Bulling­don is best left to lit­er­a­ture, not real life

The rau­cous Ox­ford club is thank­fully on its way out, but it will live on in art as a satire about en­ti­tle­ment

The Daily Telegraph - - Letters To The Editor - JENNY MCCART­NEY FOL­LOW Jenny Mccart­ney on Twit­ter @mc­cart­ney_­jenny; READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/opin­ion

The Bulling­don Club, that no­to­ri­ous Ox­ford Univer­sity bas­tion of ex­cess, ap­pears to be in its death throes. The pres­i­dent of Ox­ford Univer­sity Con­ser­va­tive As­so­ci­a­tion (OUCA), Ben Etty, has de­clared that the all-male stu­dent club’s “val­ues and ac­tiv­i­ties have no place in the mod­ern Con­ser­va­tive Party” and that mem­bers are hence­forth banned from hold­ing of­fice. The ban may be more rhetor­i­cal than strictly nec­es­sary, be­cause there doesn’t seem to be much of the Bulling­don left: mem­ber­ship tra­di­tion­ally lay some­where be­tween 10 and 20 stu­dents, but by 2016 it was re­ported to have dwin­dled to two, as in­com­ing stu­dents de­clined the of­fer to join. Its ku­dos has un­doubt­edly plum­meted: last year a small clutch of “Buller men” were run out of Christ Church by col­lege porters, to the jeers of fel­low stu­dents, hav­ing briefly at­tempted a lit­tle photo shoot in the quad­ran­gle.

The Bulling­don al­ways sounded ghastly to me, with its unlov­able tales of drunk Hooray Hen­rys in silly tail­coats, chun­der­ing in flower pots and smash­ing up restaurants. Its with­er­ing from the na­tional scene, how­ever, marks the end of a par­tic­u­lar era – rather like when I first heard that smok­ing was to be banned in pubs. For, while it brought mis­ery to those who had to sweep up the de­bris af­ter a “Buller” night out, the club and those who caroused within it have cap­tured the artis­tic imag­i­na­tion for decades – al­though rarely in com­pli­men­tary terms.

Eve­lyn Waugh first satirised its drunken de­struc­tive­ness as “the Bollinger Club” in his 1927 novel De­cline and Fall; its “cretinous, porcine” mem­bers later ap­peared in his Brideshead Re­vis­ited, at­tempt­ing to dunk the aes­thete An­thony Blanche – by far the most per­cep­tive, witty char­ac­ter in the novel – in the Christ Church pond. More re­cently, its in­flu­ence has echoed through Laura Wade’s play Posh, the film The Riot Club, and El­iz­a­beth Day’s The Party, a satire on Cameron-era crony­ism that, in the novel, is first forged at Cam­bridge in the “Pitt Club”. There is, per­haps, one piece of re­lated lit­er­a­ture yet to be writ­ten: a play in which the last two club mem­bers strug­gle to keep “the Buller’s” rit­u­als of car­nage in the air, shorn of the swag­ger that comes from a large group.

The Bulling­don and its cul­ture has been so heav­ily scru­ti­nised in re­cent years, of course, be­cause it be­came cen­tral to our pol­i­tics. The im­age of a young David Cameron and Boris John­son, posed in a club pho­to­graph from 1987, re­turned to haunt their po­lit­i­cal ca­reers – the same ca­reers that were as­sisted by the tight so­cial net­works forged at Ox­ford, and which later came to dom­i­nate the coun­try. John­son, when mayor of Lon­don, can­didly de­scribed mem­ber­ship as “a truly shame­ful vi­gnette of al­most su­per­hu­man un­der­grad­u­ate ar­ro­gance, toff­ish­ness and twit­tish­ness. But at the time you felt it was won­der­ful to be go­ing round swank­ing it up”.

In cer­tain co­ter­ies, though, dis­so­lu­tion was in vogue. The gen­er­a­tion that went up to Ox­ford in the mid-to-late Eight­ies had been ex­posed in their for­ma­tive years to the lush tele­vi­sion adap­ta­tion of Brideshead Re­vis­ited, and many were en­rap­tured by the char­ac­ter of Se­bas­tian Flyte, the charm­ing, aris­to­cratic drunk­ard. They of­ten missed Waugh’s satire on en­ti­tle­ment while ab­sorb­ing quite a dif­fer­ent les­son – that the great­est so­cial crime of all was to be seen as earnest and dull.

I can un­der­stand ex­actly, how­ever, why Christ Church was so keen to ban­ish the re­main­ing Bulling­don strag­glers from the quad last year. That par­tic­u­lar 1987 pho­to­graph of a tiny, self-se­lect­ing group has come to de­fine a cer­tain idea of Ox­ford as over­whelm­ingly priv­i­leged, white, wealthy and male. It is cer­tainly not how Ox­ford wishes to see it­self now; in­deed, it was not an ac­cu­rate por­trait of the univer­sity even then. I went up to Ox­ford the year af­ter David Cameron left, to a col­lege with a fairly high pro­por­tion of stu­dents from com­pre­hen­sive schools and North of Eng­land back­grounds. While al­most ev­ery­one drank to ex­cess – in con­trast to to­day’s stu­dents, who are in­creas­ingly tee­to­tal – I can’t re­call wit­ness­ing in­stances of van­dal­ism or wildly arrogant be­hav­iour. Even at a dis­tance, I couldn’t un­der­stand the al­lure of the Bulling­don and its ilk: a night that ended in fight­ing, vom­it­ing and smash­ing things up could so eas­ily have been found in some of the less salu­bri­ous pubs in my home town of Belfast, al­though the per­pe­tra­tors would have been more likely to face pros­e­cu­tion.

It’s harder to keep bad be­hav­iour un­recorded nowa­days, thanks to smart­phones, In­sta­gram, Face­book and Google. Per­for­ma­tive piety is in: if a grad­u­ate hails from a wealthy back­ground, em­ploy­ers are more likely to look for ev­i­dence of time spent in vir­tu­ous com­pen­sa­tion for priv­i­lege – vol­un­teer­ing and cam­paign­ing – than booz­ing and shelling out cash for dam­age. The Buller, fi­nally, is a busted flush. It was fun for a very few peo­ple while it lasted – but the best thing it gave us was a por­trait of how not to be.

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