Brasenose, a history
(This is a book review from nearly a decade ago. I wrote it for the LRB, but at the last moment they rejected it as insufficiently controversial, as far as I recall. It was already far too controversial for a College that had turned very toxic indeed under pressure of our quincentenary celebrations, so that was absolutely fine by me. But it’s a long time ago now, and all the current talk of statue destruction made me think of it. As well as a book review it’s also a meditation, by a younger version of myself, on the peculiar place I work in. A exceedingly minority interest, either way.)
J. Mordaunt Crook, Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford, 2008.
On 9 March 1881, the ‘bump supper’ celebration of a Brasenose success on the river turned ugly. ‘In the flickering light of bonfires,’ recalled L.R. Farnell, the scholar of Greek religion, ‘could be seen the figures of some two hundred young men bounding and leaping high . . . and passing from lurid light into deep shadow alternately; and the leaping was accompanied by terrifying yells and the most fantastic music ever devised by savages standing on the verge of culture.’ Finally, the undergraduates turned their attentions to a statue that had stood in the middle of Old Quad lawn for 150 years, and defaced it with indelible paint. It and its obscene graffiti were quietly despatched to a scrapyard soon after.
The target of their drunken assault, whether or not those Victorian hoorays were aware of it, was an appropriate one. Although universally known as Cain and Abel, the statue was in fact a copy of a Renaissance image of Samson slaying a Philistine. Walter Pater, a fellow of the college, found some consolation in the sight of these Brasenose athletes (‘like panthers,’ he had described them) leaping naked over bonfires. But the presence of the arch-aesthete in Oxford’s heartiest college during its most philistine phase throws up manifold anomalies: the mind boggles, for example, at the notion of Pater tutoring the future Earl Haig. On the matter of the statue’s destruction, Pater was defensive. If we can believe Edmund Gosse, it was ‘almost the only thing that ever ruffled him’: on mention of the statue, ‘Pater would sit up in a moment, and say, with great acidity, “It was totally devoid of merit, no doubt.”’
Pater’s dilemma, as the aesthete amongst athletes, is one for which a modern Fellow of Brasenose, contemplating the history of the college, is bound to feel some sympathy. Everything about that Victorian venting of testosterone, after all, is apt to set a contemporary academic’s teeth on edge. But our misfortune is that the events of that night are not so unrepresentative of Brasenose culture as we might like. This is ‘Good old BNC’, historically the jovial, well-lubricated and none-too-intellectual champion of causes long lost elsewhere, even in Oxford. In Brasenose’s tolerant atmosphere, for example, the ‘pass man’ (the wealthy sportsman with no interest in an honours degree, and no aptitude for it either) survived and flourished far longer than at other colleges, and the admission of students on the exclusive basis of sporting ability continued to be practised almost to within living memory. ‘As Balliol enlisted clever heads, so B.N.C. enlisted stout legs and arms,’ reminisces a late 19th-century undergraduate. In the later 1880s, sensationally, a top-flight Etonian rower was actually rejected: ‘he couldn’t spell; he could hardly even write his own name; we had to draw the line somewhere.’
Now this is all, as they say, history, and perhaps none of it would matter very much if 2009 weren’t the 500th anniversary of Brasenose College, and our history consequently hard to duck. Any anniversary, let alone the celebration of half a millennium of existence, is bound to expose the subject of celebration to a rather unforgiving light, and J. M. Crook’s elegant college history is only the most explicit contribution to this unavoidable exercise in navel-gazing. But as we, the current Fellows, make the claim to continuity with our predecessors which is presumably essential if the simple age of the institution is going to count for anything, the process is not painless. On the crucial question of what exactly it is that we are celebrating – what an Oxbridge college is actually for, these days – there is less consensus than one might like. The university (in the shape of the subject Faculties) may well have just as great a claim on our time and loyalty as the college, for example, and issues such as how we admit students, how the college is administered, which of the various types of employment contract we hold, and indeed how we teach, have the potential to weaken further the identity and cohesion of the diverse group of scholars that constitutes a college fellowship. The tutorial, the most familiar expression of the Oxford teaching system and rightly regarded as the bellwether of the health of the collegiate system and Oxford education in general, is under pressure everywhere. It is a matter of dispute whether an individual college should aspire to be ‘known for its strengths’ in medicine or law or PPE: self-evidently true for some, a hopelessly parochial throwback for others. So, 500 years of what? An elite educational institution? An extremely picturesque hall of res? A Grade I listed coffee room? The young hooligans of 1881 had a clear idea what they were celebrating, and, judging by the stocks of paint they got in, a good plan of how to celebrate it. Can we say the same of ourselves?
