Tuesday, 27 April 2010

An apology to Balliol Men

I said some sarcastic things about Oxbridge yesterday. My irritation is not with Oxbridge people themselves. As Sir Humphrey might have said, some of my best friends are Oxbridge graduates! My problem is with the public perception of this class. It is an irritation which goes back to when I was a teacher and a senior colleague blocked a frank report I had written about the school's most aggressively insular student on the grounds that she was destined for Cambridge (not what he said, but that was the truth of it). All I had said was that she had to learn to listen to other people and dialogue with their ideas, instead of treating everyone who disagreed with her as a lower species. I resented enormously the assumption that attendance at a swanky university was more important than her development as a human being. I hope she has since developed.

Anyway, I was thus quite unsurprised by todays's news that Anjoum Noorani, the senior civil servant really responsible for the papal visit memo scandal, also studied at Oxford (like Steven Mulvain who took the flak yesterday for circulating it). I'm perfectly sure I wouldn't have lasted five minutes in either place, but I cannot stand the kind of British snobbery that laments the fall of Oxbridge graduates as if it were as tragic as the fall of Satan.

That said, the fact these two specimens attended Balliol College touched my heart, and made me think warmer thoughts. And my mind went back to Hilaire Belloc's ode to Balliol Men, which I post here as an apology to my Oxbridge readers.


YEARS ago when I was at Balliol,

Balliol men and I was one
Swam together in winter rivers,
Wrestled together under the sun.

And still in the heart of us, Balliol, Balliol,
Loved already, but hardly known,
Welded us each of us into the others :
Called a levy and chose her own.

Here is a House that armours a man
With the eyes of a boy and the heart of a ranger,
And a laughing way in the teeth of the world
And a holy hunger and thirst for danger :

Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again :
And the best of Balliol loved and led me.
God be with you, Balliol men.

I have said it before, and I say it again,
There was treason done, and a false wordspoken,

And England under the dregs of men,
And bribes about, and a treaty broken:

But angry, lonely, hating it still,
I wished to be there in spite of the wrong.
My heart was heavy for Cumnor Hill
And the hammer of galloping all day long.

Galloping outward into the weather,
Hands a-ready and battle in all:
Words together and wine together
And song together in Balliol Hall.

Rare and single ! Noble and few ! . . .
Oh ! they have wasted you over the sea !
The only brothers ever I knew,
The men that laughed and quarrelled with me.

Balliol made me, Balliol fed me,
Whatever I had she gave me again;
And the best of Balliol loved and led me,
God be with you, Balliol men.


  1. Yes, but to pretend that the Balliol of today is the Balliol of Belloc's day is just playing into the mythology, isn't it?

    As a foreigner, I took Brideshead Revisited as the never-changing gospel truth about Oxford, and now I realize that Waugh's nostalgia was for his youth, and had he gone to Aberdeen, we foreigners would be all in love with the mystique of Aberdeen.

    "The History Boys" is rather savage about Oxbridge snobbery. I suppose the history of Oxford and Cambridge save them from being just two more brand names (Nike, Reebok, Armani, Balliol), but really. Do they really have the same role or importance today that they had in 1906 or 1926?

  2. I hardly feel qualified to answer. But to be honest, yes, Oxford and Cambridge still attract some of the most extraordinarily gifted people in the country. The trouble I have is the snob value attached to it by the aspirational. In fact the trouble I have with it is in part the image that Waugh created. But BR is about so much more than Oxford.

  3. One day I may well write an erudite and sparkling comment on here. This however is not the day. My Football Fanatic found herself on the Oxbridge list at St. Bede's. She very politely told them what they could do with their list and went to Salford instead.

  4. MOTL, we welcome all commentary here, from the sparkling variety to rich, well-grounded Mancuniana!