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Life University Memories

Anthony Seldon recalls how his love of theatre at Oxford stood him in good stead for his career as a headmaster

Role play

My three years at Oxford from 1973-76 were amongst the most intoxicating of my life. Never again was it to be so carefree, so open or quite as exciting. I arrived at Worcester College with its beautiful historic buildings, its gardens and lake in October 1973. Nothing had prepared me for the haunting beauty of Oxford or the way that it would transform my life. I had spent five relatively sheltered years boarding at

Tonbridge School in Kent, which, for all the efforts of some excellent teachers, I found frustrating and limiting. One reason why I have so much time for “difficult” students at Wellington College is because I was one of them myself. At Oxford there were no restrictions, no one telling one

what to wear, what to do or how to behave. The deadening thing about school was that there was always a correct way to act and to think, and frankly it was boring (I went back to teach at Tonbridge 20 years after leaving and it had utterly transformed itself ). At Tonbridge, I had three kindred spirits. The Head, who I

played golf with every week, who was a brilliant academic and writer; a brilliant teacher of History who made the subject come alive and whose discipline I should have studied; and finally, a young English teacher, Jonathan Smith, now a celebrated writer, whose first novel was about my grandparents during the First World War. While taking English A Level under him, I studied J.M.

Synge’s play The Western World, and I decided to direct it at Oxford. I involved almost half my year group in college, resulting in many of us performing badly in our first year exams, and me failing them altogether. But the experience was shatteringly wonderful. The cast went off to the west coast of Ireland and we immersed ourselves in everything Irish. The play was life-changing. The ecstasy of performing it each night and soaking up the audience’s reaction, and then spending half the night in town with the cast and team feeling like mini Oscar winners, was beyond anything I had known. On a personal level, I swapped my hometown

82 FirstEleven Autumn 2011

girlfriend who had gone on to Exeter University, for the leading lady in the play, and any notion of academic study went out of the window. Oxford became even more extraordinary. I have always

loved rivers, canals and lakes, stone buildings, historic gardens and courtyards, and Oxford and the surrounding countryside were full of them. For three years I lived and breathed in Oxford and the surrounding Cotswolds with a deep intensity. More plays followed, including Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which I opened on a Hebridean island, before bringing it down via Oban and the Lake District to the gardens of Oxford’s Queen’s College. Then, after finals, I directed Romeo and Juliet, for which the balcony in the garden at Exeter College was perfect. I deliberately cast a black Juliet – my parents were terrified that I would marry her, so they were glad when she left for Hollywood weeks later. Even back then I was wanting to build bridges between different cultures and to challenge notions of white middle class complacency. After the last night of the play we all went to the restaurant at the Cherwell Boathouse, and sat on long trestle tables by the water’s edge. I knew the most sublime three years of my life had come to an end. I had spent all that day writing a poem about the play and everyone in it, and when I finished reading it out I knew that I had not a clue what I would do for the next 60 years. I had a sense I wanted to become a writer, or a farmer in

Devon, or perhaps a film director. I became none of these. Oxford had done nothing to prepare me for the rest of

my life. But it had done everything to prepare me for the rest of my life. By directing a series of plays, and organising a host of other events, including endless holidays away for fellow students in cottages, I had learnt something, not much maybe, about how to motivate, organise and entertain people. Not bad preparation perhaps for the career I have mostly followed since: headmastering.

Anthony Seldon is Master of Wellington College.

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