If you’re a member of Brasenose, whether you’re a student, a fellow or a member of staff, you’ll know Head Porter Andy Talbot. And that’s the way things should be, Andy believes. In his seven years at Brasenose, Andy has made it his mission to get acquainted with everyone, and in his frequent walks around college, he stops to say hello to each person who crosses his path, effortlessly recognising an extraordinary stream of faces and names. He knows which undergraduate comes from Hartlepool; he knows who’s in their second year reading English. When he sees a face he doesn’t know, he checks with the student which college they’re from to confirm they’re visiting for a tutorial.
You might be surprised to know that Andy started his working life as a professional trumpet player. Having grown up in County Durham, the son of a vicar who had studied at Keble (and great grandson of a Magdalen alumnus), Andy was a chorister at Durham Cathedral and was sent to a strict boarding school. But his first jobs were playing in dance bands and backing stars including the Nolan Sisters, the comedians Little and Large, and (perhaps most exciting of all) Basil Brush.
At 22, realising it would be hard to build a long-term career playing the trumpet, Andy joined the police: ‘It was a bit of a shock to the system initially, going back to a disciplined life again,’ he recalls. He was posted to Witney in Oxfordshire initially, and then Oxford, which kept him busy in a city centre environment.
Over the years as he chased criminals, Andy climbed the ranks of the police force through firearms, traffic and armed protection squads, faced sensitive challenges including the Miners’ Strike and Greenham Common, and took control of situations from a taxi driver being threatened by a gunman to a hostage situation. He married Karen, a fellow police officer he’d crewed with in a panda car, and they had a son and two daughters, now in their 20s.
By the millennium, Andy was an inspector responsible for a large swathe of the Thames Valley, and led the rollout of neighbourhood policing and the Prevent anti-extremism agenda in Oxfordshire. ‘That made me understand that as well as reducing and detecting crime, it’s so important to have the public on board with you and police in a way that they’re happy with,’ he says. ‘I understood the need to engage with the public, and that has helped with the job I do at the moment in the sense of understanding how a college works and working closely with the students so I can understand what the issues are and do my best to work with them to solve those problems.’
When Andy had served for 30 years in the police, it was time to retire, and he was ‘ready to do something else’. The move from police inspector to head porter at an Oxbridge college is one that makes sense. Having seen police colleagues go into Oxford colleges as head porters, Andy realised ‘there was a real opening there to go into a college and properly engage with the students’ – putting everything he’d learned in the police into play in a very different field.
‘I think traditionally Oxbridge porters have been seen as a bit grumpy, whether a true a picture or not,’ he notes. ‘That clearly was an image we needed to change.’ Andy sees his team of nine full-time and several casual porters as working in a harmonious partnership with the members of the college: ‘a lodge is defined by students feeling they can come in and ask anything,’ he says. It’s essential to be welcoming – including to the prospective applicants to visit the college each year – ‘I’m not just thinking of the lodge and security and fire safety, I’m thinking of the bigger picture and my role in making sure that the very best people apply to come here.’
Given his police background, Andy is highly adept at keeping order, but in all his years at Brasenose there have been no crises, apart from a few occasions when he’s caught, detained and pursued to conviction a thief from outside the college trying to steal a bike or a laptop – ‘I take the safety of the students and their property very, very seriously,’ he says. He adds: ‘Students are no problem. We don’t behave in an authoritarian manner at all, and so we work in a way that the students are on board. I work very closely with the students and staff, obviously, so we’ve got a really quite high degree of trust.’ He adds: ‘Having my own children of similar age to the students has helped me.’
As the gatekeeper to the college, the head porter sees it all. ‘Students pop in and chat about something they might be worried about,’ Andy says. ‘We get to know everyone in time, but some we get to know sooner because they’re very chatty and are proactive. The set-up of the pigeonholes means that the students and staff need to come in to the lodge or pass the lodge, which instigates a conversation, and that’s how you get to know people. That’s how you see things aren’t right at times, if someone’s not quite themselves. Sometimes it may be that they need some more in-depth support, but sometimes just a chat over a cup of tea. Many times, someone’s not been well and we’ve sent for the nurse or got them to the doctor or the hospital.’
The bonds created can be meaningful and long-lasting. Two or three Brasenose alumni come back every week to chat to the porters. ‘We care about the students and the students pick that up,’ says Andrew. ‘The students call Brasenose the friendliest college. It’s great to be part of that and watch them grow from their arrival to when they leave three or four years later. You’re part of their life.’
Five things you never knew about Head Porter Andy Talbot
- Andy continues to play the trumpet today and if you’re lucky you might catch him at a college concert playing jazz or classical music
- Andy cycles into college daily from his home in Abingdon
- His chosen last meal on earth would be gammon, egg and chips
- For over 20 years, Andy has supported children with special needs, in particular autism, and their families
- His favourite musician is the big band leader Ted Heath