Oxford Undergraduate 1960-3

After the elegance and sophistication of the Dragon years, I went in 1955 for five years to the tough northern boarding school of Sedbergh in Yorkshire. This was enormously valuable in shaping and toughening me, and it made it all the more wonderful to return to Oxford as an undergraduate in October 1960, aged nearly nineteen, to read history.

This was a period of the rapid continuation of the huge cultural and social changes of the later 1950's, moving from Elvis to the early Beatles. In music, art, literature, there was huge experimentation and the influence of continental and American culture on Britain grew. In politics, the Cold War intensified reaching a peak in the Cuban Missile Crisis which took place over my last winter as an undergraduate. My parents experienced the side-shocks of this confrontation when they had to flee from Assam as a result of the brief Indo-Chinese war at the same period. Technology continued to speed up and affluence continued to grow so that it felt an exhilarating time to be going to study at University.

I went to Worcester College, Oxford, a small and beautiful College which became my home for three years. Here I learnt that Oxford's goal was to sharpen and broaden my education through the unique system of one to one (or two) tutorials. My friends were still mainly public school and grammar school boys in this single sex College. Again being in a fairly peripheral College, with dedicated teachers of the older kind, I was able to experience a type of education which had lasted for a century but would soon be put under strain as new universities and new models of academic life flooded in.

I went to Oxford as a late adolescent and changed greatly under its charms. I had my first two serious love affairs. My relationship to my family became more equal, particularly a growing intellectual bond with my mother in Assam. My loss of religious faith occurred at the end of this period but I clung on to my desire for integration and enchantment in my reading and poetry.

My growth in intellectual confidence and maturity was very considerable. The first year I was roughly at the same level as my sixth form at Sedbergh, then I rose to a higher level of critical reading and writing. I developed the working practices – the time discipline and the filing systems – which I would use throughout the rest of my life. My interests shifted from hobbies towards study and scholarship, but I retained a lively interest in social and economic problems around the world. Above all, I revelled in the freedom, responsibility and the equal friendships with clever students and teachers.

It is not necessary to elaborate further on these three years since I have described them in detail, based on contemporary materials in Oxford Undergraduate.

Oxford postgraduate 1963-1966

After I graduated, I decided to stay on at the University to attempt to do a doctorate (D.Phil) in history. This was also a very formative period, training me to write and in the other tools of scholarship.

This was the period of the later Beatles and Rolling Stones, with the youth revolution building up to the 'Summer of Love' and youth rebellion in 1967. The technologies became ever more powerful, the cars, music, television, jet planes and the start of the computing revolution. The Cold War continued and the Second Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964 inaugurated the start of the Vietnam War which would overshadow our lives for the next ten years and mix with the youth revolution. Meanwhile the glow of the British Empire continued to wane. This affected my parents who found that the Tea Company was in great difficulties and British managers were leaving. My parents left a year early in late 1965, their move also precipitated by my mother’s illness and the outbreak of the Indo-Pakistan war.

Worcester College became less central to my life in Oxford as a postgraduate as I moved out into rented accommodation. My intellectual contacts also widened beyond the College, for graduate training was the responsibility of the University and they appointed a supervisor, Keith Thomas, to oversee my doctorate on the history of English witchcraft in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

I spent the first two years in Oxford or at Record Offices, but the third year I went back to the Lake District house and, for the first time since I was a child of five, spent a whole year with both my parents after their retirement from India in 1965. My institutional contacts were now fellow postgraduates and a number of older academics who advised me on how to do research.

I was an adult by the end of my undergraduate degree, but I was without any formal training in any field. The doctoral three years saw me move from the shelter of the College and become independent, with my motorbike, a succession of girl-friends, travels to Scotland and elsewhere. I gradually moved further from organized religion and became more interested in a wider world, discovering anthropology and the variety of religious and social systems around the globe.

I was still keen to do something worthwhile (e.g. work among the poor in the Third World) with my life, but the excitement of research at a time when new methods and new sources were becoming available began to move me towards an academic career. By the end of the time at Oxford I was engaged to be married (I married in December 1966 on my 25th birthday) and the separation from my family was nearly complete. I was now at the end of the first phase of my education, a process which had taken twenty-five years.

What happened in these three years is dealt with in considerable detail in Oxford Postgraduate.