Chums By Simon Kuper – How A Tiny Caste Of Oxford Tories Took Over The UK

In early 1983, as a diffident grammar school boy, I sat in a centuries old sitting room, beside a burbling open fire, enduring an interview for a place to study English at Oriel College, Oxford. I was muttering something about Shakespeare.

“You talk of Anthony and Cleopatra in a detached manner, Mr Jones,” said the languid interviewer. “Tell me, would you die for love?”

I didn’t get in.

At this point my fate diverged from that of the people who populate the pages of Chums, young men and women, mostly men, who attended Oxford in the 1980s and then went on to top jobs in government. Author, Simon Kuper, who was an Oxford undergraduate at that time, describes the background of these people, and how their university years influenced later careers.

The picture portrayed is not a pretty one. In many ways what happened to those youngsters during the 1980s haunts us now in the 2020s.

First, there’s the interesting historical background of the time, which tended to push forward entitled youths from a privileged background. The 1980s marked a reversal of the general trend to a more egalitarian society, which had been gathering pace from the 1940s to the 1970s. In 1979, British income inequality reached its lowest point ever recorded. Then Margaret Thatcher came along. Following the economic privations of the 70s, inequality widened again, the upper classes regained confidence, and started indulging in romantic fantasies about a lost Britain. Fittingly, a 1981 television production of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited was very popular. Young Jacob Rees Mogg, who was to enter Oxford’s Trinity College in the late 80s, even took to dressing up as an Edwardian gentleman.

This was the atmosphere into which Etonian Boris Johnson arrived at Oxford in 1983, the same year I was there for my interview. After getting accepted, Johnson and others like him spent their university years honing peculiarly British political skills, which involved treating politics as a game. The Oxford Union debating society is set up like the House of Commons chamber, though Union debates never result in real policies with real consequences. When not fantasy debating, the youngsters would have fun trying to get themselves elected to the few administrative positions on offer at the Union.

Many then took the idea of politics as a game into their subsequent parliamentary careers. Some commentators, like the academic George Steiner for example, feel that historically, a traditional lack of political seriousness has acted in a positive way, as a protection against extremism in Britain. On the other hand a lack of seriousness, and often basic administrative competence, can have disastrous consequences when something like a pandemic comes along. Then it is people who learnt their trade many years before amongst jolly japes of the Oxford Union, who have to coordinate a complex, society-wide response.

And that’s the overriding feeling of Chums – of people who have led protected lives, bringing about very painful and real consequences through their carelessness.

From a personal point of view, I think back to that interview and that rejection. The young men and women who got through tended to see themselves as chosen. Ironically, the story of Chums shows people caught up in the patterns of their time. They are not special – they are just living the lives that their history makes for them. And the special place they entered – well that’s riven by a constantly churning sense of who’s in or out. When those Oxford boys grew up, one set – Johnson, Gove and Cummings – supported leaving the EU, primarily as a means of taking revenge on another set – David Cameron’s remain Oxford boys, for a perceived sense of exclusion from the golden circle. The leavers, using their own frustrations as a starting point, played on that too common feeling amongst people in general that someone else has the power and prestige. Game players like Boris Johnson, imbued with fantasy visions of Britain’s past, messed around with the fire of nationalist sentiment, simply to further their ridiculous desire to climb the greasy pole as an end in itself. It was all part of a game, which had disastrous real world consequences, when a system of international cooperation which, as Kuper points out, had brought unprecedented prosperity to Britain, was torn apart.

There’s nothing very golden about the golden circle of the British establishment. I don’t know if it even exists when most of those in it seem to act out of a bitterness that they are supposedly excluded. That’s how I felt getting to the end of Chums. As I have long suspected, thinking in terms of whether you are in or out is not healthy. You are where you are, and it’s best to make that the place where you are meant to be.

Soul Music By Terry Pratchett – Compact Disc World

Soul Music is a Terry Pratchett novel, one of a series set in Discworld. This is a mythological vision of a society of humans, dwarves, elves and wizards, living on a flat disc planet balanced on the back of four elephants who are themselves standing on a turtle.

Discworld sounds like a strange and remote concept, consigned to the distant past. Nevertheless, there are many people who, with the help of YouTube, continue to believe in a flat Earth. More generally, people continue to struggle with new ideas coming up against old ways of thinking. With this in mind, you might say that Discworld can be a place to explore aspects of humanity’s historic, and current, world view. I admit, this might sound overly cerebral for a series of books famous for their humour. In the Soul Music instalment of the Discworld saga, we are told interlinking stories involving Death’s grand-daughter taking over his duties, and a group of musicians accidentally stumbling on rock music. Most of the plot might seem like an excuse to make punning references to various pop songs and musicians.

But beyond the jokey stuff, it is undeniable that this book deals with ambitious topics – things like life, death, the nature of the universe, and how people come to grips with matters beyond their comprehension. All this is quite something to take on. The difficulty involved in these themes can be compared to people living on what they think is a flat Earth trying to make the conceptual leap to seeing themselves living on a globe floating in endless space – and only having a comic novel with which to do it.

In this particular comic novel, a completely new type of music serves as an example of a challenge to how people think. Sometimes there are interesting, amusing and thought provoking results from collisions of world views. At other times, I was left confused by a mass of disjointed ideas and stretched metaphors. This was not helped by a lack of the usual conventions that orientate a reader, like chapters, or any kind of sign that you might be switching between different threads of the story.

Personally I don’t know if Soul Music can be considered wholly successful, since parts of it are so chaotic. But I still admired the basic Discworld idea, and the effort to take on topics that would humble any writer who, with a nod to Douglas Adams, works far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral Arm of the Galaxy on an utterly insignificant, blue-green planet orbiting a small, unregarded yellow sun.

