August Books 29) In Loco Parentis, by Ken Riley

In Loco Parentis: A light-hearted look at the role of a Cambridge Tutor is a memoir by Ken Riley, who was the Senior Tutor of Clare College, Cambridge, for 22 years from the 1970s to the 1990s, including my time there (1986-91). (If you want, you can download it from here.)

It's actually rather interesting and a little peculiar to see college life from the other side of the fence. He retells many incidents of college life, of which I was relieved to only recognise two – the bloke in Chapter 3 who forged his previous degree certificates to get a place at the college as a mature student, who was in my year, and the student to whose drunken climbing escapades the entirety of Chapter 9 is devoted, who was the year above me, both people who I knew by sight but neither particularly well. (I had not realised at the time that the Master's Lodge played a key role in both stories. The bloke of the bogus degree certificates was busted by the Master's secretary, after he ordered notepaper with the Master's own letterhead, preparing for the next round of forged credentials, from a printer who then followed up with their ostensible client. The drunken climber was busted when he threw up onto the windowsill of the Master's Lodge from the roof.) Much of the rest is plausible enough in terms of managing the college community, particularly in terms of how the college has had to react to the whims of changing government funding while maintaining a balanced admissions policy (where "balanced" means going for the brightest students from both state and private schools, and it helps if they are musical).

Perhaps the most generally interesting chapter is the one on how the various bits of the University of Cambridge manage to screw up examinations – one of the pithiest anecdotes concerns "two modern languages students entered for a Swedish literature paper [who] were presented with a paper containing only questions on works by Danish authors, none of whom they had ever heard of." This chapter includes a lot of material from an internally circulated set of reports on the exams between 1973 and 1993, which I suspect must be horrifying reading for anyone involved with setting and marking exams. There is also a chapter including three Christmas puzzles of fiendishly cryptic clues.

I must say I came away appreciating not so much the role of the Tutors – I am afraid I never got much value out of mine, a laid-back academic in a completely different discipline who died a few years back – as the role of the college's non-academic staff, who put up with a hell of a lot from students in particular but sometimes from academics as well. I did reach the end thinking much more kindly of the author, who was a rather fearsome presence in my college years (in fairness, he would probably have been less fearsome if I had worked as hard at my course as I did at other activities). There was perhaps more support available for struggling students than I realised, and I rather wish I had known that at the time. I think other Oxbridge alumni will enjoy the book as a mildly amusing reminiscence; but I would actually recommend it to any young people I knew who were thinking of going to Oxford or Cambridge, as a useful perspective.

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