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My Oxford

Address to Oxford University Society of Victoria Annual Dinner, MCG Long Room, Melbourne, 24 June 2023

As we are all acutely aware, there is a wonderful timelessness about Oxford, and the Oxford University experience, which makes reminisces from times long past often sound less like ancient history than current affairs. That’s probably just as well, given that my time as a student at Oxford, about which I thought I might reminisce with you a little tonight, was – I was alarmed to calculate – over fifty years ago, from 1968-70, well before most, if not all, of you were born.

In so reminiscing I’ll do my best, though I can’t hope to completely succeed, not to sound too much like a geriatric relic of the kind the former UK Prime Minister Jim Callaghan once described himself to me as being. The context was me as Foreign Minister in 1996 asking him to join an international commission on nuclear weapons the Keating Government was initiating. After listening to my blandishments, he responded: ‘My dear fellow, I’m afraid I can’t possibly join your commission. I’m a CLOOF’. ‘What on earth’, said I, genuinely puzzled, ‘is that?’ ‘Well’, he replied, ‘I can’t believe a man of your worldly experience could possibly be unfamiliar with that expression. But if you insist, a CLOOF, of course, is a Clapped Out Old Fart”. I have found that a useful line myself in recent years to employ when trying to escape invitations for which I have lacked the time, inclination or energy. The only downside is that, as time goes on, I am getting less and less pushback.

To begin my Oxford story at the beginning. As the son of a very working-class family (my dad was a tram driver, which enabled me to say to my ALP and trade union colleagues “You can’t out-inverse-snob me”), the only way I was ever going to realise my dream of going to Oxford was by winning a scholarship, just as that was the only way – in those pre-Whitlam and pre-HECS days – I had been able to get to Melbourne University. And of course I set my sights on a Rhodes, as many of you have done, and rather more successfully than me.

I’m not normally someone who harbours grudges: my temperament, I’m afraid rather notoriously, tends to be of the explode-and-forget rather than the slow-burning revenge-plotting kind – it’s what I once described as ‘not of the cloth from which Zen masters are cut’. But I have been prepared to make a teensy exception over the years for the very distinguished judge (who must of course remain nameless) who chaired the Victorian Rhodes selection committee in my year.

Having just shared the Supreme Court Prize in Law, my academic credentials seemed to pass muster. And as someone who played football with Melbourne High Old Boys (albeit with more enthusiasm than competence) I appeared to sufficiently tick the then-critical box of ‘engagement in manly sports’. But His Honour was manifestly underwhelmed by my long and visible undergraduate involvement in the early to mid-1960s – including as President of the SRC– in causes of a mildly radical political character, ranging from anti-censorship and anti-hanging to support for Indigenous land rights and an end to the white Australia policy, and no doubt most alarmingly of all, abortion law reform.

Which left me finishing runner-up to a no doubt highly qualified but very much less visible – then and since – mountain-climbing chemist. Such are life’s vagaries. Tony Abbott was luckier in NSW under the chairmanship of later High Court Justice Dyson Heydon, 1980 being clearly a good year for rugger-buggers of strong right-wing persuasion and modest academic accomplishment.

So the scholarship which did end up paying for my journey to Oxford – and sustaining me there for two years– was not a Rhodes, but a Shell. There were just a couple of these each year awarded Australia-wide. They were actually a bit more valuable financially, and I was very proud to receive one – but they manifestly did not carry with them the kind of aura in which my Cabinet colleagues Hawke, Beazley and Blewett forever basked as beneficiaries of Cecil’s largesse.

Sour grapes aside, I suspect the only practical difference that not having a Rhodes made to my life was that I did not get to directly meet at Oxford my exact contemporary there, Bill Clinton. I do have a vague recollection, at various parties around the place, of a fuzzy-cheeked southerner in a tweed sports jacket nuzzling susceptible freshettes in corner couches, but that was it. I knew enough of his American friends, to qualify as a Friend-of-a-Friend-of-Bill. But an FOB I was not.

I loved the ambience of Oxford from the moment I first arrived at Magdalen. Why that college? Partly because of its famous beauty, the deer park and all that. Partly because of the Oscar Wilde connection, which added a certain exotic frisson: at least the buggers there were unlikely to be of the rugger variety. But probably most of all for its long connection with Australia, and successive generations of Melbourne law students in particular. An important influence in this respect was the then Dean of the Law School Zelman Cowen, who loved Oxford with a passion and in later life (before becoming our Governor-General) went back there as Provost of Oriel. Zelman was a wonderful mentor in every respect, though his conversation did invariably involve fairly extensive use of the first-person pronoun. So much so that in his later incarnation in Oxford, he and his wife were widely known around town as ‘Anna and the King of I-am’…

Notwithstanding all the law connections, I did not want to do a BCL or further law studies of any kind. I chose rather, after my Melbourne Arts-Law degrees, yet another undergraduate course, Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE). Partly because I wanted to further broaden my intellectual horizons; partly because it was famously the degree of choice for aspiring British politicians; and partly because – enchanted by all the books I had read about it, from Zuleika Dobson to Brideshead Revisited – I wanted to experience first-hand the legendary Oxford one-on-one undergraduate tutorial system and all that went with it.

