The death of irony: in defence of Giles Coren

Susannah Goldsbrough takes issue with recent criticism levelled at Giles Coren

Keble, Giles Coren's old college (Photo: Wikipedia)

This December has seen a small-scale media battle played out across The Times, Cherwell and The Telegraph. One very flippant journalist has been roundly admonished in both the university and national press by a few students whose end of term exhaustion took the form of a serious sense of humour failure. It is now about time to set the record straight. Giles Coren does not believe that terrible teaching is what makes Oxford special, nor is he a racist. He is simply a master of the apparently rapidly disappearing art of irony.

It all started when Faiz Siddiqui, an alumnus of Brasenose College, announced his intention of suing his alma mater for £1 million on the grounds that the “negligent” teaching he received reventing him from obtaining a first-class degree, and seriously impaired his career prospects.

In response, Giles Coren, a columnist and restaurant critic for The Times, penned a dismissal of Siddiqui’s suit entitled ‘Terrible Teaching is what makes Oxford Special’. He explained that “one goes to Oxford precisely because the teaching is rubbish” and mused that perhaps “the problem stems from Mr Siddiqui being of foreign origin and somehow mistakenly equating Oxford University with ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ and getting value for money.” The article provoked outrage among students.

Speaking to Cherwell, Magdalen College JCR Vice President Amanda Turner commented, “The tutorial system in Oxford means students receive some of the best standards of teaching in the world, and there is a good feedback system for students to use if they aren’t happy with teaching standards.

However, remarks like Giles Coren’s prevent students from speaking up if they aren’t satisfied with how they are being taught.”

Tony Diver, writing in The Telegraph, argued that comments like Coren’s are “exactly what puts off state school applicants to Oxbridge” and that Coren should “stop spreading lies that could do some real damage.”

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Reasonable responses, you might suppose. Certainly, if taken seriously, Coren’s airy dismissal of an Oxford education—which thousands of teenagers sweat and struggle to earn the right to every year—as rubbish is in very poor taste, particularly considering anyone who does manage to get there also pays £9000 a year for the privilege. And undoubtedly, his characterisation of student life as “drinking and playing tennis and nicking books out of the Bod under your cricket jumper” could have been lifted straight from the pages of Brideshead Revisited. It does not exactly scream accessibility to an applicant intimidated by Oxford’s reputation as an elite, upper-class playground. But the crucial point here is whether we take him seriously.

In the same article, Coren tells us that he has “never fully recovered” from missing a 13th birthday party which would have enabled him to begin his sex life early. In the last two months he has described ordering food in a restaurant in the terms, “We just shout, ‘PRAWNS CHICKEN CHOCOLATE CAKE’ at some guy” and his own laughter as “so hard that it hurt my face, rattled the chandeliers and caused the mounted stag heads on the wall (if there were any, which I cannot be certain of) to turn and stare and tut.” My point being, we are not expected to take everything he says at face value.

Coren is a good writer. He understands that humour and mockery are a better way to criticise something than simply stating that it’s wrong. Which is why he wrote an article in nostalgic praise of terrible teaching and smug behaviour at Oxford. Because what he was actually doing was tearing the place to pieces. The line, “Maybe the problem stems from Mr Siddiqui being of foreign origin and somehow mistakenly equating Oxford University with ‘learning’ and ‘teaching’ and getting value for money” is not a xenophobic expression of an antiquated viewpoint but a sarcastic condemnation of an institution that defied its international reputation for excellence to provide awful teaching for himself and Siddiqui.

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His image of Oxford as a place for drunken undergraduates to lob books at tourists is fully intended to sound equal parts repulsive and fictional because his point is that is precisely not what Oxford is for. In the sharpest and funniest way Coren is making some serious criticisms—the standard of teaching as he experienced it was unacceptable and education should be about more than posh boys behaving badly.

If you don’t believe me, you need only read some of Coren’s other writings on his time at Oxford. He is admirably honest about how miserable he was. Perhaps Diver should have done so before describing his work as “pompous […] Oxford nostalgia”. As Oxford students, I’m pretty sure we’re smart enough to know when someone means the opposite of what they’re saying. Coren may not like the place much but, if he is ever tempted to come back, I think we could all do with some lessons in irony.