My town and my gown: chickpeas and televised murder

Nicola Dwornik illuminates some surprising similarities and differences between urban Oxford and bucolic Buckinghamshire

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Photo: Nicola Dwornik

A mere 40 minute drive may separate the two, yet striking cultural differences exist between Oxford and South Buckinghamshire.

Having arrived in Oxford for the first time, I was immediately disorientated. I stared at passers-by on Broad Street, wide-eyed and horrified. The masses of bicycles, sure, I understood. I had used such contraptions to get around at home – two wheels, a slight death wish, goes fast. Makes sense. It was the city’s other favoured method of transportation – walking – that truly confused me. Never before in my life had I seen people walking to places of actual purpose.

In Buckinghamshire, you see, walking usually gets you only to (another part of) the countryside, a pub, or your MP’s second home. Walk ten minutes in one direction, you hit a field, walk 20 minutes in the opposite direction, you hit another. It’ll be greener than the first. With a bus service on life support, South Buckinghamshire is one beautiful, yet uneventful, overpriced Countryfile calendar (note: there’s a train to London). In Oxford, however, I was amazed to find that you could get to places on foot – places where things actually happened. The prospect was rather dizzying. The realisation that I would see a 4×4 car perhaps just once a week, rather than four times a day, itched my brain. Uncomfortably.

If that wasn’t enough change to cope with, my eyesight started to worsen in the city. Something was messing with my vision, and I was seeing parts of the colour spectrum I’d never seen before. It had first appeared in the fringes of my view but now was visible everywhere, especially around my college, Balliol. I soon came to terms with what I was seeing – it was the colour ‘red’. It was an unfamiliar sight, exceedingly rich in tone. Sure, my parents had once told me that colours other than blue existed, but they had remained unclear, mocked, unexplained. The optician told me there were no problems with my retinae. It was just a processing dysfunction, derived from political colour-washing, that was mending itself. I told her that I had previously never seen a red seat in my entire life. She laughed.

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She proceeded to ask me whether I was suffering from any side effects – “Headaches? Migraines? Nausea?” I replied saying that I was experiencing a newly questioning conscience. Since arriving in Oxford, questions such as “Was it actually ok for my MP to claim expenses on dog food?” and “Is High Speed Two really more important than my friend’s paddock?” had kept me up all night. The optician laughed at me again, assuring me that my mind was radically reordering for the better. She advised me that it would be for the best if I didn’t try to speak in the JCR until the process was completed. I readily obliged.

I began to fear that Oxford and Buckinghamshire shared no semblance of each other. Middle-class embers of hope, once brightly glowing, were now dull flakes. Refusing to believe this to be the truth, however, I forced myself to find things that made home feel a little closer.

I found most of these things on the shelves of Botley Road’s Waitrose. But what I failed to find in the supermarket was even more poignant. This year a catastrophe of unforgettable proportions arrived at our doorstep. It struck the taste buds and sanity of Oxford’s inhabitants as badly as those belonging to residents of the home counties – I speak solemnly of the Hummus Crisis of April 2017. A wicked metallic taste tore through our produce indiscriminately, leaving our shelves barren and us weeping, together, in the deli aisles. United in sorrow, we mopped up our tears with sauce-less rye bread, dry as the Sahara in spring. As one body, we grieved. Isn’t it strange how, for some communities, it is music that brings people together, or sport that defies the boundaries of age, politics and class – but, for us, it was the noble chickpea?

With hummus back in my life, perspective flooded back in too. In the form of ITV. I suppose one thing that never fails to make Oxford seem that little bit warmer on a cold and crisp evening is the channel’s murder dramas. Midsomer Murders is staple home counties viewing – it features graphic scenes of gardening shears shoved down throats, actions fuelled by the internal disputes of local bird-watching associations. They regularly film in Buckinghamshire. Similarly, Oxford – Turl Street in particular – is frequently used as a shooting backdrop for the detective dramas Lewis and Endeavour. Knowing Oxford and my home share this purpose keeps me feeling toasty in bed at night.

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It seems, then, that Oxford and South Buckinghamshire aren’t so different after all. And if I do feel homesick, questionable internet speeds and beers priced at £5 a pint pull me through. Whilst walking still remains a new phenomenon, I admit that such a primitive mode of transportation seems remarkably agreeable when, at home, a £20 taxi is the standard conclusion to any night out.

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