Friday 6th February 2009
It was a day that will live in infamy. No, I'm not talking about the bombing of Pearl Harbour, but about an act of destruction far, far worse. At least, that was the view taken by Christ Church College, Oxford. The College authorities had made the mistake of allowing the Bullingdon Club to hold a dinner in one of its 16th Century halls and, as midnight approached, the Club's members began to spill out into Peckwater Quad. By now they were drunk, yet to any onlooker they were still recognisable as the richest, most well-bred members of the University.
They began to turn their heads from side to side, like a Viking horde looking for something to pillage, and emitted a growling noise that began to build in intensity until it was a deafening roar. Before long, a senior member took the initiative and broke one of the ornate, Victorian lamps that hung from every doorway. This was the signal that the massed ranks of the Buller had been waiting for. Within minutes, every light in Peckwater quad had been smashed, along with every door and all 468 windows. The New York Times called it an "orgy of destruction".
The date was May 11, 1894.
The Bullingdon, which boasts George Osborne, David Cameron and Boris Johnson among its alumni, is the most notorious of Oxford's aristocratic clubs and societies, a list that includes the Dangerous Sports Club, the Assassins, the Piers Gaveston Society, the George Club and Vile Bodies. These are the venerable, all-male institutions where Oxford's social elite are initiated into Britain's ruling class, receiving instruction on such arcane rituals as how to "bumper" a yard of port, slice the cork off a champagne bottle with a sword and engage in a range of sexual practices that would make Belle de Jour blush.
"I remember overhearing the conversation of two male members in bed," says a former officer of the Gaveston, now a successful merchant banker. "One of them said, 'The KY is behind the Agatha Christie.'"
All of these institutions can boast of famous social occasions -- the George, for instance, persuaded Andy Warhol to attend a party thrown in his honour in 1981 -- but "the Buller" stands out for two reasons.
First, it has been terrorising the residents of Oxford for longer than anyone else, having been founded in 1780 as a cricket and hunting club. Not only has it's appetite for destruction been immortalized in fiction by Evelyn Waugh -- he renamed it "the Bollinger Club" -- but its members have been extremely conscientious about keeping up its reputation for wanton acts of mindless vandalism. The Club was banned from meeting within 15 miles of Oxford after the events of 1894 and it has fallen foul of the University proctors several times since, most notably after similar "orgies of destruction" in 1927 and 1956. Tom Driberg, the late Labour MP, claimed that Waugh's description of the Club was, if anything, a bit of a whitewash. "Such a profusion of glass I never saw until the height of the Blitz," he said of the Club dinners he witnessed as a student. "On such nights, any undergraduate who was believed to have 'artistic' talents was an automatic target."
Second -- and more importantly -- the Bullingdon can boast a more distinguished roster of ex-members than any comparable club. In addition to two kings of England -- Edward VII and Edward VIII -- its alumni include Frederick IX of Denmark, Alan Clark, George Curzon, David Dimbleby, Frank Pakenham, John Profumo and Cecil Rhodes. However, it is the Club's more recent crop of ex-members that has confirmed its status as Britain's most famous dining society. When I was at Oxford, a prominent undergraduate who entertained hopes of going into Parliament refused to become a member on the grounds that it might blight his future political career. Little did he know that in 2009 the Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Leader of the Opposition and the Mayor of London would all be ex-Buller.
"A lot of people feel its frightfully embarrassing," says one former member, referring to the famous group photograph in which David Cameron and Boris Johnson are clearly visible. "But the more I look at it, the more I start to think it's charming and quaint. We look like schoolchildren. It's like a sort of page out of a high-school yearbook."
