First week of Michaelmas stands out as an eventful seven days for all Oxford students. The essays haven’t started and Filth is still cool because you have nothing to compare it to. It’s a week of meeting new people, making the friends who see you through your degree and, for many, tolerating the inevitable references about where you come from. For me, hailing from the coastal town of Llanelli in South Wales, this meant slowing down my speech, asking the occasional individual not to call me Glyn, and tolerantly explaining why I wasn’t at Jesus. Such comments have never escalated into what anyone could call prejudice, but there have certainly been moments where being away from a country that is essentially not particularly distant have been difficult. So can the same be said for other non-English Brits? What difficulties face Scottish and Irish students, as well as Welsh ones other than myself, on arriving in Oxford, a quintessentially English town full of English people?
The first few days at Oxford, as well as bringing light-hearted stereotyping, also means signing up for more clubs than you have time to attend at the Fresher’s Fair. The first stall I came across as I walked into the exam school that day was the Arabic society, and I was asked if I wanted to be a member. Apparently, it didn’t matter that I had no connection whatsoever to this group, so I quickly put my e-mail address on the contact sheet and looked around for the next potential association. Something caught my eye; the Welsh society, a club which I surely had every right to be a member of. I practically ran across the crowded room, pen ready, and began to write my name. And yet, I was stopped by a questioning glance from the girl who mans the stall. “Don’t worry” I say, “I’m Welsh”.
But my hopes are dashed. I may be Welsh, but that doesn’t mean I’m wanted. My inability to speak the tongue of my native land means that, to the society, I am unnecessary, and unless I have lessons, I will forever remain in purgatory, linked with Wales through my heritage, but to England through my language.
So why such a rule? Surely the Welsh society, full name Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym, has an obligation to cater for all countrymen. I ask the current president, Delyth Jewell, about the motives behind such a strict policy, and she is understandably quick to jump to its defence. ‘The point is that the very purpose of the society is for first language Welsh speakers to have the opportunity to use the language when they’re away from home.’ This seems fair enough, but would it not be possible to embrace non-Welsh speakers in different events? Apparently there was indeed a separate society which performed such a function, but it has, as Jewell says, ‘filtered out’. The shelf-life of what could be described as an overly nationalistic club seems short, but Cymdeithas Dafydd ap Gwilym is the second oldest society in the University (after the Union), so they must be doing something right. Evidently then the national identity which people like Jewell work hard to maintain is not always present in the Welsh students at Oxford. Is this simply apathy, or rather a conscious decision on their part to become absorbed into English life?
This isn’t always the case though, as I discover from Fiona Mulvenna, a second year from Northern Ireland, who feels that her sense of national identity has actually increased since being in England; ‘At home, national identity is a bit of a no-no as it’s so closely linked to sectarianism – ie you have to have a “British” identity or an “Irish” one. Now I’m here however, I do feel quite proud of my Northern Irish-ness. It makes me cross when people think I’m Scottish, which is surprisingly frequently.’
Such a seemingly strange comparison brings me to the Scots, who congregate at the Scottish society. This lacks the restrictions of its Welsh counterpart, but it seems strange that it has only recently found its legs. I meet Mark Hamid, who has been active in the formation of this society, and ask him about what he considers the problems facing the Scottish students who decide to come to Oxford. He instantly agrees that the minor jibes experienced have never been anything more than playful banter, but nevertheless raises several occasions when where he comes from has caused difficulty. Certain issues seem to be caused by crossed wires and friction between contrasting authorities. For example, the fact that some individuals do not understand Scotland’s exam system can create difficulties. Finance is even more of a problem; Mark recalls the cost of his battells in Michaelmas as amounting to more than four thousand pounds, which, not surprisingly, ‘came as quite a shock’. This problem occurred after delays on the part of his L.E.A in paying his fees, a problem which was solved eventually, but was nevertheless an avoidable error.
Mark also comments on the difficulties posed by the sheer distance students from Scotland, Wales and Ireland (and to many extents parts of England itself) must travel to get to Oxford. Journeys are of course kept to a minimum, as one only needs to make their way here three times a year, but when you’re getting a train to Edinburgh with a few cases and a couple of boxes, it seems a whole lot harder. Colleges hardly make this easier. Whilst a French student from Calais (277 miles away) is entitled to vacation storage to enable an easier journey, Mark, whose home lies 359 miles away, has no such benefits. I am reminded of my return to Oxford in Hilary to find the contents of a box I left in storage (being unable to carry it with everything else) had been donated to a nearby charity shop who, as I discovered after much investigation, had deemed my photographs and general items unsuitable for sale and promptly put them out for the rubbish trucks. I ask Fiona if this has ever been an issue for her; ‘I always spend Saturday of 8th looking wistfully at people from Reading filling up their parents’ cars with stuff’, she says. ‘Meanwhile I totter off to the bus station with an enormous suitcase and several other bags. It doesn’t help that I have far too many shoes.’ The Scottish society hopes to be able to find a way of helping students with this problem in the future, but it seems slightly unfair that colleges themselves are not already providing assistance. In Ms. Mulvenna’s view though, there is little they can do, ‘even if college let me leave everything it wouldn’t make that much difference as I’d still have to take home more than I can carry’. Presumably, she means her shoes.
The Scottish society have a lot of thoughts on how they can be of assistance to the many students who choose to come to Oxford. Mark comments on his intention to improve access, hoping that the association will soon be in a position to help future Scots make the decision to apply. The society though, as Mark is quick to point out, is in no way overtly nationalistic in a political manner, saying ‘I should hope that the society never opts to take a particular stance’. Mix these serious aspects of the society with events celebrating St. Andrew’s Day, Burns’ Night etc. and surely you have a winner. After all, the Scottish dancing society (which amusingly precedes this new one) have expressed support for future functions. Mark seems eager to encourage any celebration of Scottish identity, even if, as he tells me, such a club is made up mostly of the English.
There can be little doubt then that coming to Oxford from Wales, Scotland or Ireland is going to raise difficulties. There are inevitably going to be less of us, but there are still plenty of countrymen about if you just look and, as Fiona tells me, ‘you usually know them or their sister or their best friend or their auntie’s dog’. Whether you are simply derided light-heartedly by new friends, or experience hardships involving finance or distance, there is going to be minor inconvenience. However, such issues can in no way be found only in Oxford; in fact, the University seems to be more accepting of the influx of non-English students than certain Welsh institutions are when welcoming individuals from just across the Severn Bridge. And, indeed, the accents and traits which may bring comical comments are found in equal measure in students from places such as Liverpool or Yorkshire. In my experience, there does not seem to be any difference between a Geordie and a Welsh boy in terms of the level of such comments. Overall then, we non-English Brits have got a lot to be thankful for, even if, every now and again, we get asked to speak just that little slower.