Hatfield: ‘The chance to read Milton on a roof’

Jeremy Vine, Hatfield College alumnus and BBC Presenter@thejeremyvine

Finally. This is the moment to confess the incident with the scaffolding. Workers put it up outside Hatfield College in 1984. Repairing the roof was the reason. My room was on the third floor; dusty sash windows, milk on the outside sill, all of that. I was eighteen when the planks were laid across stout metal scaffolding poles just beyond the glass. Honestly, it was all too tempting.

There was a warning, though.A few years ago a student had climbed the roof on a dare, possibly under the influence of Newcastle Brown. He lost his footing and plummeted twenty-five feet. The lad didn’t die, but was badly and permanently hurt. The story – true or not – offered those of us who heard it a chance to learn painlessly one of the rules of the adult lives we were beginning: Never tackle scaffolding unless sober.

So when I opened the window and slid out, there had been no Theakston’s Old Peculier, Marston’s Owd Rodger or Robinson’s Old Tom. The young head on these shoulders told me: Be responsible. The only intoxicating material I took was a copy of Paradise Lost.

Carefully, I tiptoed across the first timber platform and then swung out on a steel pole and climbed up the side, Hatfield’s gravel driveway swaying in and out of focus below me. What a time to discover vertigo! But a few minutes later I was perched in the university’s most private place: five floors up, on flat lead roofing between two disused chimneys.

And there, I opened my book and began to read.

I did not know it at the time, but those hours spent in the Durham sunshine might just have been the highest point of my youth. Not in the vertical sense – at some other point I went up Mont Blanc. But in the sense that they crystallised everything that life is about for the young; everything that is absent when the world takes over and starts bearing us mercilessly towards middle age.  

Let’s just list the factors in that ascent to Hatfield’s roof which are absent from adult lives: firstly, there was risk. I probably broke the law by climbing the scaffolding; I certainly broke the rules. I endangered myself – “Nothing,” said Churchill, “is quite so exciting as being shot at without result.” An adult would never ascend scaffolding to read poetry. A student climbs down with a song in his heart. 

Secondly, there was time. I had nothing else in my day – nothing was buzzing, ringing or flashing. I kept no diary. I probably missed a lecture to be on that roof. I was free to spend those hours where I did because, unlike the adult me, I had no sense of something else to do. 

There was also the poetry. I completed Paradise Lost that afternoon, all of it, simultaneously bewildered and bedazzled by John Milton’s masterwork. When would I ever again break away from the laundry to read poetry?

Looking back, I realise that afternoon was one of the best reasons for going to Hatfield College, Durham. The chance to be yourself, become yourself, with no one on your back but the sun (and the rain). The chance to read Milton on a roof, think a bit about it, commune with a thousand-year-old Cathedral and wise lecturers who seemed not much younger. 

There was a clack of foot on plank and a few minutes later, another undergraduate appeared. He brought a radio and a cushion with him, greeted me, sat down on the cushion and cranked up the radio. I know what you’re thinking: quiet carriage, right? I should have told him I was reading an angry, grizzled, blind old poet, feeling my soul awakening, and didn’t need Radio 1 right now?

Actually, I didn’t mind at all. For an adult, the Zen of Not Minding is almost unobtainable  – a state of mind that exists only until you get stuck on the tube or cut up in the car. For the student me, being joined on the roof  by a slightly noisy companion was not an issue at all. And blasting out on Radio 1 that day? Steve Wright in the afternoon, the very same DJ whose show now follows mine on Radio 2.

One day I will tell him how he joined me on that roof at Hatfield – but not yet. 

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