One can cite a host of contemporary niggles (such as I have) which can sour a college’s atmosphere, and no doubt the Fellows of 1881 could have done the same. But perhaps a clerical friend of mine is right to trace the problem farther back. On this analysis the staff of the modern University of Oxford are secular cuckoos in an essentially religious institution: Oxford colleges are monastic foundations which have abandoned the monastic rules which were crucial to maintain harmony within diverse and densely populated communities. I think there’s a lot in that, and we would all do well to read the Rule of St Benedict. It is certainly the case that to a modern Fellow it is only really with the last quarter of the 19th century that the landscape of Oxford University becomes familiar at all. The great watershed is the growth in the authority of the university (at the expense of the colleges) that followed from the Royal Commissions of 1850, 1871 and 1877; and just as important for the academic culture of the place, the secularisation of Oxford which allowed dons to marry and move out to the suburbs in North Oxford which are way beyond the means of their modern counterparts. Before that point Brasenose was a clutch of actual or apprentice clergymen, and its history the story of the (disproportionate, to the secular eye) impact made by theological controversies. It is hard to summon up much fellow-feeling for the men who heckled Archbishop Cranmer as he hobbled up Brasenose Lane on his way to be burned. But for most of the 19th century Brasenose is hardly less alien, a community thoroughly identified with the Church of England: even a superficially interesting figure like William Webb Ellis, a scholar at BNC shortly after his alleged invention of rugby, turns out to have been yet another common-or-garden aspirant to the Anglican priesthood, a profoundly unremarkable man quite oblivious of the myth that the late-Victorian cult of team sports would build up around him.
Such continuities as can be identified between today and pre-1850 Brasenose are either coincidental or functions of the simple physical restrictions of the site. It is a pleasant surprise, but gives us very little insight into Regency Oxford, to find that as long ago as 1821 the Phoenix, a dining club along the objectionable lines of the Bullingdon (these days excluded from the college), was encountering ‘violent opposition throughout the College’ for its social exclusivity. (That does tell us something about the Phoenix, mind you.) As for the physical environment, a history does provide good evidence of a local kind of architectural determinism. Enforced intimacy forges peculiarly collegiate virtues and vices, key to which are the subordination or not of the typically burgeoning academic ego to the higher interests of the community. On the one hand we find sworn ideological enemies during the Commonwealth, an intruded Puritan principal and a Royalist bursar, co-operating to rescue the college in its darkest hour. But rather more in evidence are the bitter feuds which, once sparked, the college environment is peculiarly adept at inflaming. I was once shown what my guide called the ‘million pound bookcase’, a nondescript item of furniture somehow implicated in the mutual loathing between two ancient historians, Hugh Last and Sir Ronald Syme, which cost Brasenose any part of Syme’s large estate on his death in 1989. The consumption of alcohol, pursued with prodigious application, it seems, by every generation of Brasenose students and Fellows, also no doubt has its roots in the intense sociality dictated by the college environment. This hardly differentiates Brasenose from any other institute of higher education, of course, but drinking achieved an iconic status in this college, reflected in the annual Ale Verses celebration on Shrove Tuesday, and a popular etymology of Brasenose’s peculiar name from an old word for ‘brewery’. This at least bodes well for the 2009 celebrations. Whatever other anxieties there may be, nobody familiar with the college’s history can harbour the slightest doubt about this Fellowship’s capacity to organise a piss-up in a Brasinhuse.