That photograph, which first surfaced in 2007, is a source of considerable embarrassment to the leader of the Conservative Party, not least because he and his chums look so ridiculously posh. Indeed, it's almost like a publicity still from a corny Hollywood film in which Oxford is depicted as a bastion of Upper Class privilege. This is not the hug-a-hoodie "Dave" we've come to know, thanks to the efforts of the Central Office spin machine. Rather, it is David William Donald Cameron, the grandson of a Baronet and son-in-law of a Viscount. It must have come as a relief to him when an anonymous benefactor purchased the rights from Gillman & Soame, the Oxford photographers who took the picture, and threatened to sue any newspaper or magazine that published it.
It is no coincidence that these members of the Bullingdon, posing together in 1987, look as though they're actors recreating a scene from Britain's imperial past. While the Buller had already celebrated its 200th anniversary at that point, the vast majority of Oxford's "ancient" societies were started in the 1970s by undergraduates trying to emulate a bygone age.
"It was definitely a noticeable thing in the Seventies that all these clubs started appearing," says Valentine Guinness, one of the founders of the Piers Gaveston Society. "It was a conscious effort to say, look, you know, the country may be in a mess but we're still going to have a good time."
The Gaveston prided itself on being a clandestine organisation, with guests at its famous parties only being told of the venue at the last minute. Its officers were given obscure titles, such as "Poker", "Dispenser" and "Catamite", and it had a pompous-sounding Latin motto: "Fane non memini ne audisse unum alterum ita dilixisse," which roughly translates as "Truly, none remember hearing of a man enjoying another so much". But the Gaveston's best-kept secret was that it was founded in 1977.
To begin with, these clubs and societies flew below the radar, with their members not wishing to draw attention to themselves, but after Margaret Thatcher's victory at the 1979 General Election they began to emerge from the shadows. When the Bourbons were restored to the French throne in 1814, Talleyrand remarked that they had "learned nothing and forgotten nothing". The opposite was true of the latest generation of Oxford students, which included Hugh Grant, Matthew Freud and Nigella Lawson. They treated Thatcher's triumph as an excuse to re-invent themselves. The modern, egalitarian Britain which successive post-war governments had laboured to create was self-consciously rejected in favour of a narcissistic fantasy based on the novels of P.G. Wodehouse and Evelyn Waugh.
In 1981, an unknown photographer called Dafydd Jones decided to enter a Sunday Times photo competition by documenting the excesses of these undergraduates. The resulting cover story was headlined 'The Return of the Bright Young Things' and featured the Hon Pandora Mond exposing her nipple, Katie Hickman removing a young man's trousers and -- most notoriously -- Nigella Lawson playing croquet through the window of a sedan chair.
"I took that photo of Nigella at a tea party thrown by the Dangerous Sports Club," says the now famous society photographer. "They weren't at all concerned about publicity. When I arrived there was already a television crew there."
The publication of these photographs -- and the attention they received in the rest of the media -- helped redefine Oxford as a playground for the sons and daughters of Britain's privileged elite. That was far from true, with the so-called "Bright Young Things" making up only a tiny fraction of the student body, but the transmission of Brideshead Revisited in the autumn of 1981 did nothing to dispel this myth. For a decade at least, each new batch of undergraduates felt obliged to live up to this image -- and that self-consciousness is detectable in the famous Bullingdon photograph. Undergraduates like Boris Johnson weren't simply doing what their fathers had done and their fathers before them. Rather, they were parading about in the costumes of the Upper Classes, playing at being toffs, in much the same way that a child might fish an outfit out of a dressing up box. Boris may have been an Old Etonian, but his grandfather was a Turk and, like many of the undergraduates recruited by the Buller, he was essentially middle class.
To a great extent, clubs like the Bullingdon existed to facilitate this playacting. When I was an undergraduate from 1983 to 1986, it was as though Oxford was a stage and people like Ralph Perry Robinson, Charles Spencer and Gottfried von Bismarck -- all members of the Buller -- were the players we'd all come to watch. The "Bright Young Things" were arrogant alright, but their arrogance didn't take the form of being indifferent to the opinions of society at large. On the contrary, their arrogance consisted in thinking that the eyes of the world were upon them -- and nearly all their behaviour was designed to shock these imaginary onlookers. At a Piers Gaveston "debauch" I attended, I saw one of the officers march up to an attractive young girl and grab her breasts. Immediately afterwards, he looked over his shoulder, anxious to see who had noticed this "outrageous" behaviour.
