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Windows of Opportunity

I do not think of my youth as being that far away. But when I share with today’s students stories of yesterday’s student life they look over my shoulder for a sighting of the Ark. Resurgence readers, I believe, will understand that forty years can pass in the twinkling of an eye, in the squeak of a bat, with the scent of honeysuckle, as yesterday. I feel I still belong to the same world as twenty-year-olds. It is a pity they do not return the compliment.

Though, in many aspects of university life, change has marched faster than progress, few would want to return to a time when, because independence did not come until one was twenty-one, the authorities were in loco parentis and exercised their care with a zeal and strictness that William Blake would have understood.

My reaction to a control/punishment regime may have been unusual. Otherwise more people would have understood why I ran the Small School on completely different principles. On the other hand, few eighteen-year-olds today would tolerate the limits imposed on us. But what form would their reaction take?

We were expected to live in college in our first and third years. It was not long before I was courted by the rebellious and the rakish. I soon appreciated why. I had a ground-floor room. The bars on its window were of wood. The bars on its windows could be removed. Curfew breakers were calling constantly, and as is their nature, in quite unsocial hours.

College doors were locked at 11pm. Female visitors could only be entertained on college premises at the weekend with written permission. Pubs were off-limits. Gowns had to be worn in town. The standard fine for a breach of the rules was £5, two-and-a-half weeks of my spending money. The committed rebel could be sent down. I was prepared to sail close to the wind. I didn’t mind the night visitors, so long as their footprints weren’t left in the flower bed. Rules have always been a challenge to my creative instincts and subversive nature.

Authority puts great trust in the locked door. Sometimes it ignores the unlatched window…

Our lecture rooms were only locked on the night before exams. On one such occasion we got in and removed all the chairs. On another, we took all the cutlery from the dining hall save the teaspoons. These were minor skirmishes, a mild reaction to not being trusted. There was some fun to be had from them, but what really began to fascinate me was the lack of imagination or subtlety in the response.

Though I preferred pranks that were not directed against particular individuals, there were occasional exceptions. One such victim was the Professor of English. As well as his teaching duties he had charge of the library. In the library were several life-size statues. Prof. B. often disappeared at weekends to London, it was assumed for dirty purposes. His room was on the first floor of Canterbury Building, which was a quad and some two hundred yards from the library.

One Sunday I noticed that his bathroom window was not quite shut – a window of opportunity! We lifted a statue from the library, let it into his flat via the front door, and tucked it up in bed. Before we left we shut the bathroom window. The real giggle came not from his shouts of agonized surprise in the early hours of the next morn but in the assumption made by the Authorities that students had acquired a set of college keys. All the locks were changed.

This reaction of the Authorities surprised and intrigued me. I did not expect a knee-jerk from a body of intelligent men. It was obvious that no one had thought through what had happened. They had a hypothesis but they never tested it. The removal of the college bell provided much more material to be mulled over.

Chapel had to be attended three mornings and evenings a week, plus Sundays. Dinner was formal and had to be taken every day. To summon us to these, and to lectures, the college bell was rung. It therefore symbolised the daily round and grind. We would spike it.

So it was that one moonlit night a shadowy, hand-picked crew made their careful way across the roof to the bell-tower. There the bronze beast was liberated from its fastenings, shunted across the slates, lowered to the ground and hidden in the rhododendrons.

Early the next morning the chapel clerk fell into a heap when he pulled the rope. The blood vessels of Authority began to burst. We spread a rumour that the bell had been pinched by students from another place. For a short while it prevailed - until Authority realised that the students in question were not bright enough to undertake such a prank.

Authority upped the stakes and threatened to share the cost of a replacement bell between all the students. Panic among the monetarily challenged, and a witch-hunt began. The comrades kept their cool. A tape recording of the hand-bell that was substituting for its great grandparent was made and played at all times of day and night.

After a suspenseful forty-eight hours a scrappy map went up on the notice board, an X indicating that ‘hear lyeth the treshoor’. Was it true or was it a lie? Authority hesitated: if they sent out an exploratory expedition on a wild bell hunt they would look foolish. It took half-a-day for them to risk it. And lo and behold, there lay the bell!

I was one of those who volunteered to manhandle the beast back to its lair, and thus I heard the Principal opine that it was one of the better pranks played during his time as either a student or a member of staff. Were all their threats a bluff, then? No, the anger had been real enough. This was the bonhomie of relief. As he spoke I was running a different scenario through my mind: What if Authority had completely ignored the loss of the bell?

It was certainly funnier than locking the staff in the library, which I believe was only done because the key was in the door. A lost opportunity: I don’t think any of the demands that could have been made, were made. Unfortunately one lecturer was late and he released his colleagues. The Censor rushed furious into the quad and fined the first five people he saw. This was a travesty of justice. I was on the organ for Evensong. As the staff left the chapel I played the Dead March.

I did have female visitors in my room, as my sister reminded me just the other day. She and her friend Theresa came down for the summer ball and I gave them dinner in my room. The meal was interrupted by the entrance of the Censor, who announced that for this breach I would be sent down. The pleadings of my sister were a joy to hear. It was about ten minutes before it was revealed that the ‘Censor’ was a fellow-student.

So perhaps I fool myself when I try to justify antisocial behaviour as a reaction to tight control. Perhaps I am just nasty. No, I prefer the more generous interpretation.

Control and too detailed organization stifle the spirit. I was at a conference where participants were herded like cattle. Before one session I put down my blanket outside the door and two or three others sat down with me to talk. The organizers were irritated: ‘The meeting is about to start, the meeting is started.’ ‘The meeting has already begun’, I replied.

July 2003

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