Friday 18th November

Queens, perhaps, or old king admitting member (7)

You may have spotted one of my more annoying afflictions, a compulsion to turn ordinary everyday words and phrases into cryptic crossword clues. Please don’t take any notice unless you are a fellow-sufferer. It’s the legacy of a lifetime spent solving the Guardian crossword. There is a strange and terrible beauty to the perfect crossword clue and the English language offers extraordinary opportunities for the compulsive cruciverbalist.

Anagrams are a particular joy. Who does not feel a thrill on discovering that “schoolmaster” is an anagram of “the classroom”, for instance? Or experience a moment of exquisite pleasure on learning that West Ham United are leaving Upton Park for “the new stadium”, trying to keep pace with Manchester City, the “synthetic cream” of the Premiership? The Old Vicarage, Grantchester is an anagram of “chaste Lord Archer, vegetating” – who’d’ve thought it? The late, great Araucaria, actually. A novel by a Scottish writer? By anagrammatic miracle, Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott, of course!

Some people don’t feel alive in the morning until they’ve had a bowl of Fruit’n’Fibre and five mugs of strong coffee. But I’m not truly up and running until the last Guardian clue has been solved. Vlad the Impaler’s exhortations can wait.

My office – well, more of a cubby-hole, actually – is located at the top of Staircase 3 on the NW side of Univ’s Main (or Front) Quad. My “working” environment has one notable feature, a west-facing window overlooking the dome of the Shelley Memorial and, beyond that, a section of the High as it curves gently past All Souls and potters towards Carfax.

The domed room, in which Ford’s iconic sculpture of the drowned Shelley is housed, was itself designed by Basil Champneys, the great Victorian architect. It echoes the dome of the Radcliffe Camera, 150 yards away, also just visible from my desk. Down on the pavement I see crocodiles of Oriental tourists clicking away with their i-phones, mostly in front of the blue plaque which commemorates the fact that Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke once invented modern Physics on this very spot.

Shelley, of course, dreamed of following in Boyle and Hooke’s footsteps as he transformed his undergraduate rooms (in Staircase 1, just above the SCR), into a Chemistry lab, fitting it out with an argand lamp, a rudimentary machine for generating static electricity and any number of noxious chemicals which the long-haired hell-raiser would splash around with careless abandon, prior to his expulsion from the college in March 1811.

Shelley, like me, knew that he would drown one day – you see this conviction in the last lines of Adonais, for instance. A defiant non-swimmer, he nonetheless became a keen sailor in later life, making his tiny racing boat, the Don Juan, as unseaworthy as possible. On 8th July 1822, there was a great storm over the Gulf of Spezia (probably not caused by one of his rain-producing kites) and the self-fulfilling prophecy took no one by surprise.

I shall make no such mistakes. I’m a competent swimmer, covering ten lengths of the old council pool in Gateshead on one memorable occasion, and I have absolutely no intention of setting out to sea in a pea-green boat. If I am to be drowned on 30th December, then death must come to meet me – I will not walk willingly into the icy waves.

My death waits … and I have only 42 days left now. 42 days to discover the meaning of life …

Such thoughts make it difficult to focus on my pedestrian day-job twisting the arms of plutocrats and alumni-turned-drug-barons. In fact, most of my ‘prospects’ prove to be ordinary folk struggling to pay their medical bills, never mind fund a fellowship or cough up for some new laundry facilities. I hear more tales of abject penury than obscene wealth, and requests for payday loans are by no means rare in the Development Office – naturally, we plead poverty and ring off as quickly as possible.

But I have plans. Perhaps the college’s most notorious recent alumnus, Bill Clinton has a net worth of $80 million according to various conservative sources. Surely he can bear to part with just one of his millions for his English alma mater? Good luck with that one, my colleagues whisper, especially after that election result, but I like a challenge. I have the phone number of the Clinton Foundation in New York and another one for Clinton’s own office in West 125th Street – perhaps he is there trying to unpick the Parental Lock on his wife’s prized e-mail collection as we speak.

