The colleges of this ancient place are numerous, and so are the common rooms which accompany them. Whilst most of us will never get a glimpse of the civility that lurks inside the SCR – so attractively portrayed by William Rothenstein on canvas – we undergraduates are free to enjoy the range of pleasures that its somewhat more vulgar younger cousins, the JCRs, have on offer. From stained sofas and scattered junk, paintings and photographs, not least the people who populate them, here follows a lively and much needed dissection of the sheer range of quirks and oddities that make up the unparalleled experience that is the JCRs.
The gate to Worcester is magnificent. Whilst most colleges tend to settle for more of a quiet entrance, Worcester’s main gate imposes itself on the onlooker, making him almost nauseous about the distant potential for the whole structure to collapse on one’s head. No other college, as far as I can tell, feel the need to have a clock above their main entrance. It is a particularly beautiful place at night when lights highlight the façade, but I am visiting at the unforgiving light of the mid-afternoon, accompanied by Dan Harrison, a second year HisPol student who tells of how Worcester ended up as his home by accident, after the turbulent government mishandling of the class of 2020´s examination results.
The JCR is conveniently located on the left-hand side of the main quad in one of their six medieval cottages, overlooking the perfectly kept lawn which forms the stereotypical image of Worcester.
An ancient looking staircase takes us up to the JCR situated on the first floor. Opening the door is like being hugged by a jaunty white light, and upon entering one is immediately struck by the vaulted ceiling, where wooden beams are interspersed among a devoutly white background, the contrast between the oak and the white canvas emphasised by wall-mounted lights. Instinctively, you get the sense of a space which has witnessed the passage of time, but whose flavour has been altered with refurbishments made in recent memory. The room has cleverly been divided into two sections; a seating area at the back followed by a kitchen, and a more adaptable beginning and middle phase where a ping-pong table forms the centre of attention. The contrast between the whiteness of the walls and the light yellow and green sofas gives the room the quasi appearance of a waiting room at a specialist clinic, just without the risk of a positive chlamydia test. Lining the walls are JCR photographs, both silly “midway” ones and official matriculation photos, making the room feel haunted with the presence of previous students.
Oxford is a place where a great diversity of characters co-exists. A quick scan of Worcester JCR prove they are a college of no exception. According to an untampered whiteboard where students have written down happy experiences from the Christmas vac, students at Worcester entertain a variety of interests. Whilst some have enjoyed a good Netflix binge others have seen loved ones and reunited with grandparents. Another student writes of the fun times she has had doing cocaine. According to Dan, the whiteboard is from a recent welfare session, which are frequently hosted in the JCR.
If an alien civilization where to write a history of humankind based on the things they found in Worcester JCR, the sheer diversity of junk would strike them. Uncollected puffers and a set of poker chips occupies diverging corners of the room, whilst a pink hula-hoop hoovers over a blow-dryer and two small buckets, one red and one blue. An English standard version of the New Testament is the only current testimony to the time when the space was used as a Benedictine monastery. It seems to be the genius of Worcester JCR to fit cluttered smaller segments into a natural, albeit disordered, whole.
New College´s JCR has the longest pedigree of all the junior common rooms, able to trace its origins as far back as the 1680s, a fact their students no doubt relish in. The early history of the JCR is that of drinking and debauchery, its function primarily a private members club until college authorities forced through reform in the middle of the nineteenth century, paving the way for the development of the JCRs as they function today.
Worcester and New’s JCRs are architecturally not unlike, but the atmosphere attached to each decor could not be more different. Whilst Worcester’s settles for respectability but ends up being a bit sterile, New has all the cosy and characterful ambiance of an American college common room at the turn of the century. The feel is Oxbridge meets American Pie; scruffy but not unclassy, a place where both copies of Homer and kegs full of beer accompanied with red-plastic cups seem equally appropriate. In terms of character, we have clearly moved up a step from Worcester.
It is a rather old space, which carries itself with a light but dignified level of respect, with sofas ripe for change (no, seriously!) and a decisively authoritative looking fire-place marking out the separation of the JCR into two different wings. The walls are lined with modern abstract artworks which all seem completely out of place, a photographed red toothbrush with a blue background is a personal favourite. This confusion of old and new seems appropriate for a fourteenth century college which still lingers onto a paradoxical understanding of what it means for something to be ‘New’.
Yet, the walls seem to exude stories of ages past, and even if the sofas are a bit grim, the space possess the imaginative quality of bringing old students back to life; visualising a young Hugh Grant occupying the same sofas at a time when they were once brand new, is not far-fetched. It is clearly a place where manners have been in the making for a long time.
Scattered Junk, as with Worcester, is a natural addition to the landscape, so natural in fact that I would struggle to imagine the room without it. For weird objects, New triumphs. It must be the only JCR where a pin-maker is a casual instalment. Surely the making of pins could be more productively done elsewhere.
Worcester and New both possess JCR´s which demand attention. Whilst I would pin Worcester as reliable and respectable, New triumphs when it comes to character and atmosphere. If you are looking for a predictable and cosy evening, Worcester is your bet, but if you want to be surrounded by walls that appear seasoned by the passage of time, and are unafraid of grim seating, New’s JCR is the one for you.
Image Credit: ‘Dessert in the Senior Common Room’ by William Rothenstein (1872 – 1945), Worcester College (used with permission).