A HUGE PART OF OXFORD has entered the twenty-first century if not grudgingly, then with mock enthusiasm. That part is the University, for everything about the University’s observance rests on tradition. Its statutes remain in Latin, Balliol feuds with Trinity still, it acknowledges Oxford Time (five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich Mean Time, the length of time the sun takes to travel between Greenwich and Tom Tower, Wren’s impressive entrance to Christ Church). Though tradition has had a tough time in this most progressively modern and unforgiving of recent worlds. Things are always changing, rapidly so in recent decades. Yet Oxford – its University, that is, for the town may have pretensions and may boast mod cons like McDonalds and KFC, but it has almost never existed on its own – has always been cynically deferential to its history and has attempted to draw a line beyond which the modern world has to fight to get past, out of habit perhaps more than necessity. Oxford has always sat like Canute addressing the waves, but always it has got its feet wet. Even women can be members of the University today. And before this, when religion battled with science – the Renaissance kicked in as New College was built in the late 1300s – it is science that wins in the end, not religion.
If the University retained the posture of Communion (its dons were ordained servants to the Church until the late nineteenth-century), we can see that its wine cellars are no longer sacramental; very few saints in Oxford have worn mortar boards. Those in its timeline who aspired to sainthood are still revered. The three Oxford martyrs – the first two burnt at the stake in 1555 whilst Archbishop Cranmer had to wait until the next year, an X marks the spot where it took place in the Broad – have their holy aspiration embellished by retrospective well-wishing and holy contrivance. The context of the story we know to be true: Queen Mary came to the throne in 1555 (her nickname was Bloody Mary, which meant that everybody had to watch out) and she took England back to its previous Catholic ways, this after her father, Henry VIII (the Nigel Farage of his day) had settled to divorce or behead four of his six wives and to leave the European Union, its nexus then not Brussels but Rome, the Holy See of the Catholic Church. This is England’s first Brexit. But the specifics that drive this story are nonsense. It is said that the older martyr, Latimer, burnt like a Roman candle; Ridley, poor chap, even with gunpowder strapped around his neck, had a torrid time. The bonfire lost its resolve, became rampant, was swept out of control and, it is said, set fire to the front gates of Balliol College.
These gates hang inside the College still today, proud, charred and as splintered and pious as temporal stigmata. This story has cascaded down the centuries like all of Oxford’s wonderful storytelling backwash, from college formations to the colossal figures who stampede through the history books; each of these stories are preserved in encyclopaedias, safeguarded by footnote. But the narrative is embroidered always. Each of us must work out where it is that the history ends and the mythology takes over. The nub of Oxford is that its mythology has longer legs, which makes it sparkle with interest. It is a city that fascinates and can be a joy to live in.
Visitors come more readily to Oxford than almost anywhere else on the tourist map. No surprise for it is overwhelming. Stand in the Broad at an inhospitable time on a Sunday and even then you will see it teeming with footfall and life (it is not even a shopping street). Yet this is a small city, only the 52nd largest in the United Kingdom says Wikipedia. Incredibly, the city has still only about 160,000 inhabitants; Swindon, a town nearby, is far bigger. Oxford is a bijou municipality within which, if you have any sort of public profile, you can rattle about extravagantly like a pea in a pod; people are inclined to know of each other, if only indirectly, and it can be difficult to hide. Its mentality is interbred and web-footed; gossip can spread like family wildfire.
