Dear uninitiated ones,
“New students will be matriculated in absentia” – my tears flow like gutters for you, future freshers. What worth is a degree without the accompanying theatre of success at every stage; and you, my darlings, will be missing the most curious of all Oxford’s mysteries. So, as a prospective parent on the brink of that plunge into responsibility, I thought I might write to you, and why not about this. I have nowt better to do.
For those of you who haven’t yet figured out what you’ll be denied by the current pestilence, here’s a potted history of matriculation, from a guide for tourists I found flapping against a George Street lamppost one Hilary night:
Matriculation (a corruption of “Matron’s lactations”, a common public-school ambrosia) is a ceremony that takes place every year in Oxford, marking the final severing of the students’ weak connection to reality. Taking place in the Sheldonian Theatre (a corruption of “we shouldn’t really have called it a theatre, should we?”), this ritual dates back until at least the year 0 A.W. (after the war) and possibly further, and was invented by radical Wadham Marxists to prove Debord right. The rites require formal attire for the students, attending, as they are, the funeral of their own sensibility. Central to the ritual is an address in what is often mistaken for Latin, but is actually rhyming slang, spoken at high-speed by an unlicensed cockney, in a practise similar to the controversial chav socials of tabloid fame. Finally, the students strip and self-flagellate, an action that symbolises their rejection of social conscience, before attempting to drink their own bodyweight in the distilled blood of those who, sadly, did not make it through ‘interviews’. All in all, a curious ritual, enjoyed from a distance by people like you.
People like me indeed.
Sadly, for some of you, it’s not just an excuse to get
pissed you’re missing, but a familial tradition. The 2020 Michaelmas slot in
your family photo archives will remain empty, void of another phalanx of
identikit fresh faces, squinting glibly into the midmorning sun, shrunken heads
atop bulky black robes. I can’t imagine what it’s like to stand there, the
sense of history you have, knowing you follow in the footsteps of your
thoroughbred ancestors, hoofed feet firmly in the same stall, waiting for the
vice-chancellor’s starting gun for the great steeplechase to begin, first to
the City via Westminster takes it all. Don’t worry, you worked for this, years
boathouse trap, right? Not many get out of Cheltenham alive, do
they? And it’s not as if it was Eton, I mean, daddy had to shake the old
Panamanian settee rigorously to find a few spare bob, and couldn’t get a Harley
Street chiropractor when it did his back in.
You deserved it, the chance to be part of the same dance-as-old-as-time as all the other, former Bright Young Things, who clambered up this greasy pole before you, no helping hands to offer bar better diction, the ability to tie a bowtie and an algorithmic nudge or two. It’s ok, calm your incandescent rage, you won’t tear stain this letter, I’ve had it laminated mate. Anyways, I’m only here thanks to some hidden, invisible, secret quota for normal people; here to make the uni look accessible. Here to make the uni look good.
Biff! Pow! Working class man commits social suicide for only the fourth time this week, and all cos his parents couldn’t find a few grand to have the ungrateful twerp slapped out of him.
Of course, not all of you can be neatly sorted into the categories of Upstairs folk and the kind of depressed cynic who agrees with me. The reasoned, middle-of-the-road, fence-up-your-arsecrack types out there have a claim on being worst hit, the cancellation a real shotgun blast to your Instagram clout. For you, this magical occasion was the physical recognition of all your hard work, a binding ceremony that would take equals, from a rainbow of social backgrounds, and make them look all equally twattish. You will be unable to splash out on a nice suit, only to get it grass-stained whilst tempting death at the hands of some psycho porter, desperate to keep you off the grass.
Maybe some of you are international students, somehow slipping through the net in this great departure into insularity, disappointed you won’t get the chance to be conned into thinking you’ve participated in something uniquely British, which you would have, one supposes…
Queuing? Perhaps? For something ultimately perplexing, and often disappointing, but which seemingly provides many others with joy, like a Wednesday home loss or a childhood donkey ride in the driving, Skeggy rain.
At least try to smile, they said to the small child, piss-wet through on a smelly non-horse. Well, the child thought, at least I’ve never been fucking skiing, as the great container ship of aspiration reared its ugly bow through the sea mist.
