An almost missed bus drew the two of us into Oxford, bleary eyed and recovering from my birthday, celebrated over the previous two days. I’d briefly visited this most famous university town once before, in midwinter last year. I remember being very cold, promising to return, and very little else.
We quickly procured caffeine and, after finding the way to our “Funky” Hostel, checking in and depositing our packs, the wander around Oxford began.
The city centre, old Oxford, is small and easy to navigate. It’s constrained by two rivers, the Thames to the west (called the Isis while it meanders past Oxford) and the Cherwell to the east. The original settlement was established because the Thames could be forded here, so that oxen could cross. Hence Ox-Ford.
On the advice of an old hand, an editor whose wife stills commutes daily to work in the city’s large publishing industry (the University Press was at one time Oxford’s largest employer), we had prioritised Magdalen above other colleges.
The college is on the banks of the Cherwell. Although spelt Magdalen, after Mary Magdalen, the name is instead pronounced ‘Maudlin’. The discrepancy very probably arises from the transition between old and modern English and has been intentionally maintained in dogged adherence to tradition.
An obviously zealous porter, who winked and nodded vigorously when he asked if we were students, admitted us to the college at a discounted rate (he also discovered our nationality and managed a few throwaway jibes about springboks in the deer park, or the lack thereof). ‘Porter’ is the awkward name given to the men who function as receptionists cum security guards cum student minders at the various colleges.
All cloister, spire and dormitories, Magdalen seems, like most other colleges, to more closely resemble an abbey than a secular place of reason. Learning and the church have been closely aligned for most of the university’s history, the former funded by the vast funds of the latter. Today’s secular state and pluralist society are only a recent development for this venerable institution.
Oxford is in many ways a town that the church built. Its first market sprung up around a Saxon abbey, built by St. Frideswide, now the city’s patron saint.
But the church has in many ways plotted the trajectory of its own slow demise. Fewer Britons go to church every year, as a god fearing generation die and a godless generation mature. And more and more Britons graduate each year, from universities offering a wide variety of courses and quality. Reason has come to replace religion. Darwin, ironically, studied divinity, the accepted route to a high position within the church, not far away, at Christ College in Cambridge.
We’d arrived at lunchtime and couldn’t enter the dining hall until the students had finished eating. After strolling through the vast grounds, marvelling at the detail on an occasional building, and finding the deer park, with the deer unfortunately huddled at the far edge of their enclosure, we could enter the hall, immaculate although still fresh with the smell of food. A barrier prevented us from doing little more than look in at the familiar belamped tables, wood panelled walls and works of one or another great master, looking down from above.
The barricaded hall seemed private, and our gaze felt unwelcome, the intrusion of ivy struck voyeurs. Oxford’s student population live under constant observation, as what Claire called ‘monkeys in a cage’. As a result, University traditions skirt farce, and invite suggestions of an elaborate act, maintained to ensure the constant bang of foreign bucks.
The individual colleges are immensely wealthy and have no real need to pamper tourists. Magdalen alone has an annual endowment of £116 million and counts the rich, powerful and famous among its alumni. William Hague, Dudley Moore and Oscar Wilde studied here. As did Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser and Oscar winning Director Terence Malick.
But the city has developed an industry to house and feed tourists, on which many of its residents depend, witness the ubiquitous open top bus.
The relationship between ordinary city dwellers, ‘the town’, and students who are more often than not members of the elite, ‘the gown’, has always been a little fraught. In 1355, the St. Scholastica Day riots were sparked when a student criticised the wine at a local pub. It ended after three brutal days, with scores of students dead or wounded.
I ambled out of Magdalen, past a student collecting a case of Bollinger delivered to the porters. He was animatedly describing what, incredibly, sounded like a needle stabbing.
Claire and I planned to sneak into a few lectures, to glean something of Oxford’s educational culture and get an idea of its standard. We’re both passably young and scruffy, and the University is kind enough to put their lecture times and venues online.
Lecture one was a cross disciplinary look at why EU member states had joined the union. It was a reasonable walk from Magdalen, to the north of Oxford’s centre. The speaker seemed mainly Eurosceptic, struggling, with the advantage of hindsight, to find any good reason for any country to participate in Europe. He was also a bit dull.
The other lecture seemed public, promising wine and an open mind, but we still ended up sneaking into New College that evening.
The speaker, James Panton, I’d heard of before. He co-organised the Battle of Ideas. I’d somehow picked up a brochure for the event on a recent trip to London. Panton, under the title “Towards a New Politics”, spoke of modern apathy, of the post Cold War dearth of big ideas, of the convergence of right and left, evident in today’s Britain, and of the general public’s avoidance of any vision for the future: their seeming satisfaction at being merely the objects of history.
