Robin Crawford. Pat Weiner (? – he was an albino who coxed for Corpus Christi College, Cambridge in the early 50s). Patrick Allen. Donald Sutherland (that can’t be his name, can it? He went to Canada and he’s definitely called Sutherland. Maybe he’s got another Christian name…?). Jim Bishop. Is that it?
These men are all members of ‘the gang’. The memory of them still makes my father, Dick, get emotional. I know them just from stories (except for Jim Bishop, who was my godfather and died last year). Crawford, Allen and Sutherland (my father was a public schoolboy) I met once or twice in the 70s. My father doesn’t see them now, of course (those who are still alive). Why should he, when the memory of them is so (for him) endlessly worth rehearsing…? (My father is 88 and doesn’t go out.)
After National Service, the gang went to Cambridge (I think they were all at the same college), had fun and – above all – went to ‘the races’ at Newmarket, again and again. Off-course betting was illegal (until 1961), so in 1951 (or thereabouts) it just had to be done, if you wanted to gamble. My father was quite the gambling man. Even now, he has two accounts with bookmakers’, tho he doesn’t really use them because of his dementia. That was one thing behind our (my mother’s and my) initial diagnosis: he would still ‘inspect the form’ (ie pore over the racecard on the racing page of The Times), but he wouldn’t remember a minute later what he’d ‘decided’ (with the help of Timeform, a book produced EVERY WEEK in Halifax…).
That – the racing at Newmarket – was one reason. The other was the breakfast at Trumpington Street, his ‘digs’. You could get it up to 10 o’clock, eggs and bacon and toast and tea, and still be IN YOUR DRESSING GOWN! For Dick, who’d been at boarding school from 1939-48, and then had 18 months’ National Service, it was (especially) A TREAT!
Those two reasons were – as far as I could make out – the reasons he thought Cambridge was ‘a good thing’. Even at 16, when I had to decide, I thought: Hmmm… And decided to try for Oxford. Also (this was my excuse) I knew Oxford was a bigger place and would have more gigs (some hope…).
Oxford, my school history teacher informed me, was quite the place. He was the son of the ‘great’ Oxford medieval historian R W Southern, author of Western Society And The Church In The Middle Ages, which I dutifully bought a copy of and abjectly failed to read, on numerous attempts. (It’s – amazingly – still in print, in case you’re…. zzzzzz.)
Anyway, Dr Southern had been at Merton, and that – Mr Southern Jnr said – was where I should go. My research at the time was to look Merton up at Swiss Cottage Library. J R R Tolkien had been a fellow there (which meant nothing to me; but my sons – primed by the movies – have read every word he’d written, right down to The Silmarillion, and have a lasting enthusiasm for fantasy novels to this day…). No, more importantly – for me – Kris Kristofferson had been there as a Rhodes (don’t ask, he’s BEYOND AWFUL…) Scholar!! I hadn’t listened to his songs at all (and still haven’t…). But on the strength of Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid and Two-Lane Blacktop – and a ‘personal recommendation‘ from my history teacher – I HAD TO GO!
Besides, I had rebelled enough just by NOT going to Cambridge (in the same way as my almost 18-year-old son has an interview at Cambridge next month… Which is – kind of – why I’m writing this piece…)
What. Could. Go. Wrong?