Meritocrats

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Burt Glinn/Magnum Photos
High table in the dining hall at Trinity College, Cambridge, 1958

I came up to King’s College, Cambridge, in 1966. Ours was a—perhaps the—transitional generation. We were past the midpoint of the 1960s—the Mods had come and gone and the Beatles were about to record Sgt. Pepper—but the King’s into which I was matriculated was still strikingly traditional. Dinner in Hall was formal, begowned—and required. Undergraduates took their seats, awaited the arrival of the Fellows, then rose to watch a long line of elderly gentlemen shuffle past them on their way to High Table.

“Elderly” here is no relative term. Led by (former provost) Sir John Shepherd (born 1881), the Emeritus Fellows typically included Sir Frank Adcock (born 1886), E.M. Forster (born 1879), and others equally venerable. One was made immediately aware of the link between a generation of young men born into the postwar welfare state and the world of late-Victorian King’s: the age of Forster, Rupert Brooke, and John Maynard Keynes, exuding a cultural and social self-confidence to which we could never aspire. The old men seemed to blend seamlessly into the fading portraits on the walls above: without anyone making a point of it, continuity was all about us.

And yet, we were a path-breaking cohort. By the time we graduated, gowns, caps, gate hours, and a whole rulebook of minor regulations—all of them in place when we arrived—were the object of amused nostalgia. In my first term, an enthusiastic if mediocre rugby player, I took the team bus to Oxford to play (and lose to) New College. We got back late, courtesy of a half-successful attempt to dismantle one of our host’s urinals, and some late autumn fog. I arrived at the entrance to my hostel: it was locked—and I had no “late pass.” A flurry of stones succeeded in waking up a friend, who came down utterly petrified: “Don’t let the warden hear you!” It goes without saying that this story would be hard to explain to a King’s student today; but it would have been equally implausible to someone who arrived two years after us. The change came suddenly.

King’s prided itself on the enthusiasm with which it embraced change and radical disruption. The senior tutor of the day would explain to freshmen that locked gates and disciplinary regulations should be regarded with a wink and a nod. This seemed a little rough on the porters and hostel wardens who were responsible for enforcing them—an early introduction to the subtlety of social rank at Cambridge: middle-class bohemians themselves in outlook if not lifestyle, most college officers smiled benignly upon breaches of the rules they were expected to uphold.

The college was also responsible for the appalling new student bar installed shortly after we arrived. Abreast of contemporary style in all things, the Fellows approved a design that resembled nothing so…


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