WHEN a panic-stricken John Prescott fled down Walton Street, it may have felt like something of a turning point in his life.

As a seaman who had witnessed serious violence and shown some early potential as a boxer, he was hardly a shrinking violet or a quitter.

But his courage certainly failed him when he was presented with an examination paper on statistics at Ruskin College and he made a rush for the door.

"The invigilator chased me down the street, asking me to come back, but I wouldn't," reminisced the former Deputy Prime Minister, during a visit to the Oxford college where he spent two years studying in the sixties.

But back in his room in Headington there was a note on the back of an old envelope from his tutor Raphael Samuel waiting for him, which he has kept to this day.

"John, why not take the paper anyway,' it advised. "Do it in your own time over the weekend? The main thing is just the practice of writing; not the time."

It was enough to persuade him to return to the Oxford college, complete his two-year course and embark on a political career which saw him become Britain's longest serving Deputy Prime Minister.

"Ruskin was the greatest experience in my life," he told me during a visit to his old college last Saturday.

It was quite something coming from a man involved in three General Election triumphs, and who spent ten years at the Prime Minister's right hand in cabinet.

It is fascinating to reflect that barely 300 yards separate Ruskin from St John's College, Tony Blair's own alma mater.

Yet the paths that the two Labour giants took to Oxford could hardly have been more different.

Nor could their experiences of college life.

The fresh-faced and long-haired Tony Blair arrived from public school to study law, keen to join a rock band and enjoy his student days to the full before pursuing a carefully mapped-out career.

Mr Prescott came as a 25-year-old married man, with a child. Having left school at 15, he had previously worked as a hotel porter and waiter on cruise ships. His ambition was to become a full-time official with the National Union of Seamen, whose leaders had him down as a loud-mouthed trouble-maker.

"It was the union bosses who suggested Ruskin," he recalls. "They wanted me out of their hair. I'd be away studying for two years. Such a thing had never been part of my plans, or my daydreams, mainly because I didn't know that the place existed. So I was surprised as everyone else when it was first suggested to me.

"I had not written anything for some years, apart from table orders - steak and chips, or whatever, or union posters."

Even with a scholarship he was lucky to get to Oxford at all.

On applying to his Tory-controlled local council in Cheshire for a grant, he wrote 'union official' in the part of the form asking what he intended to do on completion of his studies. He was rejected.

He applied a second time, but this time informed the council that he planned to become a teacher. He was accepted.

Mr Prescott was back at Ruskin to record a two-part BBC television documentary that he is making about class, which has also involved filming in Blackbird Leys.

He also delivered a talk on his newly-published autobiography, Prezza. My Story: Pulling No Punches.

It proved to be quite a sentimental journey, with the veteran Labour man enjoying a lunch with John and Vi Hughes, who both taught him, and Harold Pollins, his old industrial relations tutor.

The present principal of Ruskin, Prof Audrey Mullender, had earlier delighted Mr Prescott when she came across his old student files. It proved a treasure of source material for his book.

"It came as a real surprise. I was in the process of writing the book. I had no school reports or anything when Audrey rang and said that she had found my old files. Did I want them, or should she throw them out?

"I was amazed how detailed they were. Every little scrap had been retained, from bills to private reports on my progress. I hadn't known how hard Ruskin had worked on my behalf to get me there."

He also learnt that he was more highly regarded as a student than he'd imagined.

"I was enjoying Ruskin, but in my mind I was always struggling. Of course, most of them drew attention to my problems with the English language.

"But there was one from Henry Smith, a bit of an institution at Ruskin, who taught me economics, which said, 'Mr Prescott has a mind like knitting that the cat has played with: pull one bit straight and you tighten up the tangle elsewhere'."

Another suggested that he was 'pathologically sensitive to criticism'.

Mr Prescott, who celebrated his 70th birthday a few days ago, said: "One of the things that stays in my memory was going to my first lecture and all the working-class guys from the mines, shipping and manufacturing were in suits and ties, while the clerical types wore the revolutionary gear, like Che Guevara berets.

