I arrived at Oxford station by train, and then began the long weary journey from the station to the University. Nowadays, of course, the station is totally cut off from the town by a new one-way system, which I believe is twinned with a roundabout somewhere near Kahlsruhe, but in those days – nearly thirty years ago – the terrain between the station and the town was filled by a wild, uninhabited, thickly wooded bog, infested by predators such as mini-cab drivers, proctors, college accountants looking for more farmland to buy, Cherwell hacks looking desperately for stories and first year undergraduates who had been sent down for choosing over-popular subjects to read. It was a terrifying initiation.
Not half so terrifying as the Freshman’s Fair, though, where the next day I found myself being forced to join 116 different societies, ranging from the Poetry Society to the Misprint Club. The members of the Misprint Club, apparently, collected misprints in Isis and Cherwell during the term, and any other of the 50-odd new magazines which usually sprouted and died during the average Oxford term, and got together for the first meeting of term on the last day in order to compare notes.
‘That sounds utterly ridiculous to me,’ I told the Hon Sec.
‘All right, I’ll come clean,’ he said. ‘We’re actually a front for MI5, and this is our way of meeting likely candidates. Anyone quirky enough to join the Misprint Club is the sort of loony we’d like to tempt into MI5. Interested?’
‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but I’m already member of 116 clubs and I couldn’t possibly fit MI5 in as well.’
I’ve never regretted it. I hear the food there is dreadful. But I had other things to worry about in my first week at Oxford. Making friends, for instance. I was unnerved to notice that everyone who arrived at Oxford already had lots of friends, and I could never make this out until I realized they were all people who had been at school together; later I watched many people spending their waking moments at Oxford trying to get rid of friends they should have got rid of long before they came up. I was reduced to making friends of total strangers, so desperate was I, and even one day went along to the opening meeting of the Poetry Society. This, however, turned out to be a front for KGB recruiting and I did not stay long.
Something much more exciting happened to me in my first week: as a member of Trinity College, I was abducted and kidnapped by people from Balliol next door.
‘Stay in there and shut up!’ they yelled at me, throwing me into a small attic. I was thrilled; somebody at last had made a spontaneous overture to me.
‘I was beginning to despair of ever meeting people,’ I said, ‘but being kidnapped is a jolly way of making acquaintances. Thanks very much.’
Convinced they were dealing with a lunatic, they left me strictly alone while they laboriously wrote out their ransom not. I wasn’t scared: I was a member of at least 115 societies. All of whom would instigate a hue and cry when they found I was missing. Kington didn’t turn up for two meetings in a row! The Philatelic Society would say. There must be something wrong! We haven’t seen him either, the Canasta Club would say. Send for the police.
Half way through my second term, when I had been in captivity for four months, I was beginning to have serious doubts. I had already missed half my first year, Christmas and a couple of interesting-sounding lectures. My Balliol captors had realized why they had got no answer – by mistake they had written: “If you do not pay Kington’s ransom, we will burn Balliol down”- and sensibly scaled down their demand to £5. There was still no response. My Balliol captors finally had a whip round among themselves, raised £4.50 and settled for that. I was free!
My first action was to approach all 115 clubs reproachfully, asking why they had not mounted an operation to rescue me. To my horror, I found that all of them with the exception of the Oxford Botany Club had gone into voluntary liquidation. My inquiries unraveled a cesspit. Each year, apparently, clubs were forced to take money off the unsuspecting freshman, and once the money was banked the society was dissolved. None of them really existed.
‘Except us,’ said the Oxford Botany Club. ‘We are genuine. However, the name of the club is wrong. They put Botany on the writing paper by mistake. It should be the Misprint Club.’
It was the front door for the Misprint Club! Thus it was that I realized, in my second term at Oxford, that I could not trust anyone, a policy which was to stand me in good stead when people pretended to like me – very often, for instance, when I was asked by tutors to divulge anything I knew about the subjects I was studying, but I was too clever for them. I fobbed them off with vague generalities and kept the really interesting stuff to myself, knowing that I could not trust them with the information. Thus, when I am asked, as I am today to pass on advice to fresh persons at Oxford, I reply: Do not join anything! If you have to join something, enroll in Miles Kington’s Freshman Advice Service, PO Box 52, The Cayman Islands. Just send £10. Used notes only, please. You can trust me. Thanks.
Oxford University Student Newspaper Sept 1989