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My puritanical perspective is challenged at Cambridge
Frederic Raphael Writer
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I went up to Cambridge and my mother gave me half a bottle of whisky, as a sort of gesture of maturity. And in the train I... there was an American guy in the same compartment, and I thought, poor guy he's all... coming up to Cambridge all by himself, and I was very friendly and said, you know you should come and see me in St John's. And his name was George Plimpton, he told me. And actually he had already spent three or four years at Harvard, I think. Anyway I didn't, know that, he was just a young guy and I was being a nice, friendly pseudo-American. Anyway, so I went up, I bought myself a gown. I remember thinking it was a shame that I went to Cambridge because in Oxford you have a long gown if you're a Scholar. At Cambridge there's no distinction between, between Scholars and hoi polloi. It should be tous pollous, but never mind that.

I went into college, I had very nice rooms at the top of Third Court, a garret all to myself because I was a Scholar. And I waited for things to happen. Now my father had said, when I went up to Cambridge, that I should be very careful, again a very kind of English-Jewish careful... note. Wait for them to come to you. Don't push yourself on them. There was never any advice better intentioned or more totally laming or misconceived that I've ever received. Because of course, I went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1950, and it was not a time when being modest was particularly in fashion. But I didn't know that.

So I waited for people to come and find out how brilliant I was, but of course they knew how brilliant they were and they didn't really need to find out how brilliant I was. So I... I did my Latin and my Greek, but I was very disappointed quite candidly, and for good reason, to find that is was actually very like what I'd done at school. I was doing more Latin proses and more Latin verses and more Greek proses and more Greek verses supposedly to a higher standard, but I didn't know how to do it to a particular higher standard. I went to see my tutor and I was on the – Mr Howland – and I was on the staircase waiting to go in, and I sat next to a small person who spoke in a voice which I found it very difficult to understand because it was in a Liverpudlian accent. He had a really strong Liverpudlian accent, and I'd never heard anybody talk like that. He was a Scholar as well as, you know, he was a Classicist and all the rest of it. I... eventually I got in to see... oh, he was also it turned out a Major scholar by the way, but not of my year, the one before, because he'd been in the army first. I got in to see Howland, and Howland said to me in the way that more like a house master really than like an intellectual prompter. 'Of course we expect you to do very well here, but', he said, 'you'll remember to have a good time, won't you?' Which I thought was rather decent. And I was also, because I was a bit puritanical about other peoples' behaviour and also about my own, I was slightly shocked that he didn't suggest that I should read 30 books before breakfast. Anyway that was okay.

Sullivan then became a friend of mine and so did my neighbour at the top of Third Court, whose name was Tony Becher, who was a Minor scholar. And the other person at the top of Third Court... of my staircase, there were three sets at the top, was a man called David Wilson, who was a geologist – no, an archaeologist.  But he wasn't a scholar and he didn't drink because he was a Methodist and we didn't really have a lot to do with him. He ended up by being Sir David Wilson, the director of the British Museum, but at the time we thought he was rather discountable – very nice chap actually, full of humour. We correspond from time to time, very nice man.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Cambridge University, George Plimpton, David Wilson, Tony Becher

Duration: 4 minutes, 3 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 13 August 2014