Yet it is the culture of the college since the reforms of the later 19th century, starkly but adequately exemplified by the vandalising of Cain and Abel, that confronts a Fellow today. No individual contributed more to the crystallisation of Brasenose’s modern reputation than the hard-drinking, sports-obsessed principal, W.T.S. Stallybrass, who dominated the college between the two world wars. To say that Stallybrass set no great stock by academic excellence would be an understatement: Blues proliferated, Firsts were practically unknown. But there is no doubt that, as it excelled on the rugby pitch and the Thames, Brasenose also developed a strong corporate ethos focused on its clubbable principal. When, at the start of hostilities in 1939, Brasenose men joined up with the RAF en masse, and then were killed en masse, Stallybrass had taken photographs of them when they had visited him on leave, and wrote all their obituaries (‘in the air, on the rugby field . . . he did not know what fear was’; ‘only the examiners could defeat him’). The photos, the obituaries, the appallingly large WWII memorial in the college chapel – all this is terribly moving. But the war and the social changes it wrought did for that particular ideal of collegiality. Stallybrass himself fell from a train out of Paddington in 1948, shortly after being defeated in college by other Fellows determined to improve academic standards. After the war the sporting types in whom Brasenose had specialised increasingly found Oxford’s doors closed to anything except academic talent. Crook quotes Jan Morris on the tragedy of ‘Carruthers’, the archetypal nice-but-dim pass man, who had ‘survived at Oxford until the Second World War, which he won.’ Brasenose College, Crook suggests, had been Carruthers’s veritable alma mater.
Stallybrass died on St Jude’s Day, patron saint of lost causes, and it all adds up to a compelling myth: the Golden Age of the college, lost along with all those young men shot down over the Channel. Was the Oxbridge college itself the last of Brasenose’s lost causes, only truly possible when a coherent ethos, forged in manly endeavour on the water or the rugger pitch, bound its members together? The problem of course is that, intensely poignant as Stallybrass’s photographic record is, Carruthers didn’t really win the war, or didn’t do so single-handedly. I am bound to think of a clever Welsh grammar-school boy who went up to Trinity Hall, Cambridge in 1938, but found there a society so rigidly stratified and unsympathetic to someone of his background that he welcomed the opportunity to join the army and leave Cambridge the following year. That man, my father, did his bit for the war effort too, landing on D-Day, fighting through to Germany, losing a lot of friends; but I don’t think he ever went back to Cambridge, and by all accounts Trinity Hall was a lot less exclusive than Brasenose at that time. Another combatant on D-Day was Brasenose’s Nobel laureate, William Golding, on whose literary career the hearty Brasenose of Stallybrass had a tellingly minimal influence. In the case of J.G. Farrell, an undergraduate in the 1950s, it was the onset of polio and treatment in an iron lung that transformed him from a stereotypical Brasenose hearty into a novelist.
A college history must of course be selective, but sometimes selection can collude too closely with its subjects. A peculiar decision taken by Crook is to list all the members of the Phoenix club from its foundation, while the Fellows of Brasenose (rather more central to the project, one would think) go unrecorded. And here is another atypical Stallybrass undergraduate, relegated to a footnote: Peter Twinn, mathematician and entomologist, who at Bletchley Park in 1940 is credited with having broken the German Enigma code for the first time. As Crook admits, ‘BNC between the wars was very much a masculine, almost aggressively homosocial, society.’ John Betjeman feigned a limp whenever he entered the college, calculating that the hearties would not pick on an aesthete who was crippled. The idyll constructed by Stallybrass was built on the exclusion of women, the lower classes and overt exercise of the intellect. Indeed, it was a gentleman’s club, with all the qualities of such a place, loyalty and cohesion, but like a club, defined as much by those whose faces didn’t fit as by the membership.