This may come as a surprise to the many who visit the place, given its cherished history. What is known as ‘The First English Parliament’ met at Oxford in 1258 under Henry III; Parliament met here again at serendipitous times throughout the 1600s; Oxford is held at various points to be the nation’s second capital. It follows that with such grandiose self-reference and contained vitality, Oxford, although generously cosmopolitan even outside of its University heart, is a high tide of native naval gazing. It is a cesspit of self-administered and hidebound orthodoxy. People in the University can be frightened to be different, and it isn’t as secure as it ought to be these days with dissent. So very few academics defy the modern need for safe spaces, and are fearful sometimes of being pilloried as free thinkers, which goes against the grain of its history. Now it seems sometimes as though the university digs its heels in hard; it dominates this city still, both its economy and most other modes of being, although there are pockets of resistance: the Catweazle club, Cowley Road carnival, Oxford United. Otherwise the town can feed off the University’s largesse: its orchestra, museums, New College evensong, like crumbs scattered for birds in the garden. Indeed the University’s buildings, architecturally claustrophobic in aspect when there is dull weather, roll on very rapidly one after another and cast a shadow over most else. St John’s, Balliol, Trinity, Wadham, New, Hertford, All Soul’s, Brasenose, Exeter, Jesus, the Divinity School, the Clarendon Building and the Sheldonian Theatre, the Bodleian both old and new (both the original Bod and the Weston Library with its seven floors, four of them underground, have taken root like bindweed) – each are within such close proximity that if you stand in the Broad you can break a window in each of these buildings. Almost. These buildings are beautiful. On the other side of the High are University College, Merton, Corpus Christi, Oriel, and the backside of Christ Church. Christ Church is housed more impressively down St Aldate’s with what House members regard as a bike shed opposite, Pembroke. (Christ Church calls itself the House and has its own lingo to help reinforce itself very much at the Debrett’s Peerage and panjandrum end of the University. It does, however, curate the most boring place on the planet, worse even than Spaghetti Junction at rush hour – its Picture Gallery, where all sorts of failed church men, second rate politicians and religious dignitaries hang vertically like crazy paving stones nailed to the walls of an ecclesiastical El Capitan. Also it counts its visitors like beads on an abacus.) More colleges straddle the High or lie towards Magdalen Bridge; St Hilda’s is just beyond. St. Hugh’s is the other side of town; other more recent colleges are likewise scattered as lesser fiefdoms outside the old city walls. The city walls are now only imagined, apart from the few stretches that survive inside Merton and New Colleges. New College promised to undertake the city wall’s maintenance when it acquired its land from multiple landowners. The moral of this story is that you should never trust a man who went to Oxford. (Or anywhere.) But that aside, William of Wykeham, the college’s founder, was the most remarkable of men. His wikipedia entry suggests political failure. Yet he dodged the court machinations of successive monarchs, and made more comebacks than Cecil Parkinson and Peter Mandelson combined. (Wikipedia talks down another man associated with Oxford, the failed entrepreneur Robert Maxwell, feted in the media and in the City as a fraud, failure and appalling manager; yet had he the skills all say he lacked, he would surely have ransacked every pension fund in the world.)
All these kingdoms are well within the city centre. These buildings cannot be knocked down or defaced; throughout the centuries their density has inhibited much historic infrastructure. During the last century the city could accommodate only modest growth. It might be said that only now is the town striking out on its own with the rebuilding of the hapless and soulless Westgate shopping centre, which drives its commercial heartbeat south westward as though customers were cattle.
This city is fractured. Luke all cities it consists of endless subsets. Subsets of people, interests or geography; anything that can divide it holds sway. So it is lively and vibrant. Each subset may once have had middle meeting points with all others, a central glue that held the city in place. Once it might have been the Church, the institution that Durkheim referred to as the cement of society. The history of the University includes religious dispute, then debate, then tolerance, then eventual assimilation. Every flavour and dissenting shard of the broken Church and its orthodoxy are here. Also its enemies. The Church has plenty of enemies today and atheists breed like vermin. Shelley was drummed out of town for his God forsaking writing in 1811, but today Richard Dawkins can be spotted often chasing on his bicycle down a familiar rat run.
