Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Baying for broken glass

Late last year, in response to the student protests that saw Charlie Gilmour swinging from the centotaph (16 months) and a Rolls Royce carrying Charles and Camilla nearly everted, I wrote a parody of John Betjeman's Varsity Rag which contained the following lines:


It was almost like the Bullingdon as we bayed for broken glass,
For the rioting student nowadays is a better sort of class,


It seems I wasn't the only one to see a parallel between those events and the non-political boisterousness indulged in by members of Oxford University's Bullingdon Club, a fraternity in which both David Cameron and Boris Johnson were enthusiastic participants. Tom Scorza in his blog A Short Introduction to Cycling offered the following quote, attributed to Cameron and said to come from the "Oxford Book of Quotations":

"Things got a bit out of hand & we’d had a few drinks. We smashed the place up and Boris set fire to the toilets." David Cameron, 7th June 1986.


Over the past couple of days this pseudo-quote has been Tweeted and re-Tweeted. Shorn of its tell-tale reference to the non-existent Oxford Book of Quotations, it has a certain superficial plausibility, perhaps, if you don't think about it too closely (is it actually possible to set fire to a toilet? Apart from the loo-paper, there's nothing to burn and quite a lot of water). Alerted, he writes, by a Telegraph journalist (presumably Tom Chivers, whose comment appears below the line) Scorza has updated the post with an explanation:

Perhaps I should feel flattered that what I wrote as satire back in December is still being argued over. However, I am now more than happy to kill the joke.

The “quote” written above is not true. I wrote it at the time to poke a bit of fun at the PM and Boris when they were condemning the student riots. It was not supposed to be anything more than that. Whilst I was aware that a few people might retweet what I wrote, I did not realise that it would be repeated thousands of times, be requoted on Facebook and spread to blogs.


There's a lesson here about not believing everything you see on Twitter (or anywhere else), especially if it fits into your preconceived notions. The true story of that notorious Oxford party is told by Jim Pickard of the FT:

The evening had ended with a pot being sent crashing through a restaurant window – sending some of the revellers, including Johnson, the future mayor of London, scurrying for safety while their less fortunate friends earned themselves a night in the cells at Cowley police station.

Many details of the evening have been kept a closely-guarded secret by the group of old friends, who have remained tight-lipped about Cameron’s involvement in the escapade.

But one former Bullingdon member recalled how the arrests took place in Oxford’s botanical gardens where – silhouetted by the lights of the police cars – the students, who had been hiding on the ground, stood up one by one.

At that point, however, Cameron had sprinted off down a side street towards St John’s Lane to make good his escape, according to the person. He said the idea that the future Tory leader was not part of the original escapade was ludicrous.


The source thinks that in retrospect it was "extraordinary" that Cameron was so determined not to be caught. The rogue quote would seem to capture the spirit of that memorable occasion, if not the actuality of David Cameron's words. What he actually said was "Nothing to do with me, guv. I just posed for the photo."