Decline and Fall of the Bullingdon Club

This week’s Spectator has a feature article and podcast by Harry Mount on the parlous straits of Oxford’s Bullingdon Club. He confesses to having been a member himself but seems open minded about its likely demise: 

It isn’t quite dead — but it is down to its last two members. That’s barely enough people to trash each other’s bedrooms, let alone a whole restaurant, as the Bullingdon was wont to do, according to legend — not that we ever did that sort of thing in my time in the club, from 1991 to 1993. The Bullingdon, or Buller, as it is sometimes known, just couldn’t survive 11 years of bad headlines — from 2005 to 2016, when three of its former members, David Cameron, George Osborne and Boris Johnson, were the most powerful Conservatives in the country. 

Before it’s gone, Mount decides that the Bullingdon deserves a proper survey of its career. Waugh’s depiction of the club in his fiction contributes to this:

Over the centuries, the sporting interests of the club morphed into heavy drinking interests. By 1894, the heavy drinking turned to bad behaviour — Bullingdon members smashed all 468 windows in Christ Church’s Peckwater Quad. In 1927, they did it again — leading to them being banned from meeting within 15 miles of Oxford.

That incident must have inspired the opening scene of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall — published only a year later, in 1928, and due to be revived this spring in a BBC2 adaptation. The book begins with the dons of Scone College longing for the Bollinger Club to smash up the quad, so the college can make a fortune in fines. The dons are thrilled to hear that distinctive noise, ‘the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass’. It is Waugh’s magnificent lampoon that still defines the Bullingdon today — and, indirectly, led to the club’s own decline and fall. The Bullingdon crops up again in Brideshead Revisited (1945), where ‘cretinous, porcine’ members try to dunk Anthony Blanche in Mercury, the fountain in Christ Church’s Tom Quad.

It was the administrators of Scone College–the Junior Dean (Mr Sniggs) and the Domestic Bursar (Mr Postlethwaite)–rather than the teaching staff who were eagerly anticipating the collection of fines to compensate for the wreckage left behind by the Bollinger Club. But perhaps bursars and junior deans are also considered “dons”. 

Meanwhile, the Daily Mail has profiled one of the actors in the upcoming BBC production of Decline and Fall. This is Katherine Kingsley who “plays game-huntress Pamela Popham.” She has also been cast to play Dusty Springfield in a West End musical based on the singer’s career planned to open next year.


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