In this respect I thought initially that, despite all my scholarship credentials and pretensions, I might be seriously out of my depth. When one of my economics tutors, a lovely and gentle but slightly unworldly soul, John Enos, asked me at our first meeting whether I had studied the subject before, I replied ‘a little bit of schoolboy stuff, but nothing I can really now remember’. The schoolboy stuff in question was a passing acquaintance in fifth form with the then-standard textbook, Nankervis’s Descriptive Economics, the only thing in which I could indeed remember, then as now, was a diagram of the national economy as a bathtub, with taps for inputs and a drain for the outputs.

My tutor thought, quite wrongly, that my answer was just being modestly, self-effacingly British. ‘Well, then’, he replied, ‘shall we start you off with a little essay for me next week on, let’s say, “Modern theories of the consumption function of Dusenberry, Friedman and Ando-Modigliani, in the light of British post-war data”.’ The economists among you will understand that this assigned subject was one which could have kept a D.Phil student with a strong econometrics background going full-time for at least a fortnight. When my tutor appreciated a week later the extent of my distressed incomprehension, my economics education took a more realistic turn.

But in those days one had to do final exams in all three of the PPE disciplines, and I continued to spend so much of the next two years getting the economics leg of my degree up to high-honours standard that I did not spend as much time as I should have on the philosophy and politics, with which I was much more instinctively at home. Which meant that although I did eventually end up with a first class honours degree, it was not one of those where the candidate, at the viva voce examination stage, is applauded all the way to the table – as was the case, we were reminded a few days ago, when the late Martin Amis turned up for his English viva.

I am told that my non-congratulatory viva, by contrast, was one of the longest in any of my college dons’ memory, spread as it was over five separate subjects. Every single one of my finals papers had apparently sat squarely on the borderline between a low first and a high second, and the more compassionate among my examiners thought I should be given the chance to show my stuff. Unfortunately, the very first question I received, from the metaphysician Peter Strawson, I found almost as incomprehensible as my first economics test, and it took quite some time thereafter to recover ground. I can still remember, in a break in my cross-examination, pressing my head against the cold floor-tiles of an Examination Schools corridor to try to regroup. There may still be such a thing as a gentleman’s second, but anyone who says that getting a good Oxford degree is a doddle is either very smart indeed, or having you on.

While I did enjoy the one-on-one undergraduate teaching experience, I quickly discovered – arriving at Oxford at the ripe old age of 24 – that my natural social milieu was not the young men and women (not that there then very many of the latter) coming straight out of school, but rather postgraduate students, mostly international, and the younger academics around the place.

That was particularly the case when, after a rather lonely, as well as economics-preoccupied, first term, I managed to entice my long-standing Australian girlfriend (and now happily very long-standing wife) to join me. Having done the right thing at the Oxford Registry Office (in St Giles, next door to the Eagle & Child pub of Tolkien fame) with a knees-up to follow at the Trout, we moved in together to a wonderfully rambling old college flat right on the corner of Longwall and the High, over the top of a travel agency which was there for decades and some of you will no doubt remember.

The enticement process, I have to say, had its moments. My handwriting has always been largely incomprehensible, and the aerogram (that fold-over lick-down thin blue letter-sheet, the staple of my generation’s travelling youth, which I suspect no one in this email age has ever seen, let alone used) in which I conveyed my marriage proposal was no exception. Matters had to be clarified in a telephone conversation. But in those days the only college line available for such international trunk calls was the one in the Magdalen Porters’ Lodge, with an endless stream of passers-by more or less within earshot, particularly if the line was poor, as it was on this occasion. So when my beloved said to me ‘What on earth were you going on about in that letter?’, I had to reply in excruciatingly strangled tones, repeated three times, ‘I was saying Will-You-Marry-Me’.

Among the many enduring friendships we forged over the next two years was one with my other economics tutor, Keith Griffin, and his exuberant Texan wife Dixie, who together brought a long-overdue breath of fresh air into the college leadership when, a few years after I left, he replaced as Magdalen President the courtly but elderly, inert and ever-pickled James Griffin, who I doubt that any of you, even of my Oxford generation, will have known, because he had no interest whatever in talking to students. It was to Keith and Dixie that we bequeathed our Siamese cat on our departure, although they were never entirely comfortable – being Americans, even of a left-wing persuasion – in the knowledge that the new college cat’s name, Foppy, was not quite as respectable as it seemed at first sight. It was not a function of his languidly elegant Edwardian-dandy appearance, but his omnipresent intrusiveness as a newly-arrived kitten. ‘Foppy’, for us, was simply short for ‘Fuck off, pussy’.

Oxford in those days was full of legendary characters, as it always has been, with by no means all of them as straitlaced as some of our American friends. At Magdalen there was the brilliant historian AJP Taylor, who gave – invariably without notes, and always finishing with a flourish on the stroke of 50 minutes – some of the most superbly engaging lectures I have ever heard, but who tends to be remembered at least as much these days for his wife’s allegedly more intimate engagement with Dylan Thomas at their summerhouse in the college grounds.

