The British ambassador to Mexico talks to John Garth about shoestring creativity and street theatre in early Seventies Oxford.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
Because of its reputation, with lots of renowned historians. I had a place at Leeds to study French, but with very good A-level results I thought I’d have a go at Oxbridge. My brother and his girlfriend, who were already studying at Cambridge reading history, informally tutored me and I studied in public libraries.
Did you enjoy Oxford?
I found it quite a culture change after being at a central London school, where very few people then went to university at all. But I immediately liked my course [Modern History] and tutors. The medieval historian Susan Reynolds (now at the University of London) remained my personal tutor and is still a friend today. I also very much took to Oxford. Such a beautiful place was a revelation – the lovely gardens and the countryside around. I enjoyed the change from London. For me that first year was a real voyage of discovery.
Were you a hardworking student?
At a ladies’ college in 1971 you would have had to have been extremely enterprising not to be hardworking! We had quite a tempo of work, and the tutors were thorough about ensuring you turned work in on time.
What was your social life like?
There was a real pleasure in making friends in several different colleges and seeing on the noticeboard so many events being organised. It was a self-help, creative time: we didn’t have much money. Among the pleasures of being in college was the opportunity to do things that hadn’t been possible at school, to meet people from very different backgrounds doing a range of subjects.
Did you take part in any other extra-curricular activities?
We worked hard but we also played hard. My closest friends were quite serious historians and we participated in faculty discussions on changes to the curriculum. It was a time when students were beginning to question more actively the status quo. There had been a student occupation of the Schools in 1969–70 and reform discussion was rife. I also made friends, on my very first day, with a musician who was very keen to create a mime and music group. We ran ‘street theatre’ events, largely improvised to entertain the people bustling past. We held an Alice in Wonderland tea party outside the Bodleian, in costume, with drinks served in enormous teacups and cakes, and we invited passers-by to join us. We also invited Geoffrey Caston, the University Registrar, whom I’d met in the University Curriculum Reform discussions. To our complete shock he turned up and seemed to enjoy the party! It was all very young and idealistic. I also took part in Twelfth Night, directed by Patrick Garland, as one of the crowd of maidens.
Has your Oxford qualification helped in your career?
I remember a friend dashing into the supermarket where I was working with a big bottle of champagne and saying, “Congratulations! You’ve got a First.” And my first words were “Goodness! No more exams then ever again!” That degree was certainly a great help in getting on the first rung of my career – but after that, of course, it just became one of a number of successive experiences and achievements.
What else did you take away from your time at Oxford?
A tremendous love of history; a module on art history in France has carried me through to an enduring interest in 19th-century European art. I took away good friendships and a confidence in being able to relate to a wide range of people. I date my love of being in the countryside from Oxford. And finally my musician friend went to Budapest to study Kodály, and pointed out I could go to Romania on a similar scholarship. I consequently studied in Bucharest and then in the north of Romania. That set off my love of Central and Eastern Europe.
How do you think of Oxford now?
With a lot of a pleasure and a certain amount of nostalgia. It’s a time that I associate with space and time to think and reflect; and a certain timelessness.