I ended up at Oxford out of sheer bloody-mindedness. The heads of my sixth form college had told me I had ideas above my station by applying to do three A levels when I could get into a ‘perfectly respectable polytechnic’ with just two. In defiance, I applied to Oxford choosing Hertford College solely on the basis that it claimed to welcome state school applicants; it was worth a try and surely a comp-kid like me would stand a better chance not only of getting in but fitting in…?
Wrong! I turned up for interview with my big hair, black leggings and oversized cardi, looking like a bad backing singer from Bananarama… only to find that most of the other female hopefuls looked like Lady Di complete with skirt, upturned collar and pearls. My interview was a disaster: I’d apparently done the wrong type of Geography A level and my CV was a joke. I stormed out declaring ‘I wouldn’t go there if they paid me!’
Of course, I did go. My fabulous, feisty Geography teacher told the tutors in no uncertain terms that the only reason I’d done the ‘wrong’ A level was because my school couldn’t afford the ‘right’ text books. And so I learned the value of having champions – those like Neil Tanner who encouraged state school kids to apply, and those like my teacher for making sure I got in.
Despite this, my first year was spent in mortal panic and confusion: everyone seemed so confident and clever. It took a while to discover that the loudest voice or poshest accent wasn’t always right. Slowly, I learned to relish the slipstream of being both ‘Oxford’ and ‘Hertford’: privileged access and ‘oiky’ upstart, not afraid to ask the cheeky question or challenge tradition. That edginess and integrity defines the group of Hertfordians from all backgrounds that I’m proud and honoured to call my friends – brilliant people doing brilliant things with their feet planted firmly on the ground. 25 years on, I’m still in awe of them. For at its best, Hertford is not just a college, it’s an attitude.