For sure, the University can no longer bind the city together. Historically it has rarely offered a focal point even for itself: it is institutionally opposed to love-ins. This is a collegiate university in the historic sense, an umbrella organization only. It blossoms as a coherent whole only when there is a common enemy. The breakaway group that left Oxford for Cambridge in 1209 was its first enemy and encouraged its bureaucracy to take shape, to protect the remaining fold from its new rival. Today its common enemy might be the government withholding money, or the threat of Brexit raising its drawbridge against wealthy foreign students, who are a fattening, staple ingredient of the University’s current financial diet.
The University is the body that gobbles up all the grants from the government; it will maintain all the shared buildings, those that all students will use – lecture halls, matriculation hall, central libraries; it will supervise the departments of study (including the faculties that are inscribed above each doorway in the Bodleian Quadrangle), and it curates the curriculum, the courses of study that students will choose from; it sets the Finals, the examination that all students will take before they graduate from the University.
Underneath this umbrella organization are the colleges, here called constituent colleges. At the moment there are 38 of them, but that number is always on the hoof: indeed ten years ago there were 39 colleges. But stop the timeline at any point in its history and you can see that number fluctuate wildly, especially during times of social stress or religious change. The English Reformation is paramount, and at such points of trouble many colleges are closed and many are opened. Those with us today (also the permanent private halls, each with students attached to the University) have all been created by very different people for remarkably different reasons and at different times, different centuries in fact. Each college therefore has its own history, its own aspect, its own way of doing things. These colleges are very different one from the other, each proud of its difference, and each with its own personality; all this a welcome variant to an otherwise homogenized world. Each college will select its own students, and be responsible for teaching them within the tented village atmosphere of its own borders. Even if graduate students possess a degree from the University, their first loyalty will be always to their college. It helps to know the folklore and tradition of each college before you apply. If musical, think Christ Church or New College (brilliant organists and choristers); if you have a quiff, Bentley and two footmen, think Trinity (think Jay Gatsby); if a little bit LGBT (not a type of sandwich), think Wadham (the home of Maurice Bowra, whose choice of wife as a cover for his homosexuality he excused by declaring that “buggers can’t be choosers”); if you are as dull as ditch water, do ruler writing and file your socks in alphabetical order of colour, think Balliol (or William Beveridge and Chris Patten); and so on.
For all its division, the University still manages to ride roughshod over the city, which can be funny. Its gaol, within the murky depths of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s Clarendon Building, closed officially in only 2003. That it was staffed by the Metropolitan Police at this point suggests honourable obedience to an outside, delegated authority. (In fact nobody I speak to can recall when last they locked up a student overnight.) But this is not quite how it views itself in relation to the outside world. It is like a papal state, answerable only to itself. The University’s ways are cloistered and self-referential, as an institution it is the perfect cabal. It always has its way, right from St. Scholastica Day in February 1355 when a few students complained about the quality of beer on offer in the aptly named Swindlestock Tavern off what is now called The High. This set off two days of full scale fisticuffs during which 63 students were hunted out and murdered. Only 30 townsfolk were killed, which in football parlance means it was 2-1 to the Town. Yet the town was made to pay compensation to the University each year, the mayor and councillors to be marched every anniversary to the University Church, bareheaded and in humiliation to pay 1d for each student killed. This ritual lasted until 1825. The dispute over the blocks of flats that the University had erected in 2010 alongside the railway line to London, that overlook the wonderful common land space of Port Meadow, continues this ducking stool relationship: the University does as it pleases. Only when completed was it noticed that there was an extra level added to each of the buildings, and these not contained in the approved plans. This was a replay of Exeter College’s positioning of garden gnome nudity on top of what is now Blackwell’s Art Shop, once Parker’s Bookshop, in 2009, for which it did not seek planning permission; Antony Gormley was responsible for the work, part of his sculptural series based on himself. The public feuding between town and gown then was a symbolic spat only, for pornographic planning permission was easily granted retrospectively. The University overcomes always, and it is not difficult to see why: the first rule of history is that money wins and the University is dripping with wealth. Exeter College spent well over £200,000 on this trinket above the art shop: idle largesse spent on frippery. I’d have taken my clothes off and stood above Parker’s for half that amount (and am open to offers now).
