This has been inspired by a day (plus night) trip to Oxford, in which I have never swung so violently between disgust, amazement and that sort of jealousy that comes from the darkest of places. Oxford itself is a pretty sort of town, a little bit Harry Potter, a little bit C S Lewis and of course a little bit Alice in Wonderland (much celebrated it seems). It’s largely based around the university, and one gets the overwhelming feeling that everybody either studies or works at the university, or is employed by the shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants that seem to exist purely to serve the former. Life appears to revolve around the youthful men and women who are being cultivated to become leading professors, researchers, politicians, philosophers and all that jazz that is associated with the oldest university in the English speaking world. The colleges are grand old places, and the students preen about in neatly pressed street clothes, but always accessorized with a house scarf or jumper or crest, just to confirm their status in the elitist university in the world.
And this brings me to the nature of privilege in Britain. I’ve talked about it before, and I’ll bring it up again, because it’s what startles me the most about Britain. Why, just the other day one of David Cameron’s new peers, the absurdly titled Lord Flight (who as far as I can see has done little except become a millionaire banker and therefore, a bit of a wanker) said to the Evening Standard that the welfare changes, in which wealthy families would be stripped of child support benefits, will “encourage the poor to breed.” It seems unfathomable that such a view may still exist, and one can only hope that the poor will breed so that tossers like Lord Flight will not be able exist in his horrible little vacuum of 1860. But it seems possible, as I wander Oxford, how people like Lord Flight and his cronies could exist. In London, amongst the multicultural shopping strips and high street mish-mashes it feels virtually impossible to imagine Lord Flight’s world, but amongst the spires and libraries and halls of Oxford it’s entirely feasible.
You must see that privilege is a fact of life in England that we never truly see in Australia. Yes, there are classes in Australia, but one always feels that one can maneuver between them as long as one is prepared to put in the hard yards and get some dough. Easier said than done, yes, and it’s true that a few of the archaic traditions inherited from Britain exist in Australia today, but the most important point of difference here is the distinction between money and blood. In Australia, classes are a financial meter, and in Britain they are a birthright.
We go to a pub in the evening, a joint called the Turf which is down a small catacomb of laneways and bits between buildings and we would never have found it if not for our new Latvian friend, met during an eccentric conversation at the hostel. When I thought about the Turf before I entered it, I imagined a surf-themed bar, like one of those awful Walkabout monstrosities, but it eventuates to be one of those small low pubs filled with chattering students. It does have an Australian connection: Bob Hawke made Guinness World Record when he drank two and a half pints in eleven seconds as an Oxford student in 1955. It is now when one begins to understand that note of sympathy that Britons employ when they hear of your terrible Australian-ness.
But, for most of the evening I listen to a boy and a girl on the table beside us, the girl nods and smiles and mostly listens as the boy blathers on in the dullest way possible, his perfect Oxford accent (by which I mean that one has never heard ‘posh’ until they’ve been to Oxford) piping up in tones that suggests vague disappointment at the world, the university, his Daddy, and the girl herself, who he seems to regard inferior to his blossoming loveliness: “Oh it really just peeves me how Professors can’t just give one an assignment and that’s that. Why must we go through all this other palaver? I mean, obviously I don’t cheat. What a jolly twat.” His wide face screws up in disgust as he thinks about it, and perfect white teeth bite down on rosy lip as if to demonstrate his academic pain that such a genius be required to complete a plagiarism form.
A professor nearby (well, I assume him to be one, he wears brown corduroy trousers and has a head of grey frizzy hair and spectacles half down his nose, so I can’t imagine him functioning in any other way) overhears and chuckles into his Financial Times.
In my mind I imagine Oxford University to remain unchanged by time, where existence hasn’t been swayed by the threats of Google, iPhones and modern thinking on the concepts of women, race or religion. My mind’s eye imagines tweed boys sweating over large dusty volumes in the school library, racing up to the common room to listen to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore on the wireless, and bemusedly collecting Beatles records whilst turning a disparaging nose up to the wham bam of the Who. This is the Oxford where Albert Einstein once lectured, and Oscar Wilde developed his wit, and JRR Tolkien created his Hobbits and Bertie Wooster, fictional as he was, became my yard-stick for dithering British pomposity. Really, it exists as a rather romantic notion fed by my endless fascination with Evelyn Waugh and Thomas De Quincey, and can’t seem to possibly function outside of a whimsical Stephen Fry-esque world.
Though I’m sure WIFI and degrees of feminism now permeate the hallowed halls (afterall, Kate Beckinsale is now a graduate) one can’t help but imagine these young men and women as anything other than relics of tradition and conservatism.
In the other corner of the Turf, three bearded, bespectacled men hunch over pints, and a part of me wishes I could be them, and look so clever and intellectual (in a way that one could never do at Adelaide Uni or Flinders, because ‘intellectual students’ just look like a bunch of posers in plastic glasses and skinny jeans. Being a hipster isn’t the same as being clever, and when faced with a university that produced Albert Einstein, one can see the Exeter preeners in all their glorious Technicolour). And another, far stronger, part of me feels like tapping them on the shoulder and mentioning that some bloke has already figured out E=MC2, and not to bother writing that book about the world in the back of the wardrobe, and not to begin on the Dagenham Dialogues, because everything here seems straight out of an age we’ve already passed yonks ago.
But I’m sure, I’m sure that contemporary Oxford students are more understanding, modern and aware than their halls and colleges and Churches and choirs suggest. Afterall, some of the greatest modern thought has been produced here. Moreover, some of the greatest anti-selective-education sentiments have been uttered by its alumni. Surely Oxford is in fact one of the most progressive schools in Britain?
I stand at the bar in an attempt to buy the cheapest drink possible (student deals in Oxford are suspiciously un-student prices) and a pale faced redhead and his curly haired friend stand behind me, watching as the bar staff struggle with the demands of students (and they are demands too, please and thank-you are not in a vocabulary that is too privileged to understand them). The redhead scoffs as a young woman in an Oxford scarf barks at the bar man. “Hah,” says the boy triumphantly to his friend, smirking. “That’s right dickhead. Do your fucking job properly, you’re lucky to have one.”
The Oxford spirit is still strong, then.