the Fall of Constantinople but think I’m reasonably balanced, all in all.

If you’re still downcast about your child not getting in, consider this. I had a friend at school with a brain the size of a watermelon but who once put a can of soup in the common room microwave, causing the fire alarm to go off and much high-pitched screeching from our Portuguese matron. She later got into Oxford (my friend, not Miss Monteiro), and while she now has an excellent working knowledge of Beowulf, I wouldn’t trust her to cross the road without supervision. Extreme intelligence doesn’t mean you’re blessed with an abundance of common sense.

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On the subject of education, I spotted a surprising advert on the tube last week. Underground ads usually push hair plugs and multivitamins, but while standing on the Piccadilly Circus platform one evening my eye fell upon a red and white poster advertising Ampleforth College. Less than three hours from London, it said, above a picture of the sunlit playing fields, as if someone heading home from the office or the Rainforest Cafe is going to think ‘Great idea. And so close! I must ask for a £32,000 raise so I can send little Jimmy there.’ Times must be challenging indeed for certain private schools (and Benedictine schools in particular) if they’re resorting to this.

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I’ve felt it all week, an inadequacy, a sneaking sense that I’m not a proper person because I can’t garden. It always happens at this time of year and it’s all Chelsea Flower Show’s fault. There they are, all those exotic gardens with gravity-defying water features and bamboo pavilions. Meanwhile, in W12, I’ve killed off my foxgloves, my stocks are sulking and refusing to do anything interesting and not one of dozens of mint seeds I recently planted in an old fire bucket has sprouted. It’s disgraceful. My grandfather Hugo wrote a respected book on Mediterranean gardens, my father has inherited his skills and my mother’s cottage has recently blossomed into a greenhouse, seedlings pushing themselves up on every flat surface. I’ve often wondered whether it’s an age thing and my garden will spring to life when I hit 40 or 50? Until then, like a schoolchild, I may revert to sunflower seeds and cress potato heads.

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