Pity the Freshers.
Sure, they’ve made their offers, gawked at reading lists, googled ‘Sub Fusc’, and had Aunty Barbara in Auckland cooing congratulations down the phone line. But they’re currently staring into an Oxford-shaped abyss, and as with any abyss, it’s a disconcerting feeling. They have no idea what lies ahead. Doom? Gloom? Twats-in-red-trousers, wantonly discriminating against anyone without a private income and a public school education? Sobrani-smoking, silk-dressing-gown-toting, self-described ‘eccentrics’? Or is it all with ancient manuscripts, moth-eaten cardigans, and stony-faced silence?
My advice is not to turn to literature for help.
Before arriving here, impressions of the city tend to be constructed of a hazy mixture of terrified interview memories and media stereotypes. It’s tempting to turn to the multitude of novels set in Oxford for clarity, to paint a coherent picture of what life here will be like. Don’t do this. They lie. Every author’s rose-tinted image of punting and port is just waiting to be shattered when you realise that, actually, life in Oxford is mostly normal. Give or take a gown or two.
So here’s an anti-reading list of the most dangerous examples of fictionalised Oxford – the books definitely not to read before your arrival.
Brideshead Revisited (1945) by Evelyn Waugh
‘“I’ve got a motor-car and a basket of strawberries and a bottle of Chateau Peyraguey – which isn’t a wine you’ve ever tasted, so don’t pretend. It’s heaven with strawberries.”’
Let’s get the cliché out of the way. Evelyn Waugh’s magnum opus is the quintessential image of Oxford decadence, telling the tale of Charles Ryder’s embroilment with the Catholic, aristocratic Marchmain family, whom he meets through their Oxford undergraduate son, Sebastian. Though only the first part of the novel is set in Oxford, Ryder’s relationship with the fabulously wealthy, fabulously camp, fabulously alcoholic Sebastian has become a byword for the kind of champagne-quaffing hedonism that, even in darkest Christ Church, is rarely found in reality. Anyone caught carrying a pretentiously-named teddy bear is guaranteed a black eye by the end of Freshers.
Jude the Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy
‘New Doctors emerged, their red and black gowned forms passing across Jude’s vision like inaccessible planets across and object glass’
Oxford’s access problem is, rightly, well documented. Even though only 7% of UK pupils attend private schools, 42.5% of Oxford’s 2012 Freshers were independently educated. In spite of all efforts to the contrary – and efforts are being made – its undergraduates are still almost universally upper-middle class. But read Jude the Obscure and realise how far we’ve come from Thomas Hardy’s day. His story of thwarted ambition and social prejudice centres around a working class Wessex lad, Jude Fawley, whose dreams of studying at Christminister (Oxford) are frustrated by his lack of fortune and formal education. It’s the novel that contains the most heart-wrenching misspelling in the English language – the ‘Done because we are to menny’ of Jude’s son’s suicide note – and even for a miserable bugger like Hardy, it’s very bleak. Avoid or you’ll arrive in Oxford feeling incurably resentful on Jude’s behalf. Just visit the Jericho pub named after it instead.
Northern Lights (1995) by Philip Pullman
‘Jordan College was the grandest and richest of all the colleges in Oxford… It had never been planned; it had grown piecemeal, with past and present overlapping at every spot, and the final effect was one of jumbled and squalid grandeur.’
To put it bluntly, real Oxford isn’t like Philip Pullman’s Oxford because Pullman’s Oxford is set in a parallel universe. Sorry. Unlike the one from which his protagonist Lyra sets out, we have no daemons, witches or armoured bears. We are not ruled over by a shadowy theocratic ‘Magisterium’ and there is no Final Honours School in Experimental Theology. We’ve got plenty of dust, sure, but no Dust. Start jabbering about General Oblation Boards and Miltonian conspiracy and find yourself quick-marched to the college counselling service and sternly instructed to stop with the substance abuse.
And these are only the three worst offenders. From Martin Amis to Alan Bennett, Inspector Morse to Zuleika Dobson, English literature is littered with depictions of Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’. But spires don’t dream. They just attract flocks of tourists. As you sit on the pavement after your first Jaeger-sticky night at Bridge, trying to smoke a cigarette the wrong way round and crying because you dropped your cheesy chips, you’ll realise that the Oxford of fiction is precisely that – fictitious.