In the autumn of 1970 I took the Oxford entrance exams and was called for interview. I set out for the interview wearing a dress I had made myself out of dark blue paisley patterned jersey, with a white collar that looked suitably demure. New black patent shoes and bag completed the outfit, and I even had money for a taxi from Oxford station up to the college. The first interview with the German tutor, Miss J., was a cosy affair, by the fireside of her sitting room study in 78 Woodstock Road. Despite the gemütlich atmosphere Miss J. painstakingly went through all the mistakes I had made in the German prose paper, and laughed gleefully at my attempt at rendering ‘a damaged bus’ in German – in my account the bus had been morally corrupted rather than damaged – but at least I had got the adjective ending right. Perhaps that spark of grammatical panache was enough to inspire Miss J.’s parting shot – ‘Well you have learnt quite a lot of German…. considering’.
The French interview, in an austere room in the recently constructed verging on brutalist ‘New Building’, was altogether more terrifying, and I got into a terrible muddle about what Flaubert meant when he said ‘Madame Bovary c’est moi’. At the end of the interview I was so flustered I left my bag in the interview room and had to go back in to retrieve it, thinking I must surely have blown my chances by being so forgetful and annoying. And I’d had no good answer when they asked me whether anyone in my family had been to Oxford or Cambridge. Just ‘er no’ and a look of complete amazement as I tried to imagine my lineage of painters and decorators and shop-workers at Oxford.
In the evening things looked up. The students who had been shepherding us round all day took us down to one of the men’s colleges – Brasenose – for coffee. The sight of the Radcliffe Camera and spires of All Souls in the moonlight was enough to convince me that I was actually in fairyland, an impression that the posh voices talking about ‘tutes’ and essay crises over the nescafé did nothing to dispel.
Back home I waited for the results as the school Christmas disco approached. I had been far too busy with the exams to think about the disco – who I would dance with or what I would wear. The second of these problems seemed easier to solve than the first, so after weeks of explications de textes, tricky translations and essays on topics such as ‘Are human beings better in society than alone?’ I hit the shops.
I tried on a lot of things and was beginning to despair when a flash of gold buttons caught my eye. The dress was orangey red, with long sleeves and a slight flare to the very short skirt. The gold buttons studded the neckline and yoke. Perfect fit, good colour and not very expensive.
A few days after buying the red dress I was still waiting at home anxiously to hear about Oxford. Time passed, and success seemed ever less likely. The predictions of a not very kind Uncle – ‘she got through the exam, but she won’t pass the interview’ – echoed in my head, as if sealing my fate. I sat with my mother by the gas fire, feeling sadder and sadder that I would not be going to that magical place.
A motorbike roared past our window. Unusual in our quiet close. Then a bang on the door. A telegram: ‘Vacancy offered you. Please reply’. A flurry of delighted and joyous phone calls. So the spell Oxford had cast on me on the night of the interview had worked – by some incomprehensible mystery I had been chosen. I was only dimly conscious that my own efforts might have contributed, and secretly feared that once I got there I would be ‘found out’ and sent straight back home. For the moment though I was definitely going to the ball, even if it was just the school disco.
I put on the gold buttons dress and set out with my best friend Janet. We danced awkwardly. Academic girls who did not know how to move. ‘I don’t see the point of this shuffling from one foot to the other’, Janet remarked. One of our teachers looked at her intensely and replied: ‘The point is that it’s a prelude to sexual activity’. Janet and I blushed and became even more awkward. Unabashed, the teacher fixed his gaze on my gold buttons. ‘You look like Princess Irina’. The reference escaped me then as it does now. Something literary and Russian, I guessed.
After some more ‘pointless’ dancing, the music stopped. Mr Crowther grabbed my hand, raised my arm, and announced ‘Let’s give her a round of applause for winning a place at Oxford’. There was clapping and a few cheers. The moment was as shiny and gold as the buttons on my dress, and despite my shyness, I relished it.
Easter holiday in Germany, wearing the gold buttons dress.