If anyone wants to know about my Alma Mater, I had two: one was the University of Oxford. The other was Ethel.

It came about this way: I was in some lunch-tume eatery in Oxford when I bumped into Jonathan Wordsworth (whom I knew vaguely at that time), and told him I was looking for a room. “In that case” he said “you had better come round to my place – I think my land-lady has a room spare. She does a good breakfast, and you could stay alive on that and her Sunday lunch.” The breakfast was indeed very good – fruit-juice, corn-flakes, an egg, bacon or the like, toast and marmelade, and tea or coffee. Sunday lunch was as good as my mother made, a full-scale meal. It was an optional extra, and cost as I remember seven shillings and sixpence. Jonathan had his own reason for introducing me: reinforcements, because we two were studying in the English School, and at that time the other students there – all of us post-graduate- were scientists. Breakfast and Sunday lunch took place in the lower ground level, strictly speaking this was Ethel and Wilf’s dining room; there was a long table, and I think, normally six of us sitting round it, with Ethel’s kitchen off the side. After breakfast Ethel would have to do the rooms, with a cleaning lady who came in for two hours, and do the shopping. But she was always available if you wanted to talk to her.

3 St. John Street was at the beginning of a long street of terrace houses, just round the corner from the Ashmolean Museum, and stretching up to Wellington Square; basically they comprised three floors, basement and mansard, and many, maybe most of them then, were landlady-run student houses or B&Bs. You went up steps to the door of No 3; on the wall, inside to the left was, or had been, a notice from the past which read ‘Dogs and bicycles not allowed in the Gentlemen’s rooms,’

There was another small kitchen at the end of the entrance corridor, a  few steps down, with a cooker, a sink and a fridge, for use by residents. I must have complained to Ethel about the poor quality of food available in town: she replied “Get yourself some pans and I’ll teach you to cook.” So I did, and she did teach me – how to make a roux, fricassee of veal, and so on. To all our benefits, she was taking a course in Cordon Bleu Cookery at the time, with a particularly ferocious Chef. “He said ‘When I say fry these onions golden-brown, I DON’T MEAN GOLDEN-BLACK!’ ”

This was at the time when the first non-stick pans came onto the market: Ethel came home giggling from a public demonstration by Philip Harben of the new wonder non-stick pan, where the omelette had inevitably stuck (though I went on using Harben’s Penguin cookery book, one of the early no-nonsense cook-books, without losing faith). What you should do, Ethel said, was never wash your frying-pan, but always wipe it clean with salt & newspaper, reaching a fine patina, and never sticking your omelette. My usual objective was to make a stew large enough to portion out during the week, alarming Spon, a biologist, because of the rate of reproduction of bacteria. (He came home from a lecture one day, delighted to have discovered that the fungi which preyed on timber were officially designated White Rotters and Brown Rotters).

The household met for breakfast, and then we went of to our rooms, our work, and to our individual circles of people in the University. On Sundays, however, we would often go to the pub (usually the Walton Arms), together with Wilfred to drink bitter & play darts before lunch. Wilfred was Ethel’s husband, a commercial travellor for Chunky Marmelade at that time. Occasionally, and that must have meant as passengers in Wilfred’s car, we went for a walk in Bagley Woods with Arnold, who was Forestry, or to the Bear and Ragged Staff at Cumnor. We were allowed to be both a community and very distinct individuals.

The house had a garden behind, with a small one-story flat, at the end of it. A large garden door gave onto the lane behind. Ethel and Wilfred had lived in the flat post-war when accommodation was hard to find. Wilf’s father had been Manciple of St John’s so the house was a college servant’s tenancy, the student rooms let out by his wife. The alley itself was a convenient tryst-place for three tarts who operated in the centre of Oxford, known as Freeman, Hardy and Willis after the shop they paraded in front of. Wilf said: “The door would go rattle rattle rattle, and you’d hear her say “You’ll have to hurry up – i’ve got another gentleman coming in ten minutes.”

Ethel had at one time been a dental nurse. I think (she mentioned parties at which laughing gas was sniffed). During the war she had worked for the Civilian Repair Organisation in a team based in Magdalen College, to recover parts from crashed aircraft, which were quickly used to bring other planes up to scratch (79,000 aircraft were restored to the flight-line by the time it was wound up in 1945). Parts in transit were leaned against college buildings. It must have been a sight worthy of Paul Nash (who was a War Artist, and did once have a small private exhibition in 3 St John’s St.) The elderly dons who were left behind in college, younger dons having gone off to the War, grumbled about this desecration: “There they sat” said Ethel “Eating their strawberries and cream, as if there wasn’t any rationing!” But in the War one did what one could, of course. One of Ethels close friends then, she related, was very good-looking, and traded on her looks to get coupon-less meals in restaurants and so on. One of her admirers pestered her to the point that she eventually said “Oh all right then” and took him back to her bedroom. But then , when he got it out, “Ethel”, she said, “I’ve never been so insulted in all my life! It was just like a little white propelling pencil! I told him to leave on the spot.” As to Ethel’s war-time work with aircraft, it was rumoured in the house that she had been offered a gong , but had turned it down. Ethel and Wilf were living in the flat at the end of the garden when Wilf’s mother announced that she was giving it up, so Ethel decided to take it on – she had her son’s education to think about.

Apart from dogs and bicycles, there didn’t seem to be any formal rules; everything was on trust. It was informally understood that women were to be out of the house by an elastic 10 pm. I was standing in the hall talking to Ethel when one girl danced past and out. “She looks like the cat that got the cream,” Ethel said. There was a serious temporary blip in Jonathan’s love-life when he caught the mumps – clearly also a threat to the whole house. We teetered at his scarcely open door and shouted “How do you feel?” He shouted back “Like half a superman!” Ethel was dispatched to buy an outsize jock-strap and a roll of cotton-wool. As things returned to normal Jonathan asked the Doctor about his condition “How will I know if I’m still fertile? ‘The Doctor shrugged; “Trial and error” Jonathan said “I’ll take care of the trials if you take care of the errors.”

When there were celebrations in the house, everyone joined in. I remember one party of mine when Derek, a welcomed visiting friend, and I, drew large murals on brown wrapping paper to decorate the walls: among other dishes Paul Banham brought a large bowl of Chile con Carne which I had not eaten before, and we all drank and made merry, Ethel and Wilf included. In the years after we left, former students, and their friends, and former girl-friends were regular visitors to 3 St John’s St.

I suppose that we were lucky to be at the apogee of 3 St John Street. Though Etherl and Wilf were told their tenancy would not be withdrawn, at the same time the Burser of St John’s gradually increased the rent until it was no longer possible to continue, because normal students in turn could not afford the rents. No doubt a combination of forces would have put paid to the Oxford landlady/digs system, but it was pushed on its way by the unthinking greed of St Johns – a classic case of the part acting against the interest of the whole. Landladies skimped, dipped into their savings, and gave up parts of their own accomodation to make ends meet, but eventually couldn’t and so a whole ecology in parts of Oxford became unviable. Worse than that, the job was no longer enjoyable – there was no fun left. Ethel and Wilf gave up the tenancy in 1963.

The following years were very hectic ones for me: somehow or other I lost touch with Ethel. When I sent her a copy of a children’s book of mine which had been published, hoping she would have enjoyed it, I got no reply. Probably there was no forwarding address and it never reached her.

She’s on that lengthening list of people I loved. who would have understood, and are no longer around.


 
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