I’m afraid I’m going to have to nail my colours to the mast straight off. Oxford is weird. Oxford people are weird. That is all.
No doubt many of you have just reeled back from the page in horror, clutching your breasts and choking with indignation, “Weird? Moi?” Quite apart from the fact that you’ve just responded in French, the likelihood is that yes, even you, the most normal, well balanced and sober undergraduate that ever walked a mile in dark brown brogues, have some dark and lurking secret that skulks, guilty and sordid, in the dim places at the back of your mind.
A secret that requires only a certain atmosphere to burst forth, merrily clad in Morris-dancing clothes, and swagger off down the broad with handkerchiefs and bells held high.
Oxford is this atmosphere. Centuries of steadfastly ignoring the progression of the outside world, and the gradual accumulation of traditions in the manner of a bag lady collecting string, have left Oxford in the unique position of being thoroughly entrenched, in the public eye, against any sort of normalcy.
Ask almost anyone on any street in Britain what they think of when it comes to Oxford, and the traditional images leap or vault to mind; Pimms on the lawn, messing around on the river in various capacities, antiquated libraries with guttering candles, earnest conversations about Eliot or Woolf over sherry with avuncular and eccentric dons in horn-rimmed spectacles.
And then of course there are the negative stereotypes – everyone has an Eton or Harrow accent/education, is so intellectual as to be positively incomprehensible in everyday speech, cosy conservatism, unthinking prejudice and a hearty dislike for anyone with an accent north of Watford Gap.
In universities from Bristol to Edinburgh, the news that you go to Oxford, (regardless of that institutions own stellar reputation), is always greeted with a raucous collection of brays and a surge towards the alcohol, that the participants might raise containers and moo at each other in their fond imitation of ‘posh’.
To go to Oxford is apparently, as a result of this instant wealth of stereotype, almost an automatic system of excuse. No matter how eccentric your appearance, table manners or method of speaking, the fact that you’re an Oxon means that it is Only To be Expected.
Almost as soon as you leave school or home to come here, this fact falls like a blind between you and the family and friends from home, so that any statement vaguely bizarre, curious or related to an intimate detail of your subject that you find toe-curlingly exciting is met with an indulgent “He’s at Oxford…”.
This was brought to my attention most recently by the joys of the college garden party, a rare sign from the university that the students it domineers and terrifies in the strangest sadomasochistic relationship in the academic world were actually physically birthed, as opposed to manifesting, sweating and blinking with paralysing fear, just outside the office door of their interviewers. Here one got to see the attitude with which people’s parents approached their spawn, and the associates of their spawn, and this same, slightly wary idea was evident.
These were ‘Oxford students’, about whom weird and wacky things had been heard, and there was no telling what they might do – up to and including joining in the rousing chorus of the brass band adaptation of ‘Love and Marriage’ with an explosive, strawberry-filled finale.
This is not to say that other universities do not have their eccentrics, or that other institutes of learning are not thoroughly mad. The Slade School of Art, for example, in their recent exhibition, displayed a beautiful series of organically-shaped and beautifully inscribed miniature sculptures that turned out to be models of the artist’s own excrement, engraved with the sensations he apparently felt whilst…creating them.
Everyone has their faults, flaws, quirks and traits, and this is what makes people so exciting, but there is a sliding scale between those who occasionally rub a Smurf for good luck before going into an exam and those who feel a burning urge to perform evocative and very vocal drama in skimpy leotards on Cornmarket on an February midnight, to an audience that consisted of a fair mix of long-haired and eager student radicals and highly inebriated football fans themselves much concerned with the female actors’ bodily health.
Other universities are crazed also, but they, to an extent that Oxford blithely and majestically ignores, are related to the Real World; they occupy cities like Manchester or Birmingham or Liverpool, for example. In such cities, the sight of a bespectacled chemist in an academic robe being chased down a cobbled street and pelted with handfuls of flour, obscenely-shaped chocolates and small packets of washing-up liquid might be considered odd, or even in certain areas grounds for physical restraint.
It is the saturation of the city of Oxford with the eccentricities of a student population that is proportionately huge that means no such judgement, save in a passive sort of way, ever occurs. Thus, we are able to live in the Arcadia continually referenced by writers throughout the ages.
However, this is not to say that the ‘Oxford Mania’, as we might call it, is without its downsides. The bizarre relationship between student and tutor, where all of one’s pride, insecurity and sense of self-worth is compressed into an hour long discussion with one of the world’s finest minds, married to a bizarre affection and chivalrous desire to protect one’s own, breeds a special kind of neuroticism not found outside the tutorial system.
Then there is the sheer pressure of work, the amount of books, articles and essays that leaves you short-tempered when an old school friend calls to complain about their thousand-word thesis due in a fortnight. And then there are the exams that shred the summer-term joy from the freshers and instil all third-years with an air of gloom reminiscent of Napoleon on his way back from Moscow.
Not for nothing are the famous dreaming spires closed to finalists. It’s a curious phenomenon, for such an apparently intelligent bunch we almost seem to self-sabotage. We have all done it, regardless of our apparent brightness – after a week of lazy reading, we’ve ended up hunched over a desk in the library at half-past four in the morning with an attractive cocktail of Red Bull and tar-like coffee in a gradually decomposing cup and a half-finished essay mostly lifted from an obscure Belgian scholar from the fifties.
Surely the most basic self-preservation instincts would strive to prevent this, and the subsequent shame of being dissected alive by one of the world’s most respected scholars. But no, we blunder on, driven by an insane desire to prove ourselves and, lest we forget, the love for our subject that we grudgingly admit still lives, despite the onslaught.
Clearly, the Oxford frame of mind, the supposed aim for all those frantic tourists who throng the city, is a difficult beastie. Without the moderating influence of the outside world, (if not for the BBC News website, I doubt the majority of Oxford would be aware of imminent nuclear holocaust), all our fancies are capable of running wild and free.
One might bring about the world premiere of an apparently unstageable play, or charge to the parks in homemade chainmail to hit one’s friends with very heavy swords. The parameters of normal behaviour are laxer here, and for the better.
Admittedly, I am not speaking from an entirely objective point of view. From an early age an unhealthy fixation with reading and a romantic disposition that borders on the pathological have combined to create, in what one might call selective logic, the resolution that I too must attend Oxford; Cambridge was never a possibility and was filed away as a nebulous and evil presence, a conclusion only ratified when I finally visited it many years later. This is a city where any peculiarities I possess are accepted or even ignored as entirely normal.
This entire reflection has been prompted, mostly, by the shameless blossoming of the Oxford stereotypes that come with Trinity term. Here, in the most high-pressure term for the majority of the students, any possible outlet is exploited – the ball season, where everyone abandons self-restraint and dignity in revelling that seems to inevitably revolve around the chocolate fountain, or Summer Eights, where on the Saturday the sleepy die-hard cheerleaders are bolstered by what seems a large portion of Oxfordshire and beyond, all of them trumpeting the virtues of management consultancy.
In Trinity, when the weather [periodically] supports the dreams of a thousand garden-party planners, the city finally rises into its position as a dreamlike Arcadia and takes possession of its status as a place apart, and thus it is the time when the glorious weirdness of those who sail in her is allowed to burn brightest.
So yes, Oxford is weird, and Oxford people are weird in a way entirely their own. This is No Bad Thing.
Oxford students, being weird.
Photos: Ian Bhullar
Stylist: Kate Shouesmith
Sub fusc: Models’ own