"One of them called me a 'lumpen proletarian'. It was three months before I realised it was an insult."

Ruskin was itself founded as a response to the perceived elitism of Oxford University, so I wondered how he felt living in the shadow of Oxford colleges, surrounded by so much privilege?

"I did not have anything to do with them. I never joined the Oxford Union. I never visited any of the famous Oxford colleges. But I was certainly not going around like some class warrior."

On a rare visit to the Oxford Union, he did learn one lesson for later life, when television people urged him and other students to clamber on to a car during an anti-apartheid demonstration.

"It was my first experience of journalists trying to influence events rather than reporting them," he said.

"I felt no connection with normal Oxford students who were getting pissed and staying up all night. I was there to study - not doss around. There was no punting and balls.

"I didn't want to feel inferior any more when up against grammar or public school people. Of course, I soon realised that they weren't actually cleverer than me. They just spoke better."

He now says Ruskin represented the happiest time of his life.

He noted at the time that many marriages collapsed when working-class men went up to Oxford.

But it never impacted on his marriage to Pauline because he did not "swallow" the Oxford life, with his accent and attitudes staying the same.

Mr Prescott's Oxford education could not spare him being a victim of snobbery throughout his political career, although he believes it gave him the confidence to fight it.

On becoming an MP, whenever he rose to speak he would be greeted by the likes of Nicholas Soames, Churchill's grandson, shouting: "A whisky and soda for me, Giovanni, and a gin and tonic for my friend."

Recently, on Radio 4's Today programme, Mr Prescott clashed with John Humphreys about whether he could still claim to be working class.

"I was trying to argue that you can still be working class and have a middle-class lifestyle, playing croquet and owning a second-hand Jag," he said.

When the BBC invited him to make a programme on class he grabbed the opportunity.

"To me, Oxford epitomises it. Seven per cent of our children go to private education and yet 60 to 70 per cent of jobs in the top echelons, like law, politics and education, come from this limited group.

"We still have this pyramid structure, with a few at the top getting all of the benefits. I think this networking concept, which is purchased early on, guarantees a lifestyle and maintains a structure of class, which is then reinforced by the universities. The people who appoint them to jobs, take the same people from the same background.

"Yes, the structure of class is very much reinforced still in our education system. In the programme I am meeting people who can be easily identified in a class by the way they dress, speak and what their dad does for a living. I am asking the question whether there is more or less social mobility."

There could be no doubting where the small group of protesters outside Ruskin, waiting to greet him, came from.

The campaign against Ruskin's decision to sell its headquarters in Walton Street goes on, even though the college has agreed to sell the property to Exeter College for £12m.

But the protesters will be disappointed to learn that the college's most famous student is not going to join their ranks. After listening to the governing body's case for selling in order to fund the £20m redevelopment of Ruskin's Headington campus, he appears to have been won over.

"I have talked to students and trade unionists. The question is, 'is the future of Ruskin to be maintained?'. Yes, it is. Can you expand somewhere else and keep access to Oxford University? Apparently so. I would love to see this place kept as it is. But, you know, things are changing."

A year after resigning as Deputy Prime Minister, his own life has certainly moved on after all those years trying to save the Blair-Brown political marriage.

Reflecting on the aftermath of his affair with Tracey Temple, his diary secretary, he said he never blamed his life as an MP, away from home, for what happened.

"Pauline has forgiven me. Our relationship has got back to normal," he says.

His book's big disclosure about his battle with bulimia - and his ability to consume whole tins of condensed milk and readiness to eat through the entire menu at his favourite Chinese restaurant - appears to have produced more mockery than sympathy.

But jibes about him being the world's least successful bulimic have not stopped him making a programme with Gordon Ramsay.

"He tries to persuade me to give up fish and chips and eat his fish cakes," Mr Prescott confides, sounding genuinely incredulous.

Whether he eats fish and chips or not, ten years sitting beside Tony Blair means that John Prescott long ago disqualified himself from being a socialist hero at Ruskin.

But as a member of the awkward squad, he remains in a class of his own.