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High table hi-jinks: “View of the Dining Hall in Magdalen College”, 1856, by Joseph Nash

“At Oxford these days it is all Magdalen,” is the rather unlikely declaration of one of the more unlikely characters in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But there may have been something to this in the early days of Henry VIII’s reign. His longest-running chief minister, Thomas Wolsey, had been a notorious senior bursar, raiding the college treasury to build Magdalen Tower, now the most famous of Oxford’s dreaming spires.

Wolsey’s imaginative approach to college funds is recalled in an hilarious memoir by one of his more recent successors as senior bursar, R.W. “Bill” Johnson, the politics tutor at Magdalen for more than 20 years and a renowned journalist and commentator, particularly on the woes of his native South Africa, where he now resides. A terrible swimming accident in which he fell victim to necrotising fasciitis — flesh-eating bacteria — led to amputation of his left leg above the knee and an agonising recovery in hospital. This allowed him the time to write this extraordinary memoir.

Magdalen is now one of the more successful Oxbridge colleges. A few years back, more than half of its examinees won firsts, and this year it topped the Norrington Table for the highest strike rate of firsts and upper seconds.

I have to confess I went up to Magdalen in the same year as Bill Johnson, 1964. Though I knew him, it was a distant acquaintance. At that time, it was a relaxed community, famed for its friendliness. I received outstanding teaching in the college — all four of my tutors became friends, and one, John Stoye, is still working and writing at 98. They changed my life.

What I didn’t realise was how badly the place was run, and would be for a decade to come. The way Bill Johnson graphically tells it, a major British academic institution was being governed with all the acumen and ethics of the average whelk stall.

All was revealed when a brilliant economics fellow in his forties, Keith Griffin, was elected President of Magdalen in 1979, rather against the run of play. A group of younger fellows, the electoral college, realised the place was in a mess. Under the outgoing President, the genial Falstaffian bachelor James Griffiths, who always had a four-course dinner at High Table throughout term, the college was living beyond its means.

Griffin supported Bill Johnson to be the new senior bursar. What happens next, described in a chapter entitled “Cleaning Up” with commendable understatement, beggars belief. The chapter comes towards the end of the book, but is well worth the wait — it knocks spots off any fictitious account of Oxbridge college skullduggery by Tom Sharpe or C.P. Snow.

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