A university reunion offers a useful reminder that the Sixties might not be quite as we remember them
In July, my Cambridge college, Fitzwilliam, hosted a Golden Matriculation weekend for those of us who went up 50 years ago, in 1967. The sun shone, as it always does in one’s memory of student days; we sipped tea on the lawn with the Master (Dr Nicola Padfield is the first woman to hold the title) and tried to catch up with what we’d done over the past half-century.
Not all the absurdly young faces of our matriculation photograph had made it. The most famous member of our year was probably the first to die: Nick Drake, the singer/songwriter who is a cult figure for today’s young and the subject of several reverential biographies, ghosted around the college for a couple of years before leaving prematurely to pursue his musical career: he died of an overdose in 1974, aged 26. A personal friend at college and later, Nick Clarke, who anchored The World At One on Radio 4, died of cancer in 2006, aged 58. Those of us who survived for the reunion had nothing to complain about.
Inevitably, the occasion sparked many memories of my undergraduate days. One was of another July weekend, in 1969, when a few of us were doing a Long Vac Term, a month-long study period during the Long Vacation to help laggards like me up catch up with their studies. One weekend, there was a meeting of the governing council, or some such, attended by the rising young Conservative politician Norman St John Stevas MP, who had been at Fitzwilliam House, the college’s former incarnation, in the late 1940s.
Imagining he might be at a loose end, I invited him to join some of us for coffee in one of our cramped rooms to talk about politics. He seemed delighted to accept, and a lively conversation ensued. What I liked about him was that he wasn’t just an entertaining speaker, as those who remember his many television appearances in the Sixties can attest: he was also interested in our thoughts about politics, which tended to be of the left-wing variety in those days. But one subject failed to catch on. “What do you think about the European Community?” he asked us (Britain was to apply for membership when Edward Heath unexpectedly gained power the following year). There was a long and embarrassing silence. None of us had any views on the subject at all.
If you asked that question of a group of students today, they’d still be arguing about it a week later, if not coming to blows. It’s a useful antidote to the widely-held belief that Sixties students were more politically involved than anyone before or since.