None of my colleagues is back from lunch and I have the office to myself. Gazing at the roof of the Shelley Memorial for inspiration, I key in the necessary digits. Amazingly, there is no recorded message and a reassuring female voice reaches me from across the pond, perhaps borne aloft by a Shelleyan kite:

“Bill Clinton’s office – how may I help you?”

“Could you put me through to Bill, please?” Well, you never know, do you?

“I’m sorry, sir. Mr Clinton is not in the office at the moment. What is it concerning?”

“It’s a private matter, actually. I’m calling from University College, Oxford. In England,” I add, helpfully.

“Perhaps I could take a message for Mr Clinton? Or maybe I could put you through to one of his aides?”

I consider the matter for a moment.

“Yes, I think that might suffice,” I say graciously at last.

“Very well, I’ll put you through to Hank Mize, one of Mr Clinton’s personal aides, if you wouldn’t mind holding …”

After a few beeps I am assailed by a basso profundo Southern drawl:

“Hank Mize …”

“Ah, Mr Mize, my name is Alex Hogg. I was hoping to catch Bill for a few moments. Yes, I appreciate he is not in the office. I’m calling from his old college in England.”

“You want some money?”

I am somewhat taken aback by the acuity of his judgement but I take a breath and plough on regardless.

“No, not at all. It’s just that his alma mater is planning to introduce a Fellowship in International Law and it seemed only appropriate that Mr Clinton should have the opportunity to be associated with it in some way.”

“So you want some money.”

“I … I …”

“I’m afraid that is extremely unlikely, Mr Hogg. Mr Clinton has many calls on his funds.”

“I don’t think he attended that many colleges in his youth!”

“… and all his charitable works are channelled through the Clinton Foundation.”

“Indeed. I am only seeking a few seconds of his time.”

“And what would you say in those few seconds?”

I rack my brains desperately. Absolutely nothing springs to mind. In the end, I have to say something and I’m not sure it has quite the desired reassuring effect.

“I’d like to talk about what really happened in his Oxford days.”

There is a transatlantic silence that is beyond stony. Hank Mize’s words are tinged with permafrost:

“Very well, Mr Hogg, I will pass that message on to the President … I mean, to Mr Clinton. Good day.”

And, with that, the call is terminated. I was way out of my depth there, not waving but drowning. I need hardly add that the Fellowship in International Law has about the same substance as the Fellowship of the Ring.


I am at a critical stage of Level 14 of Candy Crush Saga when my desk-phone rings … no, it couldn’t be, could it?

“Development Office, Alex Hogg speaking …”

“Alex, how’re you doing? Bill Clinton calling from the Big Apple.”

Either this is a very good impressionist on the line or I really am talking to the 42nd US President. I surprise myself with the faculty of speech.

“I’m well, Bill. How are you?”

“I’m good. My friend Hank here tells that you are keen to talk about my time at University College. Now why would that be I wonder?”

Why indeed?

“Did he tell you about the Fellowship in International Law?”

“You’d like a donation, I imagine …”

“Well …”

“What sort of donation are we talking about?”

This is not something I have discussed with colleagues or even thought about. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained …

“Somewhere in the low seven figures?” I croak. Amazingly, there is no sound of transatlantic laughter.

“The low seven figures. I see. How low?”

“Oh, quite low. Given a suitable investment strategy, that would fund a fellowship or even a chair in perpetuity.” I really am winging it now.

“No doubt. And what can you offer me in return, Alex?”

“Well, that’s something we would need to discuss, I guess.”

What can we offer him apart from his name on someone’s door? It’s not exactly a quid pro quo.

“It so happens I’m going to be in England on 8th December. I might be able to find a little time in my schedule …”

For some reason I decide to play hard to get.

“Thursday the 8th, let me see … that’s actually the day of the Alumni Golf Tournament. I expect I can …”

“The Alumni Golf Tournament? Perfect! Are you playing yourself, Alex?”

Playing would probably be too strong a word for what I do, but …”

“Put me down for the same tee-time. We can have a quiet word about the terms of this donation then.”

What???? I am so lost for words, it appears likely that I will never again recover the power of speech. Fortunately, Bill has hung up anyway. I am to play golf with the former leader of the Free World. Perhaps my life will acquire some belated meaning after all?


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