Magdalen’s Bad Old Days

RW "Bill" Johnson's memoir of the college is a rattling good read

“At Oxford these days it is all Magdalen,” is the rather unlikely declaration of one of the more unlikely characters in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But there may have been something to this in the early days of Henry VIII’s reign. His longest-running chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, had been a notorious senior bursar, raiding the college treasury to build Magdalen Tower, now the most famous of Oxford’s dreaming spires.

Wolsey’s imaginative approach to college funds is recalled in an hilarious memoir by one of his more recent successors as senior bursar, R.W. “Bill” Johnson, the politics tutor at Magdalen for more than 20 years and a renowned journalist and commentator, particularly on the woes of his native South Africa, where he now resides. A terrible swimming accident in which he fell victim to necrotising fasciitis — flesh-eating bacteria — led to amputation of his left leg above the knee and an agonising recovery in hospital. This allowed him the time to write this extraordinary memoir.

Magdalen is now one of the more successful Oxbridge colleges. A few years back, more than half of its examinees won firsts, and this year it topped the Norrington Table for the highest strike rate of firsts and upper seconds.

I have to confess I went up to Magdalen in the same year as Bill Johnson, 1964. Though I knew him, it was a distant acquaintance. At that time, it was a relaxed community, famed for its friendliness. I received outstanding teaching in the college — all four of my tutors became friends, and one, John Stoye, is still working and writing at 98. They changed my life.

What I didn’t realise was how badly the place was run, and would be for a decade to come. The way Bill Johnson graphically tells it, a major British academic institution was being governed with all the acumen and ethics of the average whelk stall.

All was revealed when a brilliant economics fellow in his forties, Keith Griffin, was elected President of Magdalen in 1979, rather against the run of play. A group of younger fellows, the electoral college, realised the place was in a mess. Under the outgoing President, the genial Falstaffian bachelor James Griffiths, who always had a four-course dinner at High Table throughout term, the college was living beyond its means.

Griffin supported Bill Johnson to be the new senior bursar. What happens next, described in a chapter entitled “Cleaning Up” with commendable understatement, beggars belief. The chapter comes towards the end of the book, but is well worth the wait — it knocks spots off any fictitious account of Oxbridge college skullduggery by Tom Sharpe or C.P. Snow.

On the second day of a supposedly three-month handover, Johnson’s predecessor as bursar, Colin Cowe, did a runner and was not seen in the college again. By day three, Johnson found that the man really in charge — what I believe certain sections of Sicilian society call un pezzo di novanta — was the college accountant, Stanley Bond. He and the college surveyor,  Stanley Latham,  ran their domain as a medieval fiefdom. Their own salaries were not declared in the accounts. Unsurprisingly, their self-remunerations were later revealed to be among the highest in Oxford.

Under their reign, soft loans and perks were dished out to dons and pals, rents of college properties went unreviewed — in one case an international gangster, an untouchable to any real-life Inspector Morse, Lewis or Hathaway — occupied a large house at almost nil rent. College builders and maintenance staff moonlit at the college’s expense. Van loads of provender went into the kitchens only to go out of the next door, to be sold on at a profit.

Meanwhile the place was falling down. Restoration of Wolsey’s status symbol, Magdalen Tower, stalled, as appeal funds dried up. No architect was appointed and supervision was lax. At one point skeletons were unearthed close to the foundations. They were believed to have been plague victims from the late 15th or early 16th century. The surveyor and accountant were having no truck with such inconveniences and ordered the bones to be shoved into the builders’ skip. This was happening while some of the finest medieval historians Britain could offer were teaching in the college.

At the end of the first year in office for  Johnson and Griffin, the accounts showed the college had to draw down £750,000 from its capital funds in order to make up the shortfalls in the current account expenditure, with all its deficits and shortfalls, soft loans and privileges to the dons, Spanish customs of the building staff, and excessive indulgence in college feasts and fancy dinners.

One of the worst aspects was the mismanagement of the grounds, including the deer park and gardens. Gates to St Catherine’s College had been allowed to remain open, so the gardens became a playground for plant raiders, motorbike scramblers and unleashed dogs who proceeded to attack and kill the deer. Three rapes were reported in college grounds. A militant Oxford City Council tried to lay claim to run the grounds as a community asset, and part of their expanded programme for tourism.

I am sure that Johnson and Griffin did manage to turn things round dramatically, and that they confronted the biggest crisis in the college’s recent history, and faced it down. But I think there are more characters in the story than this author allows, or mentions. Wealth has been restored to Magdalen by Griffin’s successor, Tony Smith, a former BBC editor. He managed to raise a staggering £144 million in donations and has hugely widened its international appeal.

Besides, Magdalen always had its rackety side. My old tutor, K.B. McFarlane, nonpareil of late medieval historians, always said there was “something a bit bogus” about the deeds of foundation of the college by Bishop William Waynflete in 1458. This was the time of civil war, raging litigation by Waynflete’s peers and neighbours, including the Pastons and Sir John Fastolf, whose muniments MacFarlane acquired for the college and are now among its greatest treasures. Moreover, McFarlane once told me, “My investigations suggest that for years the college retained [i.e. bribed] a dozen justices and more than 20 potential jurors,” in what must be one of the most longlasting acts of legal embracery (bribery of office holders) in English history.

The most celebrated excoriation of Magdalen by a former alumnus, of course, comes from Edward Gibbon. Of the Fellows of Magdalen in the mid-18th century, he wrote: “From the toil of reading, or thinking, or writing, they had absolved their conscience; and the first shoots of learning and ingenuity withered on the ground, without yielding any fruits to the owners or the public.” Magdalen then stagnated under the 63-year presidency of Martin Routh, who died in 1854, still insisting on wearing a wig and knee-breeches in the 18th-century fashion.

The college hadn’t reached the depths of Gibbon’s depiction in the latter part of the last century, and good academic work and teaching were being done, but its finances were being driven into the ground. Unchecked, it could have stared bankruptcy in the face, as Pembroke College did a few years ago.

The efforts of Johnson and Griffin were heroic, but not without controversy. Johnson always was a bit of an intellectual bruiser — an “ego on stilts” according to one of those mentioned as a friend in this book. He likes a fight, whether rescuing the Rhodes Foundation at Oxford, criticising corruption in South Africa, or investigating duplicity in high places in the downing of the Korean Airlines Flight 007. He doesn’t like argument or contradiction overmuch. Some of the pen portraits in this book seem distorted, and his blunt dismissal of the personal tutorial system, no doubt the result of many a dull hour with a dull pupil, seems wide of the mark. He himself acknowledges his debt to his personal engagements with Philip Windsor and Thomas Hodgkin.

His book — which is a rattling good read, I must confess — raises two important questions, one macro and the other micro. First, how is it that a collection of some of the best minds in Oxford, as the Magdalen fellows persist in believing themselves to be, made such a mess of running their own gaff — and allowed it to become a hotbed of minor, and not-so-minor, racketeering?

The micro question is for alumni like Dr R.W. Johnson himself, the editor of Standpoint, and myself, not to speak of  numerous Cabinet members past and present. We are continuously importuned,  begged, blagged and berated to contribute funds to Magdalen appeals on an annual basis. I advise all fellow Magdalenses to hold on to their chequebooks and ask where the funds will go, before ponying up. As Thomas Cromwell said, again according to the gospel of Wolf Hall, on appointment as Secretary to the Council and chief consigliere to Henry VIII: “Sire, I would like to see the accounts.”

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