There was the novelist and philosopher Iris Murdoch and her husband the English literature don, John Bayley, of whom it was famously said by a colleague, ‘Well I have slept with both of them, and in my opinion they deserve each other’. And there was the Warden of Wadham College, Maurice Bowra, famous for many things but most of all, as you will probably know, for his response, when bathing nude as he often did with like-minded colleagues at Parson’s Pleasure, on a stretch of the Cherwell just upstream from Magdalen, and a punt went by, as it occasionally did, containing young women. Instead of covering his dangly bits with a towel, as the others did, Bowra would wrap it around his head, saying ‘I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford I, at least, am known by my face’.

Oxford leaves an indelible mark on just about all of us who have ever studied there, although Bob Hawke may be an exception. Bob certainly left his mark on Oxford during his time at Univ, most famously for skolling a yard of ale, 2 ½ pints or 1.4 litres, in 11 seconds, then and maybe still now a world record. But it’s not at all clear that Bob received much intellectual or cultural nourishment in return. Of course hugely intelligent, but profoundly uninterested in art, music, literature, philosophy or anything else remotely highbrow, in all the time I knew and worked with him the only book I’ve ever known him to read for pleasure was a biography of the first British Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole, with anecdotes from which he would for months on end punish his Cabinet colleagues. Bob’s aversion to books did not of course extend to those which devoted significant chunks of text to his own multiple life achievements. Most of us in public life are not immune to the temptation to open from the back-first new books in which we may feature, but I think it’s only our longest serving Labor Prime Minister who has been honoured with an index entry like that which appeared in David Marr’s 1980 biography of Garfield Barwick: ‘Hawke, R.J., no mention of’…

By contrast, another Australian Prime Minister on whom I’m sure Oxford did leave a very big mark was Malcolm Fraser. Before his late-in-life road-runner like sprint to the ideological left, I and others in the Labor movement had plenty of differences with him. But never on matters of race. Malcolm displayed throughout his public life not a racially insensitive fibre in his body. He hated the apartheid regime in South Africa, hated the White Australia Policy, and was genuinely sympathetic to Indigenous Australians and the plight of refugees. On all these issues, he acted with passion and courage to hold the line on positions for which there was, at the time, not remotely a majority constituency in his own party, or the public at large. How could racial difference matter so little to a man of Malcolm’s background and conservative instincts, when for most of his colleagues it then meant so much?

I believe the answer to this minor psychological mystery lies in his Oxford experience, as an undergraduate at Magdalen in the early 1950s. As told to me by the history tutor Kenneth Tite, who taught us both, when Malcolm had arrived at Magdalen, directly from secondary school. he was shy, awkward and very lonely – no revelations there – until he was warmly befriended by a young man on the staircase opposite him, who just happened to be from India. This is not a story told in any of the Fraser biographies, but I think it’s entirely plausible.

As to Oxford’s impact on me, there’s no single epiphany I can recount, but a mass of lasting influences. The sheer quality of the intellectual environment, matching the endless delight of the physical environment. The lucidity and elegance of the cut and thrust public debate going on all around. The encouragement of free thinking – which Nick Bryant speculates, in his long piece on ‘The Ox Factor’ in today’s Age Good Weekend, ‘may have helped nurture the maverick streak of politicians like Malcolm Turnbull and Gareth Evans’, and there may be some truth in that.

There was also the intensity of the friendships formed with international students from Asia and Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe and North America. The exposure to international issues and better understanding of their dynamics that came both with formal study and those friendships. All of that, along with the many months spent travelling to and from Oxford across half the world, was deeply formative of the course of my future career.

My delight in the glory of Oxford, which I still sense – I guess like all of you – every time I revisit, made at the time the thought of leaving it almost unbearable. My only regret, in retrospect, is that I expressed that sentiment in what is probably the single most embarrassing television interview I have ever done, a Four Corners program on Australians in Britain, which still exposes me to ribaldry when it periodically surfaces on YouTube. Sitting on a bench in Christ Church Meadow, and asked how I felt about returning home, I am heard to declaim in an excruciatingly protracted drawl: ‘My reaction to the whole business about going back…is rather like Augustine’s: “God give me chastity and continence, but not yet!” ’

The ribaldry this generates is not only a function of the pomposity of the sentiments I offer, but also, of course, the most alarming recently-acquired Oxbridge accent with which I utter them. That extreme poshness didn’t long survive my return home, but there doesn’t seem much doubt that a bare trace survives, since I have constantly been told in my travels that I don’t sound as ‘Australian’ as people expect. I don’t think I’ve ever sounded super-ocker, with all the flat tones that are supposed to go with that, but if I’m forced to describe the single most lasting impact Oxford made upon me, I’d probably have to say these were the years my vowels gained altitude.

Thank you for the opportunity to relive some of my experiences with you. Oxford is, and will forever remain, a very special place for all of us.