Two Oxfords

Great Britain

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I did not go to university. My grades were good enough to secure an excellent placement, but ultimately it was my decision not to go. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the many writers who had started by honing language in advertising, then move into journalism. During that journey, I fell out of love with the idea of being a reporter. As a consequence, the very concept of university remained a mystery to me.

This weekend I was invited to attend the FT Oxford Literary Festival, not because of my position as a former FT writer but because Joanne Harris, a festival regular, wanted to interview me onstage, and as Worcester College agreed to put me up I jumped at the chance. Greg, our introducer, warned me that there were two Oxfords. One, the hidden world of manicured lawns and amber stone, the other a lawless no-go zone of street drinking and brawling – and so it proved to be.

Greg firmly belongs in the first world; a self-assured, eloquent chap who appears absurdly confident and young. I asked him how long he had been shepherding writers, many of intimidating fame. ‘Eight years now,’ he replied, ‘but of course I was just ten when I started.’

IMG_4660So Oxford, as it has seemed in my previous experiences there, is more than ever a paradox between haves and have-nots, intelligensia and uneducated, rich and poor, right and left. The Ashmolean and the Bodleian (the former having two superb exhibitions of James Gillray and Roman reliefs in their original dazzling colours) are even grander and better financially supported than I remember, while the high street has junk food chains occupying half-timbered houses.

The festival is a phantasmagoria of events, well attended and glamorous. Our discussion on thrillers was followed by a medieval Venetian banquet for Jessye Norman at the college, with grace sung by choristers and the dinner attended by dignitaries including the former Archbishop of Canterbury; this was just one among many such memorable occasions, and who could not be wooed by such grand treatment?

It’s therefore all the stranger to step back into the street the next morning to find broken bottles and McDonalds boxes everywhere, as tourists wander through the detritus searching for the dreaming spires of their collective imagination, only to find – as is ever in Britain – that the very Englishness they seek most is not ever quite available to them.

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8 comments on “Two Oxfords”

  1. snowy says:

    The divide used to be referred to as ‘Town vs. Gown’. The college campuses/campi? are a complete contrast to the Blackbird Leys area.

    Has/had a couple of decent bookshops, one appeared to be fairly modest until you descended into the basement which was 8 times larger and sort of half galleried, with landings on four sides.

  2. Ian Smith says:

    I have friends living in one of Oxford’s council estates, which is as far away from the ‘dreaming spires’ stereotype of the town as you can get. They told me a story about something that allegedly happened there during World War II. Supposedly, there was a big, apartheid-style fence separating a down-at-heels part of Oxford inhabited by ‘working folk’ from a posh part inhabited by university dons. One night, a group of Canadian soldiers stationed in the town took umbrage at this (being from a part of the world with a more egalitarian mindset), commandeered a tank, drove it along the fence and flattened it.

    All right, it’s probably too good to be true. But it’s one Oxford story I like!

  3. keith page says:

    Surely this applies everywhere.The area of the London Borough I live in is drastically different a mile or two away.Oxford’s far from perfect, but you can still enjoy getting off the train from London, crossing the road and walking on a very rural canal towpath to Jericho.Not many places where you can do something like that [well, maybe King’s Cross if you’re prepared to walk a little further]

  4. Reuben says:

    Equally true of Cambridge too.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    There is also the third Oxford – the non-Hogwarts bits of the university where actual work takes place.

  6. Anne Fernie says:

    It used to be very much the Cowley/car plant end of town and then Oxford itself with the ‘Polytechnic’ (Oxford Brookes Uni now) parked in the middle in Headington Hill like some sort of class buffer zone (we used to get attendees from both ‘ends’ of town at the excellent gigs that the Poly put on in the 70s. What I do remember is that there was a pretty healthy relationship/interaction both socially and academically between the poly and the university and that there was a great deal of freedom re. wandering about all areas of the colleges which I suspect is no more (I still have my Bodleian library life membership card – they stopped issuing them to ‘outsiders’ some time ago) – wonder if that is still the case?

  7. Helen Martin says:

    You have a Bodleian library card, Anne? Wow! Our universities are so different. Mine is located on a peninsula at the west end of the city with a buffering forest area. The whole campus is wide open, no walls anywhere, and all the buildings are open to the extent that if you heard an interesting lecture going on you could probably slide into a desk and listen. I have a library card there, but anyone can. Of course, ours are publicly funded.

  8. jan says:

    i agree with Keith i think

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