Conversations With Friends By Sally Rooney

Late at night, after finishing a book the day before, I was flitting around the Kent e-library looking for something to read. I have this scheme – classic book alternating with recently published book. It was time for the recently published book, which is always more tricky to find than the classic.

Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends popped up on the ‘available now’ list. Her name was familiar – television productions of her novels came to mind.

I had a look. This accidental introduction turned out to be quite fitting for Conversations With Friends – which is about chaotic relationships, as narrated by Frances, a young woman studying ill-defined arty subjects at university in Dublin. Recently she has ‘broken up’ with childhood friend, and performance poetry partner, Bobbi, though they still hang out together all the time. A journalist called Melissa wants to do a profile on the poetry duo, which leads Frances into an affair with Melissa’s husband, Nick. This entanglement is on, then it’s off, then it’s on again. Meanwhile, Frances has hassles with finances, her family, psychological state, and health. She has high-falutin’ discussions about human relations with Bobbi who fashions herself as an aggressive left-wing intellectual. Bobbi considers marriage to be capitalism’s way of controlling people in the interests of money. Then Frances writes a story inspired by her unconventional love for Bobbi, which earns a handsome fee of 800 euros!

The book is written in an oddly plain style. There is minimal conventional punctuation – no speech marks. Paragraphs are split into blocks rather than bothering with indents – more like a blog than a novel. You also get the feeling that this lack of convention is carefully planned. This seemed part of the feeling that lack of convention can actually be conventional – as is the case with youngsters who think they are rebellious when in fact it is just normal to be young and rebellious.

This was a sometimes intense, sometimes flippant book about the way people live together. I was going to say it’s a ‘study’ of this subject, but that’s not the right word. For all the intellectual pretensions of the literary scene/university setting, the characters’ relationships refuse to be categorised or analysed, and kind of just happen in front of you.

Perhaps in the end, the relationship I found most interesting in the book was the one with the reader. While Frances, Nick, Melissa, Bobbi and the rest, dodge around each other, revealing or concealing this and that, Frances tells the reader everything, even things she keeps from her own mother. Sometimes I was thinking, ‘too much information, Frances’. Nevertheless, I was trusted to hear all of these revelations, like a best friend. And the irony is, this patient listener is unacknowledged, as though a relationship with an entirely absent reader is the only one where the narrator can be honest – which is typical of the contradictory way people interact in the book. The only person you can be truly honest with isn’t even there. Everyone else gets gradations of honesty.

Overall I would say this was a conversation that had its ups and downs, but ultimately came out as a very worthwhile chat

Young Lonigan By James T. Farrell – Sixty Seconds Worth Of Distance Run

In his book, The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler suggests that stories may have evolved from fireside tales designed to help youngsters prepare for their first journeys out beyond the safety of the tribal hearth. Young Lonigan, published in 1932, is the first volume of James T. Farrell’s trilogy, about an Irish-American boy, William ‘Studs’ Lonigan, growing up in early twentieth century Chicago. It’s a story about a youth preparing to set out on the journey of adulthood. We begin in 1916, with Studs graduating from his Catholic elementary school, aged fourteen, and then follow him through the summer as he waits to go to high school in the autumn. Studs hangs around his local area trying to act tough while quietly thinking poetic thoughts inspired by nature and his sweetheart, Lucy. Sadly, Studs’ more sensitive side tends to fall out of view as the weeks pass. Finer feelings are stamped on by the influence of unsavoury friends. The future looks difficult for this young man.

We could ask whether, in the Writer’s Journey sense, there is help and advice on offer here. Is the book saying, for example, that you should live for the moment? The most beautiful scenes involve Studs simply appreciating his present moment, an ecstatic yet peaceful swim in Lake Michigan, and an afternoon sitting with Lucy up in the boughs of a tree in a Chicago park. However, despite Lake Michigan and the tree, the delayed consequences of eating all your sweets at once are very clear. ‘Advice’ about behaviour is similarly ambivalent. There is certainly no sense that the moral of the tale is that youngsters should behave well and do as they’re told. The values of all parents and authority figures in the book are suspect. Studs’ father has settled for a rather empty life, where sitting on his porch reading about violent crimes in the newspaper seems to be the highlight of his day. The Church is just a mess of hypocrisy and nonsense. There is one ‘cool dad’ who seems to understand and support young people – a Mr O’Brian. But he is really the worst role model of all, a disgusting, racist bigot. He is only popular with the boys because he would rather encourage their prejudices than challenge them. Far better advice comes from one of Studs’ contemporaries, the lovely Helen Shires, a tomboy who sees the best in her friend and tries to warn him where his choices might take him. So, if we can’t say the book advises good behaviour and respect for our elders, is it advising that the young overthrow convention? Once again the answer is no. The fighting and petty crime with suggestions of graduating on to more major crime, gives no sense that defying convention is the right course. Besides, defying convention in one sense is to be highly conventional in another. Rebellious youth might seem to challenge social pressure to conform, only to find itself bowing to the equally malign forces of peer pressure.

What then does a young person, or any reader, take from this? I think they might take a feeling that life is not about simple answers and advice. You have to plan for the future and yet live for today. You have to be yourself, follow your own instincts, and yet respect the views of others. As Kipling says in If, his poem of advice to a young man, you have to trust yourself when all men doubt you, but make allowance for their doubting too. As in If, the only consistency in the advice of Young Lonigan lies in its continued contradictions. And if that lesson seems complicated, well that’s often the way it is with lessons.

And if you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run
Then yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And - which is more - you’ll be a Man my son