Panton is a convincing speaker with a confrontational style, inviting disagreement with glib self-assurance. He claimed, in his northern accent, to be able to “handle himself” should an argument arise. And I sympathised with most of what he had to say, despite critical nitpicking, a rise to his cleverly laid bait. But he’s also at as much of a loss as the rest of us, only sure that opposition and autonomy are important, unable to clearly define what direction they should take.
The rapidly spoken lecture soon ended and the floor was opened by a nervous student, acting as chairperson, to a deluge of pedestrian and pointless questions. I’ve always imagined Oxford as a place for the brightest, most diligent young minds, and the stinking rich. But question time turned into a sham, a chance for the attention seeking and stupid to drown out anything interesting or relevant by simply ignoring it, and asking yet another plodding question.
I had promised to meet Steve, a friend from South Africa, working at a hotel in the countryside that surrounds Oxford, for drinks. Unable to see much point in staying, Claire and I slipped out.
Steve is not the kind of friend you can meet for a quiet beer and some gentle, thoughtful conversation. He’s the kind of friend you meet for numerous beers, vigorous backslapping, some shooters, more beers and more (by now dangerously vigorous) backslapping. He’d brought a colleague along, Oxford born and bred, also called Steve.
The beer flowed, and flowed. Oxford, being a student town, has easily locatable cheap watering holes. We moved from one bar to another and another, and another. I found myself at the Bubble Bar, sitting alongside a table of very drunken Azerbaijanis, smoking a hookah pipe. I had never met anyone from Azerbaijan and this, I reasoned, seemed the perfect opportunity.
I quickly managed to ascertain that one of them was studying finance at Oxford Brookes and pulled up a chair, readying myself for a meaningful conversion.
All of them left, hastily, except for one near paralytic loner, head lolling towards an empty bottle of Stolichnaya. Had I done something to offend, I wondered. What had gone wrong?
I moved away in defeat, returning to my table and pipe. Two of these previously extravagant Azerbaijanis returned, scuttling to the aid of their paralytic friend. He swore at them profusely, in English, as well as what I presumed was Azerbaijani, but eventually agreed to stumble, defeated, out the door. Good Muslim boys, I guessed, misbehaving at their parents expense.
After successfully frightening off most of the clientele we scampered out of the Bubble Bar, a little shaken, in search of another cheap round. We passed by a nightclub doing its best to convey glamour. It was all queue dividers, doormen and miniskirts in midwinter.
Oxford born Steve looked at the queue and started to moan. He moaned about what a nice place it had once been. He moaned about the new management and about the guest list he couldn’t crack, because he wasn’t a student. He moaned, it seemed to me, about growing up in Oxford and not attending the University.
We found the next round, and the next, and late that night we also, amazingly, found our way back to the still “Funky” Hostel, where we hadn’t been since midmorning. After a terrible nights sleep, in a stinking, hot room, next to a constantly opened and closed door, Claire and I emerged – once again in search of coffee.
At random, scouring the net for lectures in Oxford, I had found a tour of the Ashmolean’s ‘Pilgrimage’ exhibit, guided by the curator. The Ashmolean is England’s oldest museum, predating its more famous sibling, the British Museum in London, by almost a century. The exhibit pulls the paraphernalia associated with pilgrimage into a single room, displaying the relics of Europe and Asia’s great religions side by side.
The curator, speaking through what I assumed was a thick German accent, slowly made her way around the room, referring to each item and every tradition in reverent detail. Tibetan prayer wheels appeared beside an illuminated Koran. The robes of a pilgrim returned from the Hajj hung above an archaic map of the Holy Land, drawn by an Englishman.
But pilgrimage in the West has spun, like education, away from the church. It seems to me no longer a Christian but a now secular notion. It has always been travel neither for business nor purely for pleasure, imbued with a vague but urgent purpose. And the by now clichéd gap year can be seen as pilgrimage. The mostly young halt production, many before they inevitably start, to travel, not in comfort but outside it, away from what is familiar. The journey is a rite of passage in a world of fast disappearing ritual and tradition. As I wandered past these artefacts of pilgrims past I expected Lonely Planet guides, backpacks and a Eurail pass to appear, amongst the artefacts of pilgrims present.
The journey Claire and I are about to undertake has the selfsame overtones of pilgrimage. It is about unmediated reflection and the unfamiliar, about exposure to a world greater than the individual. The journey traverses the old world to arrive at its ultimate contradiction, Shanghai – a city devoid of history, fast becoming the face of modernity, within a culture both ancient and refined.
Later that day I walked onto a London bound bus, found a seat, and slept. Oxford had been a practice run: a night in a dorm bed and a busy day on a budget. I felt better about what we’ve undertaken, and why.
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