There is a lot of queuing involved, and then Latin.
No, not the queuing. Perhaps something even more British then, yes? Like attempting to legitimise the ubiquitous elitism and class divides of the country by donning a silly hat? Yes.
Little do the state-schooled among us know, but the ‘Latin’ spoken is an incantation, a spell to summon the ghosts of Mr Orwell’s bicycling old maids, to scare the homeless out of town for the day.
All a bit rich, some of you might be thinking for someone who must have been matriculated themselves. Quite, but then, true to form, I subverted tradition by attending dressed in a homemade bin bag bralette with duct tape G-string, and exchanged the self-flagellation for self-loathing. Beware though, the price the university demands for allowing such tomfoolery is the sale of your soul: becoming a professional parody northerner, paid £4.80 a week for thinking of snide comments about people’s choice of championship side, and every now and again hurtling your fragile form at some quad’s paving, in a futile attempt to burrow your way back home.
If you were yourself considering the above option for matriculation, then congratulations, you are the ones missing out on the most. We, shoulders chipped like the Venus de Milo (though we hide it skilfully, only ever unleashing its full strength on unfunny, crap little letters no one will read, italicising words to make it look considered) only really applied for one reason, and were quite surprised when it paid off: the sexual thrill of trespass.
In Oxford, the joys of both voyeurism and exhibitionism are on offer; on a typical morning I can choose between lurking in the bushes, Bullingdon Club members fixed in my binoculars as they stumble home, stinking of semen and farmyard excitement, or climb an empty plinth in the Ashmolean, and declaring oneself the last example of social mobility caught in the wild before the country devolved back into feudalism. But the best chance for roleplay, regrettably, has been denied to you. Same shoes, same suit, same smile, same sandstone walls to prop yourself against – if you’ve never pretended that this is life, will you ever be truly Oxonian? There is a positive correlation between the number of likes you’d be getting for that photo and the success of the transubstantiation of your blood into theirs.
The day would’ve been your last shot at a sense of belonging, before you start to wonder how exactly you got here? The ability to bullshit has served you well, got you somewhere you thought someone might finally have something insightful to say, but nah, its more agile, flexible bullshit, able to make a supposed political commitment to social justice compatible with smiling at Tories and a weekly wage of a bar tab.
Because it’s black and white.
And you start wondering how exactly you got here? A carousel of strange rooms, music from your hometown blaring, a thousand gloss-paper Ewan McGregors staring at you in judgement. This is you. Stumbling round Bridge. Mutual giggles while queuing for Hassan’s, as young women attempt to explain to you the intricacies of London’s zoning system.
You remember the flexible bullshit cos it takes you to the brink of being a cunt but never tips you over the edge. You remember the flexible bullshit, cos it takes them to the brink of being a cunt but never tips them over the edge. It rescues them from all your silent prejudice. And everyone’s subconscious class fantasy remains intact.
Because its grey.
The day would have been your last chance to slow your descent into this stupor of rage, forever yelling at yourself to be less judgemental, as you laugh at people laughing at Nish Kumar.
Again, my deepest and most heartfelt emotions are with you all, these times were hard enough without learning you were forever to be neophytes, never truly to join the ranks of us oh-so-betters, forbidden to be a true denizen of this hothouse of ferocious talent. No anecdotes of mortar-boarded naughtiness for you to tell at some Goldman Sachs circle-jerk thirty years from now. No chance encounters with confused tourists, bowing when you spit at them, shrieking with laughter when you burn £50 notes for them. No opportunity to become the symptom. Still, at least you might save some face when the revolution comes, and you can give me a knowing smile, when our eyes meet, both of us against the wall.
Much love in absentia,
A. T. Watt
Finder’s note: Mr Barker would like to say he agrees with none of the above, being an ever-contented centrist by week and fist-shaking fascist by weekend, and this is exactly the kind of pinko nonsense he expected to find at university. Additionally, he has never met an Etonian, a woman, nor indeed a donkey, and being wokest of woke, would never stereotype anyone based on their social background, not even himself.