Of course, knowing there was something inauthentic about these organisations didn't stop us wanting to join them. James Delingpole, a contemporary of mine, longed to be tapped up by the Buller -- and this in spite of the fact that he'd only been to a minor public school. New members were decided on by a secret ballot of the existing members and if a candidate passed muster he received a nocturnal visit from the Club. According to legend, they entered through your bedroom window and then set about smashing up your room.
"I used to lie awake at night, yearning for that moment when I heard a commotion outside my window," he says. "Then, one night, it happened. All these incredibly glamorous undergraduates appeared in my dingy little flat, dressed in the full regalia, and started breaking things. I thought, 'Hallelujah, it's finally happening.' In fact, they'd come to recruit Ewen Fergusson, my flatmate."
If Delingpole had been granted his wish he might have had trouble meeting his financial obligations. Members are expected to spend £3,000 having their blue tailcoats, mustard waistcoats, spongebag trousers and silk bowties custom made at Ede & Ravenscroft, a tailor on Oxford High Street. After that, they have to pay their share of the annual Bullingdon point-to-point, an event that is always preceded by a lavish, champagne breakfast. However, the main expense is probably the money they have to fork over to placate irate restaurant-owners after a typical beano.
The idea behind this practice is to stop the proprietors calling the police -- and it usually works. For instance, the Club organized a notoriously raucous dinner at an Oxford gastro pub called the White Hart in 2005. "All the food and plates had been thrown everywhere and they were jumping on top of each other on the table like kids in a playground," says the pub's landlord Ian Rogers. "But they apologised profusely afterwards."
Not every meeting of the Bullingdon ends so amicably. In 1987, shortly after the current generation of members had posed for that famous photograph, they were running amok through the streets of Oxford. At one point, Ewen Fergusson hurled a plant pot through the plate glass window of a restaurant, triggering the burglar alarm. The police arrived, complete with sniffer dogs, and six of the 10-strong group were arrested.
"The party ended up with a number of us crawling on all fours through the hedges of the botanical gardens, and trying to escape police dogs," says Boris Johnson, who was among the party that night. "And once we were in the cells we became pathetic namby-pambies."
This contrast between the dash that these members of the Buller cut when dressed in all their finery, and the wet public schoolboys that lurked underneath, may have been intended as a self-deprecating joke, but it contains more than a grain of truth. In a sense, the theatrical element of Oxford's clubs and societies, the fact that almost all their members are pretending to be more louche and aristocratic than they are, is precisely what makes them such ideal training grounds for British public life.
The lesson that each generation of "Bright Young Things" is tuaght at Oxford, thanks to their membership of these secret organizations, is that you don't have to be to the manner born in order to become a member of Britain's ruling class -- or even particularly clever. You don't need charisma or sexual confidence or a sense of entitlement. All you need is the wherewithal to pretend to be someone who has these qualities. Provided you can do a reasonable impression of a person with the right stuff -- and provided you never let the mask slip -- that's enough to propel you to the top.
And the discovery all these young pretenders eventually make when they take their seats at the Cabinet table, or become QCs, or pocket £100 million on a complicated land deal, is that the people at the very pinnacle of British society -- the people pulling the levers of power -- are exactly like them. There's no such thing as the real McCoy, just a bunch of schoolboys parading around in the contents of the dressing up box. That's the dirty little secret at the heart of British public life -- and for the lucky few who are tapped up to become members of the Piers Gaveston or the Assassins or the Bullingdon it's a secret they will probably discover much sooner than the rest of us.
© 2004 - 2013 Toby Young