Reviewed by Richard Lofthouse
Keith Hindell’s (University College, 1954) autobiography is a wonderful rags-to-riches story, which happens to be weighed in the currency of education leading to self-advancement and social mobility. He’s like many other Oxonians: a protean life lived well, with lots of salt and pepper and an undying ability to spot the opportunity and go for it. Class doesn’t come into it, and yet class is everywhere to be seen.
On paper, a career as a trades union specialist at the Policy Studies Institute, followed by a stint as a journalist with a high BBC content and UN angles, doesn’t sound like riveting material. Actually, the interest remains as much in the vibrant, well-told anecdotage from the post-war years, both in the UK and America, where Hindell lived for seven years, and to an even greater degree in Hindell’s amazement at how quickly he punched through all the invisible ceilings that had restricted his father to a comparatively dull blue-collar life at a gas works in north London.
It’s this social and cultural angle that puts grit in the oyster. We learn that Harrow changed his life, the subject of an initial prologue which recounts the grey day in July, 1947, when Hindell, pale, dressed in shorts and 4 ft 11”, aces a question about chess moves and lands a completely paid, five year scholarship to the school. “Intended as an educational and social experiment that would bridge the gap between the private and state school systems,” nonetheless the next 308 pages are invigorated by the grit of that big fact.
Hindell climbed the Matterhorn as a young boy, with his father, and the chapter ‘Mountains’ is a rich narrative in itself, well-told. It ends:
About a month after the Matterhorn I began my first term at Harrow. To a closed community like a boarding school outside experience is pretty irrelevant. Among the boys I’m sure I got less kudos out of my climb than I did for getting into the under-15s rugby XV.
Without perhaps realizing it, Hindell has already declared the real Hindell. His scaling of peaks is far more memorable than the chapter on Harrow, and for that matter the one on Oxford, even allowing for the erotic punting narratives on the untamed upper reaches of the Cherwell.
Another immortal line, at least to a later generation such as this reviewer (Lady Margaret Hall, 1990), is the otherwise innocuous hinge between Oxford and his American adventure, which begins: “When I got an offer for an assistantship at the University of Illinois…”. That simply doesn’t happen now, at least not on the merit of a first degree alone — but in the golden, expanding higher education years of the fifties it happened frequently.
In this degree a ‘baby boomer’ tale, the fifties and sixties come across as sun-lit, as in so many other narratives of the period. The war was over and everything was bursting with opportunity and energy. In a similar vein, the book declares a pre-technology age in which books were read, there was more time for adventuring and a much less pressured sense of life. Luckily, the author resists any attempt to project back into all this. It’s just there in the narrative, in the “smooth crossing lasting a week,” to get from England to New York. A different world, even though so recently lived.
Only at the very end, in a coda, does Hindell allude to the absence of Facebook and Twitter in his life, now as then, while reiterating other enduring themes such as indifference to religion, takeaway food, TV and celebrities.
When he fires up and onto the ‘journalistic plateau’ of the book, the subject matter is so varied that everyone will find something of interest, but perhaps not everything. For this reviewer, the memoir of the day when Hindell unexpectedly had to drive Clement Attlee and his frightfully conventional wife — in his own car, in the snow — to London, because no other transport materialized after a press call, is wonderful. So too is the day in 1975 when he ran alongside legendary fell runner Joss Naylor, on his way to set a new record.
There are some fantastic photos including one of a slightly weightier Hindell standing next to the UN Secretary General in 1983. Hindell ends his book before he embarked on a subsequent career as an academic – perhaps sensing when to stop. Asked by this reviewer to comment afresh on Harrow, he replied,
I did not make these criticisms of public schools on ideological grounds. They are preserves of the well off and bastions of privilege and class but in a free society people should certainly be able to spend their money on private education to their own design. It’s just a pity that such a strong section of our educational system which supplies so many of our leaders and thinkers should still be wedded to such flawed principles namely single sex, boarding and compulsory religion.
On reflection the title of the book, which refers to the condition of the journalist who “stays in the best hotels but often reports on the underbelly of society,” is perfectly weighted. The author wasn’t satisfied with a thin or class-bound existence. He wanted the full spectrum and he got it – a wonderful example to current students who, despite their evident monetary debts, would still do well to listen carefully to Hindell’s generation, who were so blindingly successful yet enjoyed it too.