Wednesday, April 12, 2023

Russell Group Wonk

‘I knew this country had had it. I was 9 years old.’

 I was always rather in awe of people who’d been to Oxbridge and other universities, and indeed, many of the cleverest people in the country go there. However, while there are obviously brilliant people who emerge from University, there are also a significant amount of also-rans who ended up at the top universities through an accident of birth by being born into wealthy families who can afford fees for the best public schools (an oxymoron to anyone outside of the UK), getting all the qualifications and all the confidence (not to mention the social networks) yet accruing none of the abilities a truly useful human should possess.

I’ll come to those later.

The cleverest person I’ve known was my friend Martin. Martin had got a scholarship to Oxford to do law. It wasn’t the course he wanted to do but he said having the scholarship took any choice away from him.

So Martin was at Oxford, and what did it for him was land law - apparently it does it for a lot of law students, as it’s tedious and boring. He failed his exams and they threw him out. They then asked him back in and kicked him out again. 

To his knowledge he was the only person ever to get kicked out of Oxford twice, which was a sort of badge of honour for him.

He bummed around for awhile, getting a job as a hospital porter and travelling to Italy. Then he became a stonemason which is how I know him, as he was my first employer.

Martin was incredibly eccentric. My first experience of him on site was he would pull the Times out of his bag only to discover (to his anger) that his mother (who he lived with) had already completed the crossword that morning. This happened everyday.

Martin started lots of projects around his house and never completed any of them. I went to his house once as I was in Leytonstone. I thought I’d pop in for a cup of tea and a chat. He met me at the door, looking slightly shell-shocked. He told me I couldn’t come in as it was ‘ghastly’ in there. As though some horrible crime had been committed in there and it was too shocking to see. We ended up chatting on his doorstep.

He lost a load of tools I’d sold him then found them a few years later down the back of his sofa.

Things I remember he told me:

“When I was a little boy I was playing with my toy soldiers in the lounge. I think I was recreating the Battle of Ypres. The television was on and it was 1963. The Rolling Stones were on, and I looked at these Herberts jigging about and I knew then this country had had it. I was 9 years old.”

“When I was 9 I realised I needed to get to Oxford University. In order to do that I needed to learn Ancient Greek. In order to do that I needed to go to Newcastle Grammar School.”

Martin Duncan-Jones

He was wonderful and exasperating at the same time. I fell out of favour with him several times and then fell back in favour too.

If you’d read a book you wished to tell him about he’d read it too and knew it better than you. It wasn’t to better you (although he was highly competitive intellectually) - it was because he never seemed to forget anything he’d read.

I remember one example of his intellectual pugilism when we were up a scaffold in Haverstock Hill and him having a polite conversation with a guy in his back garden. It was perfectly innocent until Napoleon was mentioned. Then Martin flexed his muscles and had a book-off with the poor guy. Have you read such and such? Yes. Have you read this? And on it went until the guy in the garden said er, no. 

“Ah. Ah. Wonderful book. If you had read that you would know that blahh and blah and you would also know that….” and Martin proceeded to rub the poor bloke’s face in it. 

Like some of the cleverest people I know, Martin was a drop out. The education system was just too small and constraining for his particular intellect. He told me later that he should have followed his heart and gone to Cambridge to do Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Norse, as he had a huge love for the Viking Sagas. 

I miss him very much.

Television People

Some of the most underwhelming people I’ve met have been some of the best qualified. People with so much to prove as well. My experience in television was a great eye-opener about social disparity and what really constitutes intelligence, or rather the different types of intelligence there are.

We have an education system that seems to grind out the creativity of a child and puts them through a sausage machine where the child becomes a facsimile of their parent, ready to go into the city or slot into whatever grey part of society is required. 

Is this what we’ve come to?

“Don’t think of them as children, think of them as economic units.” Kenneth Baker (important historical figure).

So what did I experience in TV? Well, I worked in the London BBC so I am only referencing that rather than the whole of the corporation. I experienced a culture of snobbery; people who’d been to minor public schools desperate to be further up the chain than their contemporaries “Oh she’s jealous of me because I’m posher than she is.” Baffling to this comprehensive school kid.

First thing I was asked to do at Home Front was to draw 16 equidistant circles on a square wall - a circular mirror was provided, and nobody there could work out how to do it. These were people who’d been to serious universities. So I did it and people were amazed. This was stuff an 11 year old could work out.

Another thing I realised was these people talked about themselves and what they got up to with their mates over and above everything else. They didn’t talk about art or literature or politics or ideas, just how hilarious and great they and their chums were.

You've probably been on a train or in a restaurant and table of 20-something 'professionals' are shouting about how hilarious they are, to the annoyance of everyone else. 

Yes, that's them.

None of them had any practical skills but they made up for it with a rather ruthless Machiavellian streak of ambition. 

At another place I worked as a PA to a rather difficult man who was an Executive Producer for dramas. He was really talented and clever, and unusually for an EP he was great at the creative development of the script but also the business side of the production. However, this grammar school boy had a total inferiority complex and was unbelievably and unnecessarily rude to everyone he could be rude to - this is another media trope that your importance is demonstrated by your rudeness to your subordinates.

The guy in the next office was seriously as thick as a brick. But he’d been born in Malaysia to a very wealthy family, gone to boarding school and then a Russell-Group uni, and knew he had a divine right to tell everybody else what to do. His emails were hilarious David-Brent affairs. They were composed of management-speak and no substance whatsoever. And he got away with it too.

This is one of the things about the UK. Public schools give kids a huge amount of confidence - they know when they leave school they’re going to be running this, telling these people what to do, heading up this public body and so on. Meanwhile the kids in the comprehensive are told you’re going to be working for them, you’re going to be under this manager, don’t get your hopes up, people like you don’t get to do this and so forth.

Just think of all those people with huge talent who missed out over the centuries because they were the wrong sex, wrong colour, wrong social caste.  

What bollocks.

Rant over.

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