My first thought, on learning that Norman St John Stevas had passed away, was to imagine the conversation at the Pearly Gates as he arrived in one of his trademark ecclesiastical purple shirts. St Peter would have fallen into same the trap as one of Stevas’s political colleague — by asking “What colour is that ?” Stevas’s reply: “Crushed Cardinal”.
There were lots of affectionate obituaries — for example in the Economist (for which he worked before becoming an MP. I was also gratified to see that the Telegraph picked up my joke — cracked many years ago — that people had begun calling my old college (of which he was then the Master) “Mein Camp”.
His time at Emmanuel College, from 1991 to 1996, was equally tumultuous. It was said that the dons of the historically Puritan institution first had doubts about whether they had chosen the right man when several of his friends were caught naked one night in the Fellows Garden swimming pool. While he certainly raised the college’s profile (albeit particularly in such outlets as House and Garden and Hello!), there was controversy on the high table over the lavish refurbishment of the Master’s Lodge and an expensive new extension to the college which some saw as a monument to the Master rather than a useful addition.
Some fellows were furious that Mohammed Fayed had donated £250,000 to the project, his reward being a “Harrods Room” and honorary membership of the college — a distinction invented by the Master. So bad was the feeling in some quarters that one tutor started handing out copies of the Master’s pronouncements in his role as “constitutional expert” with a prize for the student who spotted the greatest number of legal mistakes.
Lord St John was also accused of spending an excessive amount of time with a small clique of mainly public school-educated young men who, it was alleged, were favoured with introductions to royalty and captains of industry, to dinners at White’s, private theatrical performances at the Master’s Lodge and long, affectionate letters. Such special privileges were extended to very few. Other undergraduates would recall the Master cutting them off in mid-sentence with some disparaging remark in Latin. To bitchy colleagues in other colleges, Emmanuel became known as “Mein Camp”.
He was indeed extremely camp. After he arrived, the College magazine — hitherto a worthy publication dedicated to obituaries of obscure dons, accounts of the Boat Club’s exploits, articles by Old Members of their travels in Asia during the Ming Dynasty, etc. and illustrated by monochrome images of buildings in urgent need of sandblasting — was transformed into a Technicolor extravaganza replete with photographs of the Master in various kinds of flamboyant garb. Once he agreed to a profile in Hello! magazine, for which he allegedly posed reclining on his bed in the Master’s Lodge surrounded by photographs of the royal family. Anxious to determine whether this was in fact the case, I went around various newsagents on the day of publication seeking a copy, but none was to be had — all had sold out by 9.30am! I suppose I could have had a look by going to the hairdresser, but even I drew the line at that.
I also ran a campaign to have him canonised, on the grounds that he could then be known as “St John Squared”. But, alas, the Vatican paid no attention to the proposal.