Seamus Perry gets nostalgic about his Oxford interview some 30 years ago

In one of his needier moments Shakespeare wrote: “That time of year thou may’st in me behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few do hang / Upon those boughs that shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.”

I think of those lines often at this time of year, not only because they describe the view from the kitchen window – and, sometimes, it is true, the spiritual state of the washer up – but because that was the poem I was given during my Oxford interview, in a cold and foggy December 30 years ago.

Interviews are different now – and all for the better. But back then there seems to have been more leeway for tutors to do their own thing, and the English tutors at St Catherine’s College, to which I had applied, were especially disposed to do their own thing.

The gangly, jumpered figure of Mr Gearin-Tosh, a memorable and memorably named English Fellow, pushed a copy of that gloomy Shakespeare sonnet into my hand and told me to go off to the college library for an hour.

I was to write whatever I wanted to write about it. All that mattered was that I should not, under any circumstances, consult any books or articles about Shakespeare – a prohibition which, I thought, made the choice of the library as the venue for my timed essay a bit queer.

But anyway, I scribbled away obediently and after an hour handed in my effort.

Later that afternoon I went for my first interview. Not a single sentence was exchanged about Shakespeare. It was as if that good man had never written a word, nor I a word about him.

I struggled to interpret this as a good sign, but I had obviously said something so monumentally stupid about Shakespeare’s sonnet that further enquiry was pointless.

Instead, Mr Gearin-Tosh asked me to say something about T.S. Eliot, whom I had recklessly mentioned in my application.

I expounded at length about The Waste Land, no doubt coming across as autodidactic and unshapely, to which Mr Gearin-Tosh responded, somewhat enigmatically: “But surely, my dear, you are taking the ghost out of the machine.”

He then tittered, not unkindly.

My second interview, the next day, was with the more rationally, but no less memorably, named Mr Wordsworth, who was later to become a great friend and who, I suppose, largely made me what, as a scholar, I am.

I was meant to be talking about Samuel Beckett, whose works in truth I hardly knew but whose name I had dropped into my personal statement in the hope of suggesting existentialist sophistication.

But rather than broach Beckett, Mr Wordsworth said: “What did you say yesterday?” I repeated what I had said the day before about Eliot, and Mr Wordsworth said, with a quizzical frown I would come to know well, “And who could possibly disagree with that?”

And, in due course, I was offered a place, which was my best Christmas present that year. Moral: you never know how an interview has gone. Happy Christmas, one and all.