Saturday, 8 November 2008

Joys of Oxford: Introduction

Thomas Traherne (Brasenose College, 1657) writes of his time at Oxford in Centuries of Meditations thus:

Having been at the University, and received there the taste and tincture of another education, I saw that there were things in this world of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination.

There are some things about Oxford which annoy me very much, and I've learnt during my time here that it's a name which arouses strong feelings both inside and outside the University. Some people get delightfully excited when they hear it: "oh, Oxford! You mean Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, and Brideshead Revisited and Alice in Wonderland, and punting, and High Table, and Dorothy L. Sayers, and Inspector Morse, and those funny gowns!" I like that, because secretly when I say the name of this city I do mean all those things and more, and I'm still just as excited as any tourist can be when I think of them.

But some people are hostile: they think of snobbery, the Bullingdon Club, spiteful dons, ivory towers, privileged public schoolboys, High Table, and those stupid gowns. Those images are lurking behind almost any depiction of Oxford in the contemporary media, especially when journalists want to put the boot into certain politicians, and I do see where they get it from - there's no denying there's some truth in it, even today. I was at a (now former) women's college as an undergraduate, and the reaction of some members of the University to that name was enough to show me that snobbery is alive and well here.

But for all that, I think this is a city and a university like no other, and I love it. I didn't come here from a typical Oxford background, and in many ways I was hopelessly underprepared for life here, academically and socially. And yet, like Thomas Traherne, I've found here "things of which I never dreamed; glorious secrets, and glorious persons past imagination". I want to share some of those glorious secrets in this blog.