Even typing the phrase ‘Cambridge-Oxford rivalry’ into Google, in preparation for this piece, prompts a prickle of annoyance: why should the Tabs take primacy in the word order?
It’s indicative of the utter irrationality of the enduring Oxbridge rivalry. In historical terms, the ill-feeling sprang out of the circumstances of Cambridge’s founding, when a group of Oxford University scholars got into conflict with townspeople and were forced to flee Oxford, setting up shop in a nearby market town. Cambridge University was the result – our tumultuously conceived younger sibling, fated to that role since 1209.
For Oxbridge Freshers – indeed, for anyone not involved in University sports – the whole thing is farcical. Just another instance of the two universities’ proclivity to elitism and navel-gazing. Even if you do follow rowing, it’s hard to feel furious enmity in the Veuve-Cliquot-sipping world of Henley. And forget academic rivalry: no one in their right mind can get wound up about league tables. Most of us find it hard to care sufficiently about collections.
That was my attitude, anyway…until the Varsity Rugby match on Thursday. We were all a bit taken-aback by the hoardes of indoctrinated 12-year-olds, chanting such appropriately intelligent phrases as: “I’d rather be a leper than a Tab”. Even the little flags placed by each seat (“I’m a Dark Blue”) failed to stir ardour. But after a pint of Magners at half time, and a beautiful try by Keble’s Sam Egerton, suddenly even the most reserved spectators were screaming sentences featuring both expletives and the long-eschewed word, “Tabs”. Suddenly, we were – are – Dark Blues.
Having undergone the transformation, I find myself bearing a new and previously abhorred character feature. I really do feel ‘f*** the Tabs’.
So what is it that causes such animosity to emerge, rapidly and apparently unbidden? Why should not Durham or UCL be our partners in the fray? Partly, of course, it’s historical: the first Varsity match was in cricket, in 1827; the boat race was established two years later.
But there are deeper explanations for the continued endurance of such primal sentiments. A 2010 paper by psychologists at the Universities of California, New York and Washington, on rivalry between NCAA basketball players*, identifies “relational dependency”; essentially, intense similarity between competitors often results in a far more personal sense of rivalry. You need to beat the rival who is most like you. This can even be suggested to reflect a sense of internal competition; in some ways, it becomes a battle with an externalised self.
It’s hardly a ground-breaking revelation that the Oxford-Cambridge rivalry might, maybe, be born of similarity. In acknowledging that the competition should surely lose its visceral nature, yet the intimacy of the rivalry is so ingrained (and helpfully underscored by group mentality and identity) that rationality get lost in the mass of Jack Wills kits.
Meanwhile, in defining success as the failure of the chosen rival Oxbridge neglects competition with other top universities. The competitive binary starts to look less elitist, more pig-headedly circumscribed. Imperial, UCL, Edinburgh, LSE; they’re all fighting for turf. The steady rise of the Russell Group is accompanied by anti-Oxbridge popular feeling, for the media loves an alumni-slating-his-alma-mater piece.
And if that wasn’t depressing enough: how often do you find yourself subjected to a tirade by a non-Oxbridge student, insisting their courses are equally as demanding; equal, in fact, in every way? While they rant, a hefty wedge of your consciousness mulls on Bristol’s superior graduate employment rates. While your companion asserts their two-books-a-week workload and the tough task of juggling their social life, the dreaming spires begin to take on a nightmarish, Escher-esque aspect in your mind’s eye…
This, then, is perhaps the real cause of the durability of our rivalry with Cambridge. The damn Tabs get it. They get that “doing Dickens” for 5th week does not mean doing Bleak House; it means doing the entirety of Dickens. Or at least working yourself into an asylum in a bid to fake it. They get the whole thing about living in an environment of pressure, where your success in anything from an 8th week essay to a collegiate rugby match comes to dictate your definition of self. They get that vacations are for guilt, Park End is for guilt, sleep is guilt, and that if guilt could be aggregated, Oxbridge would hold more than the Catholic Church and upper-middle-classes combined.
Which is why they merit competition. If there’s anything a ravening Oxbridge-type loves it’s a bit of self-flagellation, and competition with your closest sibling offers just that. So whether screaming abuse at a Varsity match, or disdainfully assessing your Cambridge friends’ reading list, remember that affection runs beneath the animosity. And also that while we can at least drink our pain away, Cambridge only has, like, one bar.