Portrait of the Academic as a Student: Tom Scott


I read English at Oxford, 1978-81. In purely educational terms, it was dire.

In those days, you were taught mostly by a single subject tutor attached to your college, which could be wonderful if you had an inspiring tutor. Mine, though amiable, was far from inspiring. If he turned up to a tutorial at all, he would often doze through it while I read my essay aloud, awaking eventually to offer me another glass of sherry and some anodyne remarks that showed he had neither read nor listened to my thoughts on that week’s author. (Back then, the English course was structured along rigidly historical lines and you really did cover an author a week). 

Lectures were not compulsory and many were outstandingly dull. The ones I remember most vividly were given by lecturers who were seen as mavericks within the very hidebound English department: Terry Eagleton on post-structuralism, Peter Conrad on Coleridge, Richard Ellmann on Joyce.

Until my final year this seemed like a fine system, as it allowed me to do almost as little in the way of serious work as my tutor and to spend a lot of time on more enjoyable activities, including much reading that was only distantly related to my coursework.

One summer, I supplemented my student grant by taking part as an extra in the filming of the TV adaptation of Brideshead Revisited – something I had mixed feelings about, as the Brideshead myth was one that hung heavily over the Oxford of my generation and encouraged a great deal of affectation and snobbery. (You can see me wafting fleetingly through a quad in this Youtube clip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8sMpPRm1v4)

In my third year it dawned on me that I had an awful lot of catching up to do for my all-important Finals. I still sometimes wake in a cold sweat from a nightmare in which I am about to sit an exam for which I am completely inadequately prepared.

I was in Oxford for a few days a couple of years ago, and the memories it brought back were not so much of my studies as of the intense friendships I’d made as a student. The city itself had hardly changed and the colleges were as beautiful ever, but I felt like a very different person, almost like the ghost of my younger self. That feeling was the starting point for this poem.

Once a term an invitation would arrive,
spidery script on embossed college paper,
from the only person I knew who used a fountain pen.
I’d don my best Oxfam suit, my less scruffy pair of shoes
and make my way to your quad off the Turl,
climb the stone stair to your upper-floor room
where even at four the light through the creeper
around the mullion window made it seem
late dusk. You’d make oolong tea the colour
of ink wash on a landscape scroll . I’d bring flowers
 or fruit from the covered market, exotica
I knew would please you, lychees, kumquats,
or kiwis you called Chinese gooseberries.
We’d talk poetry, sometimes philosophy.
You’d urge me to read Apuleius and the neo-platonists,
though I never did.  Sometimes you’d speak of gods
and angels, beings as real to you as people in the street.
I was sceptical, but played along. You wanted me
an idealist, romantic; I was happy to oblige.
I remember declaring, cod-Byronically,
I couldn’t see myself living past thirty,
though even then I knew this a failure
of imagination rather than a token of it.
Before I went, you’d ask me to read to you
from a book you had ready, something glittering
with fin de siècle repartee, lapidary bon mots ­–
Zuleika Dobson, The Green Carnation;
maybe it made up for my lack of natural wit.
I knew quite well how silly this would sound
to other friends, so never mentioned it;
a folie à deux, a secret fantasy.
They thought you affected, with your name
borrowed from an exiled French Empress.
One quoted cruelly from Elvis Costello:
They call her Natasha but she looks like Elsie.
But who, at nineteen, is not trying on attitudes
till finding some the world accepts? Only you
seemed not to care what it thought, one way
or the other. And that set you apart.
Later on, we saw each other once or twice
but the spell was broken, or wouldn’t work
outside that sacred circle of old stone.
We lost touch. Later, I heard that you’d withdrawn,
suffered an allergic reaction to modernity,
refused to take up email, had no phone,
rarely left the gloom of your curtained flat.
I wondered if the angels had deserted you.
Standing now in the porters’ lodge, the wrong side
of the thick rope that cordons off the quad,
It seems that self of mine did die a death.
I ‘m as real or unreal as the man in the street,
a ghost from the future haunting my own past.