Edward Clarke on societies and living with Old Etonians while at Oxford

I overheard a student say “other people were pretentiously having Champagne with breakfast” the other day at the beginning of a seminar.

She is a fiercely capable lady who merrily commutes to Oxford for classes from the South of France. I told her that the last time I was staying at a hotel in which Champagne was served at breakfast I became so pretentious that I had to go back to bed before lunch.

Like many who have studied at Oxford I have pretentious tendencies. Luckily these were checked early since I attended a comprehensive school near the Forest of Dean until I was 16 (apart from a brief spell at St Andrew’s Scots School in Buenos Aires, I sometimes add pretentiously).

At Whitecross School in Lydney in the 1980s it was not really acceptable to make a show of any signs of academic interest. When I was taking my A-Levels at the slightly more prestigious Monmouth School it was possible to cultivate certain affectations. By the time I was up at Oxford in the mid 1990s it seemed that everyone around me was living in an exaggerated manner.

I was even pretentious enough to live with three Old Etonians during my third year. When a photograph of a couple of us from that era was recently posted on Facebook someone commented that “it’s always interesting to look at colour photographs from the 1930s”. I’m pretty certain that it was taken in the bar of Horton-cum-Studley Priory one Tuesday morning.

But I wasn’t pretentious enough to get involved with the Piers Gaveston Society while I was an undergraduate. Two of the three Old Etonians with whom I lived did go to the big party, which seemed a very dull event by their accounts, that most embarrassing or oxymoronic thing: a posh rave in a field.

Even if I’d been asked along I like to think that I would have balked. I was never really one for joining Oxford societies. Surrounded by so many pretentious people at last perhaps I’d had enough. Or perhaps I didn’t find the right kind of society.

Teaching Tennyson recently I wondered if I could have become one of The Apostles, his undergraduate club, had I been at Cambridge in the late 1820s, early 1830s.

I’m not sure that I could have kept up with the ‘Conversazione’ of Richard Monckton Milnes (poet, future politician and suitor of Florence Nightingale) or James Spedding (who became editor of the monumental Works of Francis Bacon) or Edmund Law Lushington (later Professor of Greek and Rector of the University of Glasgow) or indeed Arthur Henry Hallam whose early death inspired Tennyson’s great poem In Memoriam.

The group that most interests me from this period was not originally associated with Oxford or Cambridge at all, although some of their paintings are now to be found in museums of these cities. I would have loved to join that loose affiliation of visionary young men who were drawn to William Blake on his deathbed and who called themselves The Ancients out of their disdain for all things modern.