3 Is The Magic Number

What do Zadie Smith, Hugh Laurie and WH Auden all have in common? ALICE BRINDLE and CHECK WARNER round up ten famous Oxbridge students who graduated with a Third.

Alec- douglas home Carol Vorderman christopher hitchens desmond tutu douglas hurd evelyn waugh failure geoff hurst Hugh Laurie Richard Whiteley Siegfried Sassoon Stanley baldwin thirds WH Auden Zadie Smith

It is understandable that right now, any attempt to convey to the average Cambridge student that achieving a Third in their exams is actually not an apocalyptic disaster, falls on deaf and panicked ears. In the frantic exam season, people seem to forget that a Third is actually a respectable mark, categorised as above both an Ordinary and a Fail, instead seeing it as some lurking bogeyman ready to pounce if one so much as dreams of leaving the library, talking to people, or wasting all that time eating/washing.

Yet some of the big dogs of our society have left Oxbridge with a Third, and for some reason it doesn’t seem to have really bothered them that much. While receiving his second Golden Globe Award, or his OBE in 2007, I doubt that Hugh Laurie mused on his time at Cambridge and lamented, “FML. If only I had pushed for that 2:1, I wouldn’t feel like such a pathetic failure”.  Similarly, a Third didn’t prevent Alec Douglas-Home or Stanley Baldwin rising to the role of, hello, Prime Minister of Great Britain, proving that a Third is truly no barrier to ambition, or any indicator of failure. So, to lift your flailing spirits, here are 10 Oxbridge “failures” who have excelled in the real world, managing somehow to overcome their crippling sense of failure to become some of the best success stories of our time.

Cambridge Thirds

1) Hugh Laurie

Hugh Laurie’s Third was for Arch & Anth from Selwyn College. Now famous for comedy gold such as Jeeves and Wooster, A Bit of Fry and Laurie and Blackadder, as well as his more recent role in “innovative medical drama” House, Laurie has achieved international fame, wealth, and respect, reaching a pinnacle of stardom unhampered by his ‘embarrassing’ degree classification. Laurie has also published a best-selling novel ‘The Gun Seller’, and has rowed in the Junior World Rowing Championships and the Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. Moreover, with a mantelpiece of People’s Choice Awards, Screen Actors Guild Awards, Golden Globes, Emmy’s and Orders of the British Empire, it is undeniable that Hugh Laurie’s ego has miraculously survived and that his Third fails to faze him as he cruises from one awards ceremony to the other.

2) Zadie Smith

Could Zadie Smith tick any more boxes? She’s beautiful, talented, and the publishing sensation of the millennium. Most importantly, she can get away with wearing a turban as day wear without looking like an utter twat. Her first novel, ‘White Teeth’, was composed as she completed her final year at King’s College, and won her a flurry of awards as well as cementing her status as the poster girl for the image of multicultural-happy-families-Britain that political parties constantly seem to refer to. In all the hype she’s been compared to Salman Rushdie, Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. Sure, so she finished with a rumoured Double First in English Literature – BUT she got a Third in her pre-lims in her fresher year. There’s hope for us all.

3) Carol Vorderman

Revered Countdown babe Carol “Vorders” Vorderman pushed the boat out with a Third in all three years of her degree in Engineering from Sidney Sussex. Known as joining the “Nines Club”, such a feat did not prevent Vorders entering Countdown, with fellow Third graduate Richard Whiteley, pioneering a new brand of games-show hostess with brains as well as boobs, whilst simultaneously becoming one of the highest paid women on British television, earning £900,000 a year. Carol has also written columns for the Daily Telegraph and Daily Mirror, published school textbooks with Dorling Kindersley, and launched a number of Sudoku products. MBE in 2000 and member of MENSA, Carol as well as the entire British population, seems unbothered by her exam results, which are anything but an indication of failure for a woman with an IQ of 167. David Cameron just appointed her as his ‘Maths Czar’ – and she’s so passionate about maths that you can email her with questions, complaints and observations about how one is taught maths at [email protected].  Maybe she does pre-exam pep talks too – get in there, Mathmos.