Notwithstanding populist stereotypes of ‘the old boy network and the old school tie’, the ideals of Stallybrass are as dead as the Oxford dodo. But like the country as a whole, a college can lose its empire (on the playing fields in this instance) and struggle to find a role. In the face of an assertion of collegiate identity as confident as Stallybrass’s one can allow oneself to doubt the role of a college that lacks the same muscularity of purpose. Ambivalent (at best) at what we have been, labouring under our own collegiate Curse of Cain, Pater’s accommodation with the philistines, we may even countenance the possibility that a college is just an anachronistic survival which, like the monarchy, can only compromise so many times with prevailing circumstances without losing its identity entirely. What, to pose that crucial question one more time, is there to celebrate?
A college, as Crook well puts it, is ‘a permanent set of buildings and an impermanent set of people’: on the one hand the Oxford architecture that seemed to William Morris almost organic (buildings that ‘look almost as if they had grown out of the roadway’); on the other, the constantly shifting populations of students, staff and Fellows. What a college most obviously is (though superficially) is a cumulative building enterprise, the architectural sum, not always so felicitous, of centuries of construction. But the wrong conclusion can be drawn from this, the wrong answer to the big question of what we are. It is perhaps the clearest sign of our lack of self-belief that the most insistent answers to the demands of a quincentennial celebration have been that something should be built. Throwing up a new structure, needed or not, is of course the perennial Oxford substitute for creative thinking: the evidence is everywhere. But the great paradox of Oxford is that the impermanent element of this peculiar concoction, the people, is what really matters; the familiar Oxford of quads, crenellations and spires (say it quietly) is quite tangential to the serious project of teaching and researching. In Brasenose this might be called the Narnia Principle, in deference to a couple of gilded fawns, a Victorian lamppost and a scruffy double-doored exit from the chapel, which the imagination of C.S. Lewis, no doubt on a wintry night, transformed into the kingdom of the Snow Queen. Strictly speaking, Narnia begins in a shabby backyard which currently houses the recycling bins. It isn’t of course that building is insignificant or unnecessary in a collegiate university. This is a city in which academics, let alone students struggle to afford accommodation; and I treasure the view of the Radcliffe Camera and University Church I have from my teaching room. But good building must embody a recognition of the relative importance of stone and the creative temperaments that animate it. Dreaming spires, and all that. With a bit of luck the Credit Crunch will do for any such plans, just as surely as it is sending Oxford graduates flooding into teaching and research.
So what should we do to mark the 500th Anniversary of Brasenose? It is easier to say what we shouldn’t, but I do know that Stallybrass’s belief that a shared intellectual endeavour is insufficient to bind a community together is utter nonsense. More than nonsense, actually: a terrifying lack of confidence in our mission as researchers and educators, as if an aptitude and enthusiasm for academic subjects has less power to galvanise young people than an aptitude for propelling a boat. The least that our quincentenary requires is a bout of quiet introspection proper to a collection of scholars, even secular ones: we should remember what we are and what we are not and re- discover our pride in it; we should forcibly restate the value of the education we offer and the research we do, and resist those pressures of administration and self-justification which constantly distract us from the things we are qualified to do. We should indeed read and digest the Rule of St Benedict, but we should also celebrate what our college does best: it harbours a community not defined by ethos (which can easily become class) but by aptitude. The fondest memories of its alumni/ae are not of high jinks but of intellectual excitement. Its architecturally-enforced intimacy may prolong feuds between colleagues, but it also fosters tolerance and openness: it is precisely the manageable scale of the constituent colleges which makes intimidating Oxford accessible. Indeed, the greatest boon of the physical restrictions of a college is that it makes it, as an institution, maximally intolerant of hierarchy. If that still sounds too monastic a prescription for the 21st century, we might also stretch to a cheap reproduction, emphatically positioned in the middle of Old Quad, of Samson slaying a Philistine with the jawbone of an ass.