The satirist, journalist and broadcaster, Ian Hislop, recalls undergraduate delights. Greg Neale reports.
Why did you decide to apply to Oxford?
My school [Ardingly College in Sussex] encouraged us to try for Oxbridge. A number of my friends in the years above me had gone to Oxford, particularly Nick Newman, now a cartoonist, and Simon Parke, who became a vicar. They both appeared to be having a marvellous time, so I thought: I want to do that.
Why did you apply to Magdalen?
I liked the look of it; no other reason. I'm sure that I was also told that it was a terrific college. I applied to read PPE originally, because I'd done a lot of maths [at school]. But I got halfway through the reading list and thought: I don't want to do this, and changed to English.
What were your first impressions of Oxford?
I remember thinking how beautiful Magdalen was. I had a very modern room, which I was very disappointed by, in the Waynflete Building baths, and hot running water. I remember thinking how clever everybody else in my year reading English was, but that became a real bonus, too, as I became friendly with them.
Who were your tutors?
My tutors were John Fuller, who was marvellous and very laid-back, and David Norbrook, who's now very eminent indeed, and Bernard O'Donoghue, who I liked very, very much, and who made Anglo-Saxon interesting. I still think it's interesting, and it's entirely his fault.
What kind of a student were you?
The first and third years, I worked very hard. In my second year, I did a lot of student journalism and put on a lot of reviews and acted in them, so then I don't think I was hugely diligent. But I enjoyed the work a lot. It gave me a chance to read everyone I'd ever wanted to who was any good, which if you are going to become a writer is fairly useful. I got a first in my Mods. John Fuller sent me a note saying 'you could have knocked me down with a feather', which made me think - thanks for your vote of confidence! At the end of my time at Oxford, I'd done quite well, and told him I was thinking of doing research. He said, 'Oh, I wouldn't do that...'. He told me I should become a journalist and I'd have much more fun, which was very good advice.
Had you done any journalism before Oxford?
I'd done the school magazine, and when I got to Oxford I took over a defunct magazine called Passing Wind, which Nick and Simon had started. I borrowed some money from the Old Etonian in my tutorial group, a man called Fergus Fleming now a fine travel writer bought the rather dismal assets of the magazine, and ran it for three years, which was enormous fun. I paid him back, I'm glad to say.
What was student journalism like then?
I did a bit for Cherwell. Isis seemed to me even then far too fashionable for me. Clovis Meath-Baker ran Cherwell and loved it deeply. Then the late, great Harry Thompson became Editor. Cherwell then was incredibly mischievous and spiky and looking for trouble, and very good fun.
Did that shape you as a journalist?
I think I already had the satirist's outlook: I was probably looking for a vehicle, to be honest. If I look at the essays I wrote, I seem to have done a huge amount of Congreve, Restoration comedy, Swift, Dryden, Pope the people I read might have given some indication of what I was going to do later in life.
I'd like to have read history. I would definitely do it now. But you can't do everything.
Would you like to be a student again?
Oh yes. And I've a major fantasy that, somewhere, there would be a college so desperate that they will ask me to be Master.
What do you think of Oxford today?
I'm obviously a supporter. Environments where excellence can flourish, I'm all for. Chris Patten, the Chancellor, made a rather good speech on that old chestnut of accessibility, I thought, when he said that focusing on tertiary education is missing the point: it's absolutely obvious where the problem is in this country, and it's in secondary education. To blame the top universities for failing to increase the social mobility lower down the scale seems to me to be completely stupid.
Is there anything Oxford should change?
I was asked to support the Oxford Thinking campaign, and I think it's very good that it's fund-raising and becoming more professional, but I do hope the University doesn't become PR-obsessed. One doesn't want to be bland, and uncontroversial and New Labour. Hopefully, Chris Patten will stop that happening. There's nothing like a terrific row: I mean, the Oxford Poetry Professorship row was marvellous! Dons fighting, that's what we want. The idea that everything is Ivy League perfection, happy, smiling, sailing peacefully on we definitely don't want that at Oxford!
Ian Hislop joined Private Eye magazine on leaving Oxford, and was appointed Editor in 1986. He presents documentary programmes for BBC television and radio, and is a regular member of the satirical quiz programme, Have I Got News For You.