When I was at Oxford, I was in the University Jazz Band for a while. (‘Yes,’ I used to tell people in a lordly fashion, ‘I played several blues for Oxford during my three years there,’ an excellent joke which has never once got a laugh.) The trombonist in the group, Peter Hartley, was doing mathematics while I was doing French and German and one day he said something which has stuck with me ever since.
‘What I envy about you doing languages, Miles,’ he said, ‘is that you get to express your own opinion now and then. In three years of doing mathematics I have never had the chance to offer my own opinion on anything, not once. You get to feel imprisoned after a while.’
This took me aback, because it didn't occur to me that linguistic study offered much chance to take sides about anything. But of course he was right because we were also doing the literature, and so had every chance to argue about how funny Moliere really was, or how effective Baudelaire was, or whether Mozart should have left Beaumarchais's Marriage of Figaro well alone. (To this day, oddly, I have never seen Bizet's Carmen, only read the Prosper Merimee short story on which it is based.)
I still remember the delight with which I encountered Voltaire in his full glory for the first time. I had already read Candide and some of his other stories, but for a few weeks our French tutor opened up the Lettres Philosophiques and other treasures to us, and I realised that not only was this man very clever and a very good polemical journalist, but also very funny.
‘All right,’ said the tutor one day. ‘That's enough Voltaire. For next week you can start work on Rousseau.’
I was appalled. That flabby, self-pitying atrocious rogue, who had never cracked a joke in his life?
‘Couldn't we do just one more week of Voltaire?’ I begged.
‘No point,’ he said. ‘That's as much as you'll need for the exam.’
It was at that very moment that I conceived a strong distaste for Jean Jacques Rousseau, an extreme dislike for syllabuses, and a certain distrust of our tutor. So that was three opinions in twenty seconds. Peter Hartley was right. I did get to form and express opinions faster than he did.
One of the other opinions I formed was that studying languages at Oxford was not really going to get me very far. I did, I confess, enjoy delving into medieval French, because having previously studied Latin I could see how French sprang so logically from what the Romans spoke, but I couldn't see how this was going to help me in later life. I thought it might have been useful to read some books by living French and German authors, but we never did. I thought too that it might have been useful to learn to speak the language, but in my three years at Oxford nobody ever addressed a word of French or German to me.
(I once inquired why we were not taught to speak French. ‘Oh, that's the sort of thing you're meant to learn in the vacation,’ the tutor said. ‘While you're up here, you learn things you can't learn elsewhere.’)
And another opinion I formed during my third year was that it was hardly worth taking Finals. I explained this to my tutor thus. ‘At the end of three years I shall have learnt all I am likely to learn. The exams won't teach me any more. So what's the point?’ He was horrified. (Well, it would look bad on his results if one of his group did not even sit the Finals.) ‘No, no, you MUST sit your Finals! It's vital!’ And so I did go through with the ordeal, and I was awarded a lowly Third class degree, and the porter at my college said, ‘Well, Mr Kington, will you be coming up to collect your degree?’ And as I contemplated the dreary idea of trekking back, he said: ‘Because you'll need a gown for the ceremony, which you could buy at great expense, but you can easily hire for only £30. From me.’
£30! That was a fortune in those days. So I formed another instant opinion, which was that it was a waste of time and money, and I never did collect my degree, and nobody has ever asked me if I have got one, so it hasn't mattered. But I sometimes wonder if, after all these years, I could still turn up one day and collect it. It would be quite fun to collect my degree AFTER I had retired from the career it was meant to lead to.
If I can afford the gown.
The Independent 13th April 2005