Town versus gown: a view from the fence of the age-old divide

Michael Jacobs discusses the tension between the lives of students and locals

Coming to Oxford was an overwhelming experience of excruciating pain, tears and much fussing around me; so much of all this that I hardly remember it. I am of course referring to my birth, as it is since then that I have lived, and later studied here. Even for a child, Oxford is an easy city to navigate, its main sites rarely straying far from the cross roads around which it revolves. A lot of students who already live here will therefore never enjoy the charm of being lost that must befall new students of larger cities. This is exacerbated by the fact that the University is such an inescapable part of the city centre.

Go abroad, and the global recognition of your hometown can be bizarre, given that it’s almost small enough to know someone every few streets. Even stranger, can be people’s impressed reactions and assumptions that merely living here should entail a pompous attitude. To an extent, familiarity with the city is an advantage in applying, potentially offsetting feelings of intimidation that others might experience when confronted with the density of medieval buildings and sneering gargoyles.

Living here can also teach you that playing the student isn’t so hard to master—a bold walk through a college door almost always gets you free entrance, while seeing students dumbly staggering the streets on a night out does wonders to eliminate the mystique around entry requirements. Yet I’m not without jealousy for those whose hometowns are so different that for them living here is ‘like living in a cake.’ As both a resident and a student, even living right in the centre is not always enveloping enough to feel like I’m studying here. Rather than seeking to escape the bubble, as so many understandably do, remaining absorbed in it is all the more important. When work finishes for the week, a torrent of student events and extra-curricular activities seems preferable to the stagnant feeling that living in college is like being on some strange residential in your own town. So long as you keep moving, you can outpace your sense of place.

Related  Assassinations in Oxford

Of course, different sides to the city are seen, as you start getting to know it inside out, from lakes and deer parks you didn’t know existed, to underground college bars. Studying with people who are new to the city also lends some novelty to the experience, as the religion of Burning Down the House replaces town traditions such as the Purple Turtle nativity, whereby in a cleansing and invigorating rite, the hole in the wall of PT becomes a portal through which friends are posted headfirst. Similarly, Lola Lo had never before been a place for buying drinks, only a dance space to return to after serving shots from a gin bottle hidden in the graveyard outside. Neither had I before known friends pretentious enough to commit a French pun in calling it “grave” drinking.

But for all its drawbacks and questionable consequences, my experience of studying in the town I live in has shown me that the town and gown divide generally seems to exist more as a consequence of the fact that the lives of students are inevitably structured differently to those at school or with jobs, than out of any mutual hostility or snobbery. Yet the difference is still there, and when leaving the city centre after the end of term I’m always a little surprised to see that Oxford exists, even when the student bubble has burst.