The author and former editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster tells John Garth how Oxford gave him room to become an individual.
This web version is slightly more expansive than the printed version found on page 66 of the Michaelmas Term print issue.
Why did you apply to Oxford?
It never occurred to me that I wasn’t going to. Everybody including my father Vincent Korda (the Oscar-winning art director) said when you finish your national service you must go to Oxford. My uncle, film director Alexander Korda, had been in talks with Oxford to set up a School of Film and Drama, and he probably brought as much influence to bear as possible.
What did you study?
Modern Languages: French and Russian. I’m sorry to say it was an easy pick. I was already bilingual in French, and in the RAF I had been part of a top-secret intelligence operation that required very good Russian.
What were your impressions of Oxford?
It was a deep cultural shock – though not as much as it had been to go into the RAF straight from Le Rosey in Switzerland, known as ‘the School of Kings’ (Prince Albert of Belgium, the Duke of Kent and the Aga Khan were there when I was a pupil). Although I am English, I had never lived in England, so I was ill-equipped to deal with the complex social world at Oxford. On my first night I encountered a student methodically smashing the lights in the quad. I had not realised how far vandalism was part of English public school behaviour.
What was your social life like?
In the RAF, your own squadron and friends were the whole world, so I thought of Magdalen as my mob. A big social point was whether you would be invited for coffee, sherry or port in Bond’s room. I have no idea how Bond, steward of the JCR, plucked me out, but he did: a big and recognisable privilege. Beyond that, I made friends who shared a feeling for my peculiar lifestyle, which included New York, California, France and Switzerland.
Did you take part in any extra-curricular activities?
I did myself out of a world of opportunity because it never occurred to me there was any place more interesting than Magdalen. I rowed for the college, and I climbed its walls – then part of the great Oxford tradition, partly because the gates would close overnight.
You witnessed the Hungarian Uprising.
My father was in Spain during the Civil War and I had read Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia over and over again, so when the Hungarian Revolution broke out in 1956 I felt very strongly I ought to go. With three Oxford acquaintances, I got to Budapest during the first week and stayed to the end. As Winston Churchill said, nothing is so exhilarating as being shot at without result. We got into trouble with our colleges, but Magdalen was very understanding.
What kind of a student were you?
Not diligent. Brideshead Revisited had had an immense impact on me – a very bad book for anybody going to Oxford, evoking a world that still partly existed then.
What were your tutors like?
Austin Gill, the leading English expert on Mallarmé, had an extraordinary mind and a quite magnetic personality. He taught me how to think and express myself, and also how to enjoy coming to grips intellectually with something even if you don’t necessarily like it. If you could take an hour’s grilling from Gill on French symbolist poetry, you could hold your own in almost any meeting about anything in the world.
Has your Oxford qualification helped in your career?
Nobody ever showed the least interest in what I had done there. But that’s not to say that I would have had the jobs I had at CBS or Simon & Schuster without Oxford.
What else did you take away?
It helped me think of myself as an individual as opposed to simply Vincent Korda’s son or the nephew of Alex Korda and Merle Oberon. And I learned enormous intellectual curiosity from three years of running unfettered through Magdalen library reading military history and biography, to which I attribute almost all the later books I’ve written, including Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia and my forthcoming biography of Robert E. Lee.
How do you think of Oxford now?
With great benevolence, though I haven’t been back since 1957. I had a marvellous evening last year speaking to the Oxford Alumni Association of New York on T.E. Lawrence as the quintessential Oxonian.