I found the skirt in a second-hand shop in Jericho. It was Laura Ashley, all the rage at the time – pale blue with a white sprig. I wore it with a short-sleeved white blouse I had bought to wear for my finals. ‘Sub-fusc’ – black skirt, white blouse and gown – was, and still is, de rigueur for exams at Oxford. Theoretically you had to wear a hat too, but mostly we just used those as pencil-cases, clutching them nervously as we stood in the entrance hall of the Examination Schools waiting for the bell to ring. Was it Oxford tradition or just plain sadism that started the exam before we were even at our desks? When the bell rang we had to dash up the stairs and run around desperately looking for the desk labelled with our name. Then it was heads down for three hours of furious scribbling for some, and staring into space wondering what to write for others….
When I put on my pale blue skirt I was trying hard to forget about these terrors and my daily struggle to scrape together enough knowledge of French and German literature to get through ten three hour papers. Then, as now, I found it hard to spend a sunny day indoors, poring over the books. So I would wander in the University Parks, enjoying the scent of the spring blossom, and the sensation of the skirt swishing as I walked through the grass. On the first day of Trinity term 1975, my finals term, I dumped my bags in my room, changed into my blue skirt and went on a bike ride in Wytham Woods with my ex-boyfriend, Tony from TOC-H days, and a friend of his, Richard. Tony and Richard had met at the Maison Française, round the corner from St Hugh’s, where they both had rooms for the year. Richard was half French, definitely a point in his favour as far as I was concerned, and a Grammar School boy, so a lot less intimidating than the Public School crowd. They regaled me with stories of the tricks they had played on the Directeur of the Maison, who imposed a strict regime of formal conversation at mealtimes, and ate all fruit, including bananas, with a knife and fork. Our picnic in Wytham Woods was a more relaxed affair. We sat on logs in a clearing and ate slices of the coffee and walnut cake my mother had made to help me face the rigours of my final term. The food at the Maison was rather disappointing, and certainly not worth the stress of the accompanying conversation, so the cake was a huge success.
On another occasion I called in on Tony, and ended up spending the afternoon talking to Richard while Tony mended his bike. Then a plan was hatched to steal a punt for the revelries of May 1st. Punting on that day was strictly forbidden because of the potentially lethal combination of drunken students and the river, so it was necessary to hide the punt somewhere up-river over night. Tony and Richard managed this feat, and at 5.30 a.m. I ran across the Parks in my long skirt and met them as they punted down the river towards Magdalen. We managed to time it so that we were underneath the Tower at exactly the moment when the choristers broke into song, and we were, of course, the only boat on the river. I have no idea how we escaped being noticed and punished for this misdemeanour, but there were no consequences. We parked the punt and went off to the indoor market to eat a large fried breakfast. Tony had to go off to lectures, but Richard and I cycled to Wolvercote, and sat watching the river and discussing the meaning of life and French literature at ‘The Trout’. We even splashed out on a lemonade before cycling back to our respective colleges and revision. This was clearly the start of something.
I got through finals, thanks, perhaps in equal measure, to my blossoming romance with Richard, and the special ‘Schools’ lunches provided by the college. After the morning exam we would cycle back to St Hugh’s for a light salad lunch, followed by strawberries and cream and fresh coffee. I am not sure whether it was the food or the feeling of being made a fuss of, but we left for the afternoon session refreshed and revived by this ritual.
After finals my family came to visit me. I wore the skirt again, and dragged them round colleges for a whole morning. They soon wearied of the beauties of mediaeval architecture – ‘Once yow’ve seen one yow’ve seen ’em all’. We went to the Buttery back at St Hugh’s for a lunch of Welsh Rarebit and chips. The black country voices suddenly seemed very loud, and I felt conspicuous, as if everyone in the college could see that I really did not belong there, despite my floral skirt and almost perfect RP vowels. I did not understand then that the shame I felt was about social class. Nor did I realise that many years later, even when I had understood this, I would still feel the shame of having felt ashamed. And that I would regret the loss of those voices, and the stories of working life they told, that then seemed so much less important to me than Stendhal or Proust, and that now I would etch in gold.
I wanted to forge your voice
in my mouth, a blacksmith’s furnace;
shout it from the roofs,
send your words, like pigeons,
fluttering for home.
Liz Berry, ‘Homing’, in Black Country, 2014.