Wednesday, 9 October 2013

An Oxford Education

I moved to Oxford the week after Princess Diana was killed. I had lived in Coventry for some years but my fiancé and I had split up, the jobs were getting more and more dead-end and my late grandmother’s house, in which I was temporarily living, was about to be sold. Various friends were also moving away. 

One such friend who had already made the move said one day; ‘Why don’t you move to Oxford Laura? There’s far more going on there. There’s not much culture in Coventry.’

I couldn’t disagree. I had to move anyway, so why not move to another city?

I have never looked back. Within a week I had landed an admin job in the heart of one of Oxford’s most ancient Colleges, found a pleasant house-share with a young couple who welcomed Moggins the Mog, and begun making friends. I had always written poetry but suddenly I now had somewhere I could recite it more than once or twice a year, thus more incentive to write. The Catweazle Club became a weekly fixture on a Wednesday night. 

I joined Oxford Writer’s Group, became a founder member of Back Room Poets and started making full use of the 24-hour coaches to London to attend London’s Poetry Unplugged at the Poetry Cafe a couple of times a month, making a new set of London friends. An exciting new world called ‘performance poetry’ began to open up and I entered Cheltenham Literary Festival Slams, among others, making the semi-finals one year. I've taken part in OxFringe Festival shows for six years consecutively and enjoyed many an evening watching friends perform in their shows, operettas, jazz combo's, choirs or at Oxford Playhouse play-in-hand evenings. Hear the Word and Hammer and Tongue also came to join the local spoken word scene. Borders Bookshop formed a major hang out venue for the local literati for nearly a decade, hosting various groups and events in the evenings (though sadly I missed the infamous punch-up the philosophy group descended into one night on a moot point of principle) and remains much missed, though Blackwells has tried to fill its shoes in the city centre and other muse meccas such as Jericho's Beatnik Bookshop have sprung up.

On the romantic front, seven years of volunteering on a Saturday in St Giles’ Oxfam Bookshop failed to yield a single straight Oscar Wilde, but I made friends there too (including a retired don who was a contemporary and neighbour of CS Lewis), and learned a lot about second hand and antiquarian books. Forays into lonely hearts columns and early internet dating followed with mixed results and still no straight Oscar Wilde.

The eternal quest for affordable housing got me involved in Oxfordshire Community Land Trusts for many years and my appreciation of nice architecture, Oxford Civic Society.
I passed my driving test, took a C&G in Interior Design, studied The History of the English House, among other architectural subjects, and in my subsequent job at the ‘other university’ took an NVQ Level 3 in Customer Service, among much employment-related training. And did I mention the three years of Wednesday night dress-making classes at Cherwell Valley College? Suffice to say if two-dimensional fashions ever come into vogue, I possess some!

Every year Victorian Literature Day at Oxford University Further Education Department became a must. For around £40, one could partake of an Oxford University education taster in the adept hands of four experts in their field enthusiastically holding forth on their literary hero or heroine. Jenny Uglow was particularly superb on Elizabeth Gaskell, her soft mousy voice coming alive, her petite bright-eyed features transforming to resemble a latter-day Elizabeth Gaskell. It was similarly a real treat to see the doyen of Victorian Literature John Sutherland in full flow. I particularly love his cheat’s guides zeroing in on the most intriguing puzzles in Victorian literature in collections of essays variously entitled; ‘Is Heathcliff a Murderer?’ Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?’ and ‘Who Betrayed Elizabeth Bennett?’ Another lecturer whose name I now forget enthralled us with how HG Wells got his own back on the class system, of which his parents were servants in the pecking order, by dreaming up the morlocks coming up from underground (ie below stairs) to eat the eloi (the elite), avenging a boyhood of perpetual hunger and invisibility. It was wonderful to hear such talks with no coursework involved and no exams to be passed, just an optional pre-day reading list.

