Selections from the Memoirs of Mike Ashby, Part III : Shades of Brideshead and Other Stories

Pic 13
Dr. Mike Ashby in later life.

Tim Koch continues the story of Mike Ashby: In parts I and II, Mike Ashby recalled the highlights of his rowing career at Oxford, going Head of the River in 1937 and taking part in the Boat Races of 1936 and 1937. Here is my selection of some of his other memories of his undergraduate years.

I would like to record some memories of the remarkable men I was privileged to be with at New College during these years (1934 – 37). Some may think that it is wrong to have such a wonderful start in life, and that it is just a matter of wealth to have the Oxbridge experience, and then to be a member of the elite who lead and govern the Country.

My former Chief at the London Hospital…… once said to me that he thought that it was probably a good thing that, among the mixture of men and backgrounds, there should be some members of the ‘Idle Rich’! I did indeed have this experience, as one of the five old Etonians with whom I shared digs at 51 The High (Oxford’s main street), was an extreme example of this rare breed. Francis Williams had inherited a fortune from his father, and clearly did not have to think of a career……. I do not remember whether he even bothered to take his Finals….. (He) bought himself a splendid Rolls Bentley….. On a Sunday morning this gleaming vehicle would draw up outside and Francis and some friends would drive off to the aerodrome where one of them had a plane. Off they would fly to Le Touquet for the day’s racing, champagne and all, and return in it, if they wished, at one minute to midnight……. He was a member of the Bullingdon Club  ….. He took me once to one of their splendid dinners…… There was unlimited champagne and an excellent menu. We were barely half way through the meal, when some crazy fellow almost opposite me jumped up, gave a wild yell and seizing the table, turned it upside down, smashing most of what was on it, food and all. The more astonishing thing was then to follow. All the other tables suffered the same fate, and with wild shouts the whole party broke up, and we staggered out over a wet mass of food, broken glasses, plates and cutlery. I can clearly recall my feelings of disappointment and disgust, but much more vivid was my embarrassment at this scene having been witnessed by all the waiters……. (Williams’) former life of effortless luxury rendered him more susceptible to the destructive effects of long years as a prisoner of war, and I understand that he never recovered.

Pic 14
Ashby pictured in 1937.

Among Mike’s stories is one that occurred during the Oxford rowing tour of Germany just before the 1936 Berlin Olympics. It starts after Essen Regatta……

There was also a Cambridge crew, and we were all housed together in a great dormitory building in the fortified estate of Baron Krupp von Bohlen und Halbach. His portly wife was Bertha, of First World War fame……

The highlight of that victorious (regatta) was the events in the evening, after we had all celebrated with much good fluid. Towards midnight, some Cambridge men went down to the river, along which were dozens of great flag poles bearing vast red banners in the centre of which was a huge swastika. What finer little memento could be found? A flag was lowered and cut free. Some others in the party thought that it was a bit large, so when they had lowered their flag, they cut the central swastika out, and to be nice and tidy, and of course as polite as any tipsy Cambridge oarsman could be, they re-hoisted the mutilated flag and tottered home to bed! Next morning the fearful sight of the mutilated flag was there for all to see, and the local Nazi Boss was informed. Meanwhile, as I looked out of bed, the dormitory was a scene of frantic activity while the bleary eyed chaps were packing up their cases in order to catch the express for Calais. It was the vast bulk of the flag that was the problem. The largest suitcase had to have its contents distributed around, and only then after careful folding, and several huge men standing on the lid, could it be closed……… for the next year or so, two fine swastika emblems were to be seen hanging in Cambridge.

A good story but in reality the consequences could have been very unpleasant – the Gestapo were probably less tolerant of Bertie Wooster type japes than were the Cambridge University Proctors.

Pic 15
Germany 1936 – putting on its respectable face for the world.

Ashby wrote about several Oxford contemporaries who went on to have remarkable lives. Here are memories of some rowing friends.

Pic 16
Ralph Hope

Ralph Hope was also a Captain of the boat club, a Blue, and during his year was a great raconteur of very Rugger / Boat Club recitations at parties where the wassail bowl had done many rounds. The following year we were all amazed at the change. He attended the religious functions at Pusey House, and had clearly become God controlled. I mention him out of the deep respect I felt for the manner of his end. He had trained in the Oxford University Air Squadron, into which I had just failed to join through needing spectacles. In the Battle of Britain, he was shot down in his Spitfire over South London. Those who witnessed it were quite sure that, instead of baling out and letting his machine crash where it would, he deliberately dived it into an empty playground. I mention this as he was just that sort of chap.

Pic 16a
Gerald Ellison

Gerald Ellison. When I first went up he was the Captain of the New College boat club, a Blue, and indeed I think also the President of the O.U.B.C. Sadly, he wanted to get his First in theology, and decided that he could not row in our summer eight. He rose high in the Church, and became Lord Bishop of London……

Peter Hogg was also a rowing Blue and a most charming character. After going down he joined the then very prestigious Sudan Civil Service, as did two superb Cambridge oarsmen, Laurie and Wilson. Hogg would administer justice over a vast semi desert area, going round on his camel, escorted by his two armed Ascaris…… (Ashby goes on to use an amusing but now politically incorrect term highlighting the prevalence of Oxbridge Blues in the Sudan Civil Service. For a fuller explanation see the seventh paragraph here.)

Nigel Parker became one of my closest friends….. He was a keen member of the Boat Club, and a successful one, having rowed at 2 in the Torpid boat which went Head of the River in 1936, when I was at 6, and again at 2 when the First VIII went Head of the River, bumping Oriel on the second ‘Night’, on May 21st, 1937. Once, on the way back to Oxford, he took a corner at Aston Martin speed in a small Austin car, did a complete somersault and landed right way up astride the hedge, facing the way he had come. Most impressive. Tragically, he was killed in the Normandy landings.

Duncan Watson rowed in our Head of the River boat in my last year. A quiet delightful man, also rising high in the Diplomatic Service, he became High Commissioner in Malta, and thus Sir Duncan. He was the second of the four of my contemporaries to be knighted…. He stroked our winning VIII when at last we went Head of the River in May 1937.

Pic 17
Jock Lewes

Jock Lewes. (Oxford University Boat Club) were fortunate to have elected Jock Lewes, a particularly fine President for 1936/37. He was an Australian, older, wiser and an experienced oarsman, moreover he was a fine and persuasive leader. He possessed what we now call ‘charisma’, that rare quality which inspires confidence and boosts morale. As from the very start of our preparations and training, he refused to recognise any possibility other than victory…… For all the brash faults of some Australians, and Jock had none of these, they do have a tremendous drive and determination to succeed. Jock had unerring judgement and power of leadership……. After leaving Oxford, he went into the then developing British Council……. When war broke out, Jock of course joined up at once…… (When) the Desert War began, it was he who, with Colonel Stirling, had the idea of forming the Special Air Service, a small force of commando type, who would be dropped behind the Italian lines to beat up airfields, burn the planes, and then melt away into the desert to be picked up by the Long Range Desert Group. Jock kept on refusing to leave “till the job was done”. He died, as we would have expected, sacrificing himself in a noble cause.

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