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Confessions of a Reformed Bullingdon Club Member
John Mitchinson writes about his time as a member of the 'amoral' Oxford club, alongside Boris Johnson, and the shame he now feels about his former comrades
By John Mitchinson
There’s a beautiful story told by the Irish American writer Maeve Brennan in one of her ‘Talk of the Town’ columns for New Yorker. It’s the early 1950s and she’s in a small supermarket watching a shabbily dressed man with red eyes trying to decide which of the canned food options he’s going to spend his paltry funds on. He is clearly a drinker, and she secretly urges him to drop the cans and dash into the bar and grill next door and order a beer. Her conclusion is what haunts me: “I mean to say that the impulse towards good involves choice and is complicated, and the impulse towards bad is hideously simple and easy”.
The most egregious example of my own ‘impulse towards bad’ happened almost thirty-seven years ago. A group of young men I didn’t know entered my Oxford college room, violently knocked over my meagre furniture, sprayed champagne over my bed and record player and bundled me, in a semi-dressed state, to a waiting car outside. I don’t remember the rest of the evening clearly: I ended up at someone’s house, drank more champagne and then was deposited back at my college alongside another equally dazed victim.
That, in case you’ve ever wondered, is how you ‘join’ the Bullingdon Club, the infamous Oxford, dining society known for its dedication to gourmandising and mindless vandalism, and more recently for offering a temporary berth to two prime ministers (Cameron and Johnson) and a chancellor (George Osborne). I wish I could tell you I was appalled and angry and reported my intruders immediately to the college authorities, but as readers of Byline Times already know, I wasn’t and I didn’t. I joined up and went the whole hog, even getting measured up for the elegant dark blue tailcoat, with its ivory silk lapels and ‘BC’ monogrammed buttons.
As I have previously related, my flirtation with ‘the Buller’ ended several months later with my fiancé and I being asked to leave a wine bar after a fellow member of the club had emptied a jug of port and refilled it with his own piss and sent it back to the waitress, saying it was ‘off’. That was enough for me. I moved on and buried the memories of my poor choices as deeply as I could.
As it turned out, the Bullingdon hadn’t quite finished with me. There were the photos of course – those absurd posed shots on a set of steps somewhere in Christchurch, with the full club outfits, and unsmiling faces desperate to project hauteur and privilege. ‘My’ 1986 photo (with Boris centre stage) became famous in 1993 when Darius Guppy was jailed for staging a faked jewel robbery. That was superseded in 2007 by the one which showed Johnson and Cameron together, but mine was back earlier this year when the excellent Led by Donkeys potted biography of Boris Johnson featured it as part of their ‘lest we forget’ charge sheet. I’d shared the film on social media many times before I realised I was in it, staring out of the screen at 00:56 – my bit-part role in a nightmare that continued to engulf a country.
Which is why I am back worrying away at a decision I made almost four decades ago. In a way, every time I saw Johnson stumble his way through a press conference, or ruffle his thinning mane, I felt culpable as though, somehow, I’d put him there. I don’t mean, that 23-year-old me should have taken him out with a fish knife over the port and so prevented Brexit and the COVID shambles (although that fantasy has occurred over the years). More that my susceptibility to what the Bullingdon represented contains a dark and uncomfortable truth – as Maeve Brennan reminded me, the urge to bad is hideously easy.
Let me put ‘bad’ in perspective. I joined because I was intrigued. It felt like I was penetrating the mysterious heart of something uniquely English. The nuances of class and privilege weren’t things I properly understood then – I’d arrived at Oxford from the vigorously anti-elitist state schools of New Zealand and was only elected because no one knew who I was or where I’d been to school (remember, this is the club that nicknamed George Osborne ‘Oik’ because he didn’t go to Eton or Harrow). But I’d read Evelyn Waugh and wondered if the ‘Bollinger Club’ of Decline and Fall could still exist half a century on, with its “epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates”.
Well, yes and no. In my year there was a glut of future investment bankers and wannabe financial arbitrageurs, mixed in with ambitious journalists and manipulators like Johnson, the future prime minister of Poland, some notable sociopaths (Darius Guppy and the deeply troubling Gottfried von Bismarck) and a British Indian entrepreneur who drove a decommissioned fire engine. A very eighties version of mad, bad, and much less interesting than it sounds.
As an optimist and a lover of good food and too much wine, there was part of me that had hoped I’d stumbled into a parallel Blakean dimension where I’d finally see how the road of excess led to the palace of wisdom. But in fact, the opposite was true. The excess felt forced, the violence more embarrassing than scary, the misogyny feeble and pitiful. When I hit my limit, as the shame of being ordered out of the wine bar really bit, it felt like the moment in a folk tale when the land of plenty is suddenly revealed to be a barren and blasted heath. That has never left me. As the years passed, whenever I saw Johnson’s face mumbling in his best cosplay Churchill mode, on his remorseless rise to the very highest office, I remembered the jug of piss and saw the skull beneath his pudgy skin.
Because the real ‘urge to bad’ I was party to has had real-world consequences. The Bullingdon Club I joined was a purpose-free institution where lies went unpunished, and a large stack of cash could always be summoned to make problems go away. It had a brazen and amoral quality that felt strange to me back then. Now it’s the reality we all live in. The idiots in tailcoats braying about being ‘players’ and ‘de-bagging’ bores are now in government. When I turned my back on them, little did I know I was turning my back on my country’s future. We’ve all been gaslit by the slick equivocations of Cameron and the outright lies of Johnson. My secret shame is now a national disgrace: welcome to Bullingdon Britain.
I’m tempted to end with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s beautiful lines from The Great Gatsby about careless people: ‘they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’
But there’s no closure in that. In fact, I see hope in their very carelessness. The Bullingdon generation of politicians has built no empire, won no wars, effected no social transformation, left no permanent monuments to their vaulting ambition. They acquired power and money and had no clue what to do with either. History is unlikely to be kind to them.
So, no, I’m not proud to have been a member of the Bullingdon Club, but relieved that I saw something bad and rejected it early on. As their selfish and tawdry era draws to a close, let me once more invoke Willian Blake, whose ‘honest indignation’ has ever kept me sane, cutting through any amount of Johnsonian piffle:
You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough.
This was an excerpt from John Mitchinson’s foreword to the forthcoming book Bullingdon Club Britain: The Ransacking of a Nation, written by Byline Time’s Investigations Editor Sam Bright, You can register your interest in the book here.
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world's leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was previously Director of Research and a senior writer for the BBC TV show 'QI'. He is co-host of the popular books podcast Backlisted and a Vice-President of the Hay Festival.