Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Fail Better

I don't make a big thing of it, and in fact usually try not to mention it at all if I can, but sometimes it's best just to get it out of the way: incredibly, not only am I an Oxford graduate, but I am a Balliol Man. Or was: I'm not sure how far these things are a lifetime condition or whether, like a criminal record, they expire after a certain length of time. It's not like I go around wearing the damned tie, after all, and the matriculation tattoo is very discreet.

This may not mean anything to you at all, but, if it does, you may not be sure whether to believe me. You and me both: it is an identity that sits so oddly with the rest of my upbringing, aspirations, and subsequent life that I sometimes wonder myself whether I have made it all up, and that I am about to awake, alone in my narrow bed, still 18, still living in our family's fourth-floor, two-bedroom council flat, still with my whole life ahead of me. Phew! It was all just a dream! I imagine jailed serial killers and indicted war criminals from perfectly respectable, ordinary families must sometimes feel the same illusory relief from their dreadful psychic burden. Then, like Caliban, cry to dream again.

Seriously, though, it can be a bit of a burden, this Balliol thing. I may not make much of it, but other people do. There are certain elite educational establishments in the world that trade on their reputation as launch-pads for eminent careers, and Balliol College has been doing it longer and louder than most. Competition for admission is fierce, and the list of those who famously applied and failed – usually being admitted to a "lesser" Oxford college – includes the likes of Tony Blair (hah!) and Bill Clinton. But success can be problematic, too: the consequent weight of expectation and, later in life, the feelings of underachievement can be crippling to those who have bought into the myth-making.

Luckily for me and my schoolmate Dave, we knew nothing of this when – following a clutch of top A-level grades and having gained something of a reputation as a pair of show-offy smart-arses – we were encouraged to apply to Oxbridge back in 1972. First, pick your university, boys. Cambridge? Nah, too close to home! Oxford, then. OK, now pick a college, any college... Um. Haven't a clue. Balliol, you say, headmaster? Great name! Why not? So we took the exams, went to the interviews, and we got in. Well, no real surprise there, that's what we were good at, taking exams and that, innit?

So, because of the timing of the Oxbridge entrance exams for state-school candidates, we did not follow our friends going off to university in 1972, but were obliged to spend an extra term at school, then two thirds of a "gap year" at home, during which we both worked as teaching assistants in other local state schools. It was a very formative year. I found that the experience of putting in a regular working day and earning a salary made the prospect of study and student life begin to seem a little unreal. Although, unlike Dave, I also quickly realised that school-teaching was never going to figure prominently in my future.

Of course, once we finally arrived in Oxford, the truth dawned. This here college really does seem to think it's something a bit special, doesn't it? And, crikey, these other guys are spectacularly clever. Some were very posh and privately-educated; some were poor-but-brilliant refugees from oppressive regimes; some were here on prestigious overseas scholarships; many were unclassifiable oddballs. So what the hell were WE doing here? Surely there had been some terrible mistake?  Just weeks ago I had been picking Stanley-knife blades out of school clay bins*, and teaching remedial English classes to 12-year-olds! Perhaps we were here merely to fulfil some sort of state-school quota? Were we really up to this?

It was all very confusing. Impostor Syndrome aside, there were no lessons, no mandatory lectures, no benign teachers in loco parentis, no handy user's guide or glossary to the baffling local lingo in the non-existent Welcome Pack. It was deep-end time – sink or swim, gentlemen, freestyle! As a consequence, I disengaged roughly five minutes after I arrived into an ironic, semi-detached, permanently-stoned haze that lasted for about two years. In some ways this was a mistake but, to be honest, I felt I was owed at least a couple of years of fun, and was determined to have them. And did.

Two sane men in an asylum

All these years later, and now considerably more sober than any judge, I am aware I had been handed an opportunity with a capital "O", and chose to pass it up. I don't regret it, though; the many extra-curricular adventures I had were life-enhancing and character-forming, and I made lifelong friends among the university's Awkward Squad, an elite within an elite. I did get a decent degree, to everyone's surprise, and it proved to be the ticket of entry to the useful and stimulating life of professional public service I went on to enjoy for 35 years. Not to mention the pension that now supports my early retirement.

But the irony in this heartening stoner-to-citizen success story is that, by Balliol standards, it has been a disappointing failure. Balliol students are not selected for their dedicated, unflashy, all-round competence in keeping the wheels turning in some Department of Thankless Tasks, but for their potential as world-leading, world-beating, world-changing somebodies. Apparently, more than one in twenty living Balliol graduates figure in Who's Who. Blimey! Why they ever chose me or Dave will forever remain a mystery.

Now, despite her light-touch parenting, our alma mater is relentlessly judgmental – just look how well your brothers and sisters have done! – and the consequent twinge of underachievement whenever an alumni newsletter hits the doormat is infuriating, even for someone as immune to ambition as me; there is clearly unfinished business here. So recently I proposed to another old college chum that we might found The Failliol Society, a suitably ironic home for all those admitted within those august precincts, but who subsequently failed to live up to the college's tiger mom expectations, the more casually and spectacularly the better. Why? Mainly because the arrogance and entitlement of that hyped minority of over-achievers – and the college's over-investment in their achievements – really does need to be challenged by the 95% of the rest of us who are not and were never going to be in Who's Who. It'll be a big club, after all. Proposed society motto: If at first you don't succeed, get a proper job.

More mischievously – and bearing in mind Balliol-reject Bill Clinton's famously wimpy denial (no, not that one, the other one) and the recent demise of that exemplary Balliol Man, smuggler and cannabis advocate Howard Marks – I thought there should also be an Inhalliol Club, for those who have boldly experimented with altered states within those same august precincts. With Howard "Mr. Nice" Marks (1964) as Permanent Life President (deceased), and Aldous "The Doors" Huxley (1913) as Eternal Secretary (on indefinite leave of absence). I'm not yet sure who to nominate as Treasurer, but some eminent media types are definitely in the running. They know who they are. Membership by personal recommendation only; dress code (slovenly casual) mandatory.

But, thank you for listening. I can't remember now why I ever brought the subject up. We will never speak of this again.

photo © Fiona Thompson 1974

* The little bastards would drop the razor-sharp blades into the clay, in the hope of adding the odd severed finger to the mix. They would also add a sprinkling of transparent plastic injection-moulding pellets, which caused pots to explode in the kiln. I had to pick those out, too. Happy days!


Anonymous said...

Regarding "to make something of someones life": This always reminds me of Chuang Tzu's story about the gnarled tree, which is so crooked that no carpenter will be able to cut a straight plank from it; consequently, no axe will ever harm it.

Best, Thomas

Mike C. said...


I like that -- I must work more on my gnarliness...


Gustaf Erikson said...

As a graduate of a prestigious seat of learning but not much of a career to show for it this post made my day.

In the end, schooling/university is but a fraction of a life (even if it's relatively an important one!) and we'll be judged in the end on how we spend all of it.

Mike C. said...

Thanks, Gustaf -- I should probably have said "cross out 'Balliol' an insert the institution of your choice"! There are usually several such hothouses in most countries, after all. Though, sadly, I'm told there are none in Cambridge (a small, windy town in East Anglia).