The whole of the city appears to drip with money, even if it isn’t always there. There is more fine yarn, worsted wool and cashmere per square foot here than in Mayfair. But yes, there are pockets of poverty – well, what passes for poverty these days – and by and large they are ignored. The philosophical principle of ‘what we can’t see doesn’t exist’ applies. An outrageous example is The Cutteslowe Walls, built in 1934, six-foot-tall and studded with vicious spikes. Their design was to segregate council house dwellers from the new private housing estate of mortgage holders. They stood for twenty-five years until the council assumed legal entitlement to compulsory purchase the land the walls stood upon on; it knocked them down finally.
Blackbird Leys was considered once to be the sink estate in the city. But to say it is in the city is a misnomer, for it was built on the wrong side of the ring road on purpose. When there were city riots eight years ago, marked, the newspapers told us, for their avarice rather than for their revolutionary zeal, Oxford was quite safe. Any looters from the estate live so far away from the centre that they would have had to clamber either the number 5 or number 1 bus; the driver would have simply radioed in news of the impending hullabaloo with twenty minutes to spare, longer if there was a tailback at Cowley Centre.
How this estate and city view each other is strange. Planned after the War, as the demand for council houses rocketed and as the Morris car factory expanded its workforce, the first Blackbird Leys’ residents moved there in 1958. The estate was, it seems, built almost exclusively for families; in the 1960s half of its population was school age or younger. Its rationale was typical for its time: London was troubled in places with congestion and neo-slum like conditions, exacerbated by the War’s bombing and deprivation. My parents, too, moved away from a woefully small flat in Kilburn, shared with two other branches of the family. They moved to Aylesbury with a small grant, the promise of employment, and a council house. The pristine estate they moved to was remarkably like Blackbird Leys.
Blackbird Leys though has never truly been assimilated or welcomed by the city as a whole. It had some gruesome social statistics decades ago, but is now tidily jovial and shipshape. To hear original inhabitants talk today is revealing: some of them have ventured rarely across the ring road divide. This says something about Oxford. It is progressive, it is liberal, it is the home of political dissent and grass roots activism, it has a roll call of charities. But this activism is very often channelled into the bigger picture of international affairs; Oxfam is the prime example, but there are charities and NGOs galore, and mostly concerned with the international or global. The neglect of local need might be as great here as elsewhere. This pattern of negligence can be seen in the student body: snowflake students can harangue wayward fascists, these days defined as anyone who uses accidentally the same toilet that Anthony Eden used in 1956, but are not so certain that their own television viewing or evening in the pub should interfere with caring for the homeless or addicted in any dark corner of the city. The way of the world. This immature lack of empathy, rampant in the city from the university folk to the post-university folk, may be one of the few things which unites the town and gown.
I regret that still I don’t understand Oxford – I have known it all my life – although once I thought that I did. That would be true of everywhere where there is some wealth (which is the same as too much wealth in my opinion). Wealth is the aspect of modern life that is least understandable – especially what it does to people – and it can be the most corrosive to personal equilibrium: ich bin ein Burgerkinger, said Kennedy, and the love of capitalism is all-inclusive; it corrodes the personal, the communal, and the societal. The characters in the novels of D. H. Lawrence rarely pursue wealth, they pursue an added dimension to their life and that’s a very different thing. Something has happened to the people in contemporary novels, and by and large that mirrors whatever has happened to people in real life: the pursuit of wealth over happiness, the global over the local, convenience rather than community, the trivial and simple over the profound and difficult. And, of course, the digital over the analogue. Even Oxford isn’t bothered to support its bookshops. It’s always been thus, people moaning about decline, but social media exacerbates.
It might be the best city in the world. It is beautiful, fascinating and tempting.
“Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, Ozymandias of Egypt