4) A. A. Milne

If it was revealed that the writer of the iconic “Winnie the Pooh” got a Third, would anyone care? Despite A. A Milne’s Third in Mathematics from Trinity, Winnie the Pooh is one of the most iconic childhood books of our generation, translated into over 25 languages and adapted into film by Disney. Milne also contributed to and edited Punch, wrote numerous short stories and over 25 plays. A. A. Milne seemed unfazed by his exam results, commenting in Winnie the Pooh, “To the uneducated, an A is just three sticks”. Anyway, I’m sure the substantial takings of the Disney Merchandise of Winnie the Pooh ($50 million-a-year business in 1931), gave some comfort to Milne during those sleepless nights when his Third was proving particularly traumatic.

5) Stanley Baldwin

With a Third in History from Trinity College, Stanley Baldwin rose to the role of Prime Minister, not once, not twice, but three times 1923–24, 1924–29, 1935–37, proving that three really is the magic number. Baldwin successfully and repeatedly renegotiated himself back in to power during the inter-war years, winning popular support from people who not once held the level of his University degree against him. After his retirement, it was commented that “no man ever left in such a blaze of affection”. With three Premierships to boast of it is very unlikely that Baldwin spent his adult years lamenting his exam results, and is evidence of the fact that in the real world, people don’t really care what degree classification you get.

Oxford Thirds

6) Evelyn Waugh

It is perhaps unsurprising, given that Evelyn Waugh writes so vividly of the drinking and debauchery of Oxford in the 1920’s, that he left university with only a Third. When asked if he played any sports for his college, he famously replied that he “drank for Hertford”. Waugh went on to use his university time in an unconventional but nevertheless productive way, drawing heavily on his experiences there to write the novels ‘Decline and Fall’ and ‘Brideshead Revisited’. Now known as one of the best novelists of the twentieth century, Waugh can’t have felt too bad about his rather uninspiring examination performances.

7) W.H. Auden

W. H Auden had a promising start to what could have been an auspicious academic career, achieving a scholarship in Natural Science to Christchurch. However, like Waugh, he soon discovered the delights of the Oxford social scene and ceased to bother with science, eventually graduating with a Third in English. He reportedly spent most of his time in Oxford locked in his room wearing green eyeshades and writing eccentric modernist poetry (and you thought your neighbour was weird). His later associations with the university were more fruitful. Proving that they were willing to overlook his third class degree, they appointed him Professor of Poetry in 1955.

8 ) Alec Douglas-Home

Our current Prime Minister may have left Oxford with a first, but high honours have not always been a requirement for political leadership. Alec Douglas-Home, foreign secretary for seven years and Prime Minister for one, also left Christchurch with a third, this time in History. He claimed that his studies were hampered by hunting, cricket, bridge and champagne. Current students will be familiar with the distracting nature of champagne, but may wonder how Douglas-Home became mislead by the slightly more prosaic pursuit of bridge.

9) Christopher Hitchins

Christopher Hitchins is another notable Oxford ‘failure’. Best known for his book ‘God is not Great’ and his friendship with fellow anti-religionist Richard Dawkins, Hitchins struggled with his degree in PPE at Balliol. Unlike Dawkins, he could only manage a Third, but it doesn’t seem to have held him back. He is now a prominent political commentator and journalist, as well as best selling author and visiting Professor at several Universities.

10) Douglas Hurd

And if you’re still not convinced there can be anything worse than getting a Third; what about having your name immortalised as being synonymous with the cockney rhyming slang equivalent, despite the fact that you actually got a First in History at Trinity College Cambridge? Poor old Douglas Hurd, once a Foreign Secretary and active Conservative politician has (along with Desmond Tutu, for the 2:2) been condemned to a lifetime of snide remarks despite the fact that he actually got a Geoff Hurst (First) and was President of the Cambridge Union Society in his time here…oh the injustice.

In fact many famous alumni didn’t even bother finishing their degrees. PM William Pitt, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Siegfried Sassoon, Cromwell, Walpole and Francis Bacon all failed to complete their degrees at Cambridge, yet still have managed to worm their way into dominating our history books. Similarly Kate Beckinsdale, Bill Clinton and Inspector Morse all left Oxford without a degree. It’s clear that although a good degree can help you nab that sassy job, it is by no means the be all and end all, the bee’s knees, or the cat’s pyjamas. Take a break, and put things in perspective. Have a Kit Kat.

Remember your mantra: Anything that’s not a First is not a Fail.

Anyway, you got into Cambridge…so you can’t be that thick.