Fifteen years ago, Rachel Johnson created a monster - the much-derided Oxford Myth. But now, she has one last word for the critics.
The message was on a slip of paper in my pigeonhole at the porter's lodge at New College, Oxford. "Lord Weidenfeld," it said, followed by a telephone number. It was a seminal moment, because, 15 years later, I still have anxiety dreams about forgetting to check my pigeonhole.
My heart swelled, until I realised what his call would doubtless be about. Earlier in the term, Olivia Channon, the daughter of a Cabinet minister, who was an undergraduate at St Hilda's, had been found dead of a heroin overdose in the Christ Church rooms of a German count. It must be to do with that, I thought.
The city's honey-stoned quads were thick with reporters, all writing about drugs, bright young things and Brideshead. Oxford had become a story. At lunch with Lord Weidenfeld, I was invited to come up with a book about the place.
I would commission 10 essays, all except two written by undergraduates. They would, I thought, all be brilliant. The Oxford Myth would receive rave reviews. And we would all waltz into fabulous, well-paid jobs in the media. That was the plan, anyway.
I couldn't, at first, believe how easy it all was. I had sat next to a young man called Niall Ferguson - a historian - at a dinner party the term before. He was attractive. He was clever. And I still remember him making me sob with laughter by describing how a man feels if he succeeds in bringing a woman to orgasm (like Jesse Owens at the Olympic stadium in Berlin, he said, raising his arms aloft). I felt exhilarated when he accepted the commission.
So this was my winning line-up: Toby Young on class, my brother Boris Johnson on politics and how to hack your way to the top of the Union, Allegra Mostyn-Owen on drugs, Will Hobson on work, Aidan Hartley on town and gown, Sebastian Shakespeare on eccentrics, Niall Ferguson on ambition, and me on - blush - sex. Everyone I asked agreed to write 8,000 words for nothing, while I pocketed a small advance and sat back and waited for my chums to come up with the goods.
But when the essays arrived, I realised it was not going to be the breeze I had hoped. Some were handwritten, and I had no way of editing apart from making notes in the margin with a pencil. And I was supposed to be sitting finals at the time.
Ferguson's piece was one of the first to come in. I can't remember much about it, but it wasn't quite the ticket. I remember sending him a photocopied letter that I was sending to all the contributors, with suggestions, pertaining to his essay, at the bottom. I found his reply in my pigeonhole, a few days later. "Dear Rachel Johnson," it read. "F--- off. Yours, Niall Ferguson." I assumed that he wanted nothing to do with the book again, so I re-commissioned the piece.
In due course, I sent the manuscript to the publishers, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and the publication date was set for June 1988. The Daily Telegraph sent an interviewer to Oxford to curtain-raise this epochal event. Looking back at Margot Norman's article, datelined June 16, I had no idea what a storm was about to break over my head, though I should have guessed we were riding for a fall when I read the caption. "Woman behind the Myth," it said, below a picture of me in front of the Radcliffe Camera. "Will Rachel and Co end up ruling the world?"
In the piece, Norman decided that I might not appreciate "the chill an outsider might feel at seeing himself, his class and his aspirations mercilessly dissected and discarded by Oxford's brightest and cockiest." She singled out Young's contribution for its snobbery. In his essay, Young divided undergraduates into "stains" and "socialites". Stains were the "small, vaguely deformed" breed, replete with acne and anoraks, who had not been to schools such as Eton and Westminster, and who "scuttled across quads as if they had mobile homes on their backs".
We did not have to wait long for our inevitable comeuppance, given that I had placed Young's provocative chapter first. The next day, there was an article in the Daily Mail: "The Oxford Myth is not the product of the institution it alternately debunks and celebrates, but of one person and her unbridled ambition to become a hack," the story began. "Miss Rachel Johnson has cobbled together 10 essays by a gaggle of her Oxford chums (including, as if to ram home the nepotism of the whole venture, her own brother). She has sold the resulting book to Weidenfeld and Nicolson in order - let's be frank - to ensure that when she leaves Oxford, a cushy job in the media will be hers."
Well, I couldn't dispute the last sentence, but I was beginning to be suspicious about the reviewer. Incontinent bile bubbled up in every criticism of what he called "this singularly worthless volume".
Those who had been to Oxford, he said, were now so fed up with the "great Brideshead Revisit - that much-vaunted attempt by aristocratic and grammar-school Tories to recapture the stench of Waugh's Oxford", that they would greet the book with "howls of agony". Those who hadn't, he went on, "are likely to find the musings and CVs of Toby Young and Boris Johnson insufferably smug". The review was written was by Campbell Ferguson. A bell tinkled. I went back to my sheaf of original essays, and yes, Niall Ferguson had signed his with the name Campbell, and the only charge he hadn't levelled in his review - headlined, "Just a banal degree of snobbery!" - was that I had dumped on his piece.
After that, it was a deluge. The combination of our precocious cockiness and the elitist subject matter brought out chippiness in everyone. Though the book covered subjects such as sexism, political correctness and academic endeavour with what now seems like a worthy earnestness, this combination ensured these less inflammatory qualities went unremarked.
To me, the astonishing aspect of the ensuing coverage was how high-rolling writers, people you would think much too grand to care about a slim volume of student essays, fell over themselves to tell the world what piffling tripe we had produced. In that sense, I was able to take much of what followed as a tremendous, back-handed compliment.
The novelist William Boyd was dismissive in The Sunday Telegraph ("routine and uninspired, rehashing the material of a hundred lame magazine articles," he sniffed). Andrew Davies, the screenwriter of Pride and Prejudice, in the Times Educational Supplement, said that all the essays bar one made him want to "park a tiger" - Young's elegant phrase for throwing up.
On the positive side, Oliver Taplin (an Oxford classics don), in the Times, opined that I had "no doubt taken a significant step on the ladder to a career with Tatler or Cosmopolitan". In Punch, Noah Richler described my contributors as "kids born with a full set of teeth, like changelings making straight for media corridors of power". But they were both wrong. The Oxford Myth was not a launch pad for careers in the media - it was a booby trap. The contributors did not succeed because of the book. If they succeeded, they succeeded despite it.
"The book came out as I was in the process of, ahem, being let go from The Times," says Boris Johnson, now editor of the Spectator and MP for Henley. "It was a cracking little volume, very spunky. It was an honour to be part of it. I think my essay remains the locus classicus of the English genre of bogus self-deprecation."
Young - who has achieved fame and fortune from his book and play How to Lose Friends and Alienate People - was also given his marching orders from News International at around the same time. I had snuck on to the Financial Times just before the book's release, but was told by the managing editor that the coverage had been unhelpful to my prospects.
"Anything with the word Oxford in it is a sure-fire loser," Young tells me now. "When my friends send me their memoirs, I tell them to remove all references to Oxford because, otherwise, the papers give them to reviewers who went to second-rate universities, and you get the same chippy reaction. Anyway, we were a bunch of insufferable, jumped-up prats who deserved criticism."
Sebastian Shakespeare, editor of the Londoner's Diary in the Evening Standard, groaned when I mentioned The Oxford Myth. "The book is now mercifully out of print, but I am sure it will become a collector's item," he says. "Francis Wheen has been stockpiling secondhand copies in order to unleash them on an unsuspecting public when Boris makes it to Downing Street."
I wish the book had done better. I feel I let the team down, by failing to see that the combination of contributors, treatment and subject matter would turn into such a toxic cocktail, spiking the pens of reviewers with poison.
That's my last word on the subject - unless, that is, I can persuade my dear Lord W to stump up for an anniversary paperback. Now where did I put his number?