28 August 2010

A Registrar of Oxford and other deflating gas-bags

This is an account of past events which my colleague Charles McCreery has written, and sent to someone who is planning to write a book about his father (the late General Sir Richard McCreery). My account of the same events has already been blogged.

At some later date I may give an account of how relations with my parents came to break down in 1965, about a year after I took my first degree, and how in my opinion this rupture was deliberately brought about by my mother, by her behaviour over a period of about a year, in order to justify the subsequent disinheriting that was carried out by various members of my family.

Meanwhile I wish to give an account of how my parents were responsible for triggering a slander that I was taking drugs.

Some time between the breakdown in relations between us in 1965, and my father’s death in 1967, they went to visit Oliver Van Oss, then headmaster of Charterhouse school, ostensibly to discuss the breakdown in relations, but in my opinion more likely in the hope that he could put pressure on me to resume relations on their terms. He had been my tutor for modern languages at Eton, but I had only seen him once, briefly, in the five years since I had left Eton. He was therefore not in a position to shed any further light to my parents on why I was currently not willing to see them than I had already done in writing myself.

As a result of the natural evasiveness of people caught propagating criminal slander, it was never definitely established who initially invented the slander that I ‘must be taking drugs’, i.e. whether it was my parents themselves, Van Oss, or one of the academics who passed it on, as described below. My own surmise is that it was most likely Van Oss who thought it up during, or prior to, the interview with my parents. Knowing him as I did I could imagine him producing the hypothesis to make up for his lack of insight into the situation, and, by making me responsible for the breakdown in communication, to let them off the hook. (Clearly no one as statusful as my parents could have been responsible for the breach by virtue of reprehensible behavior on their part, so it must have been me.)

However, even if it was Van Oss or one of the other academics who invented the slander, that does not exonerate my parents as they clearly were quite willing to accept the ‘explanation’ and certainly did nothing to prevent it circulating, as it proceeded to do.

The reason for the slander beginning to circulate round Oxford and elsewhere was that Van Oss was too cowardly to approach me directly. Instead, he approached a friend of his, John Butterworth (later made Lord Butterworth of Warwick), the Vice-Chancellor of Warwick University. The ostensible reason for this choice was that Butterworth had been Bursar at New College during my time there as an undergraduate. However, although I had known him by sight through seeing him around the college, to the best of my recollection I had never exchanged two words with him.

Butterworth evidently felt even more lacking in social leverage than Van Oss where I was concerned, and he passed the buck to a friend of his, namely Sir Folliott Sandford, then Registrar of Oxford University, whom I did not know at all and would not even have recognized if I had passed him in the street. Sandford, like his two predecessors, also lacked the moral courage to approach me directly, and instead approached one of our academic Consultants, Dr Graham Weddell, a physiologist at Oxford (later Professor of Anatomy). Even Weddell, whom I had also never met, failed to approach me directly but instead rang up my colleague Celia Green to describe what had been going on.

Following this telephone conversation between Celia Green and Dr Weddell I myself spoke to each of the participants, including Dr Weddell, on the telephone. Their reactions were instructive. I would say that each of them in their various ways sounded ‘caught out’, as if they had not reckoned with being called to account by the object of the slander himself.

None of them attempted to deny their involvement in circulating the slander. Oliver Van Oss’s manner I would describe as sheepish. I had previously, i.e. during my time at Eton, known him as an authority figure, and had never before experienced him in such a subdued and defensive mode in relation to myself. I remember having an image of him, either during the conversation or subsequently and as a result of it, as a sort of deflating gas-bag or balloon.

Sir Folliott Sandford admitted quite abjectly that there was not a shred of evidence for the slander, that it was pure speculation, and that it had been started in order to explain the rift between me and my parents.

The person who came nearest to adopting an aggressive attitude was John Butterworth. After I had repeated my expressions of disgust at the irresponsible way he and the various other academics had propagated this slander, he started to complain that I was disrupting his social arrangements – he was either preparing or conducting a dinner party of his own or due at someone else’s. I pointed out to him that the likelihood of permanent damage to my career and reputation as a result of his and others’ slanderous activities might be accounted of more importance than any temporary inconvenience to his social life.