There are also stars to be seen for free if you can get away from work around 5pm and catch the tail end of late afternoon lectures. Such did I see the late Seamus Heaney and the late Beryl Bainbridge, in what may well have been her final public appearance. Armando Iannucci was elected visiting Media Professor by one College and duly delivered a four part weekly extravaganza on the history and future of TV comedy, liberally sprinkled with film clips to illustrate his points. I had the pleasure of meeting him at the free party afterwards in Green College observatory. Colin Dexter, having endorsed our Oxford Short Story books also became a regular fixture at Oxford Writer’s Group parties, regaling us with literary anecdotes. However I didn't feel shortchanged paying to see the likes of Alan Bennett fill the Sheldonian or Cleo Laine and the late Johnny Dankworth in action.

The Oxford Student Union is open to anyone with a friend to sign them in and I watched a number of entertaining debates in the debating chamber. Sometimes unlikely celebrities would turn up to give a talk or join in a debate, the most unlikely surely being the late Michael Jackson, who was apparently winched into the back of the building for security reasons, although I wasn't there that night. The Union bar is also a nice place to hang out in and pretty as the film set it often is.

In our office, I was twice visited by Nathaniel Parker as he looked for his coat whilst filming the Inspector Lynley Mysteries nearby and John Thaw was a familiar sight in the dying days of Morse, filming various bits of our college and others, Kevin Whately to follow in his footsteps. A remake of Brideshead Revisited claimed half the front quad for six weeks and I learned quite a bit about scenery, make up and setting up shots purely by facilitating their uninterrupted shooting. I also learned about gargoyle commission in my job and how no ‘old member’ likes their gargoyle to be too ugly!

Students? Well some are earnest and serious and you can understand how they got here, but plenty are not and you can’t. On the whole though, they do tend to have better manners than most redbrick university students (and I’ve worked at both).

Oxford is one of those places where there is always something extraordinary going on around the next corner (such as a church service on the St Giles Fair carousel) however well you feel you know it.

The only fly in the ointment is the developers’ determination to wreak the architectural destruction that Hitler failed to, having decided the city was too precious to unleash bombs on, only now in the name of profit, rather than invasion. Even the city’s historic Covered Market is perpetually under threat as a prime supermarket ‘site’. The city’s status as a ‘World Heritage Site’ seemingly affords it no protection from monstrosities such as the new Somerville College development (not what tourists board Oxford tour buses to see). As for accusations of ‘Disneyfication’, if only.  At least that would be more picturesque and demonstrate some aesthetic appreciation and respect for the city. Notwithstanding, an early member of Oxford Civic Society savoured the victory of preventing a road from being built slap bang through the middle of Christchurch Meadow in the 1950s when the architectural love affair with brutalism was in full swing. Recent members have not been so lucky in preventing the ruin of Port Meadow further out with yet more ugly student blocks despoiling the Oxford skyline (despite student blocks now being at saturation point).

The other sadness about Oxford is that whilst the snob factor may have softened over the years, it has been at the expense of the invasion of corporatism. If you are advertising an event these days for example, you will seldom find a friendly neighbourhood cafe or shop willing to let you put a poster up, not even the local tourist information, who have dispensed with their ‘What’s On’ board and insidiously re-branded themselves ‘Visit Oxford’. I would venture to suggest there is little more sense of community in the city centre these days than there was when town and gown tensions were at their height. Now mass (year round) tourism has come to join town and gown, regarded as a blessing by some and a nuisance by others, largely because the majority surging along the narrow pavements at the peril of unwary denizens are day trippers who don't stay long enough to contribute to the local economy in any meaningful way. Not that the facilities in Oxford exactly welcome them. The public toilets alone must be among the worst in Britain and there is no proper coach park or meeting point for them either.  The Ashmolean Museum and the Oxford Museum have both been hollowed out and turned into soulless white boxes for wine tasting evenings with gift shops attached, despite the existence of MAO (Modern Art Oxford), created specifically for the purpose.

Every day continues to be an Oxford education... 

As for that straight Oscar Wilde, he never did materialise, but would I suspect, have been far too much of a narcissist to notice little me, so I am far from disappointed that fate finally stepped in with an eminently more suitable suitor.


Steve said...

I'm damned ashamed to admit that I have only ever been to Oxford twice and both times eschewed culture for flimsy sightseeing. I apologize.

Steerforth said...

Fasinating post. You clearly made the right move when you left Coventry!

Katrina Malone said...

Hearing chunks of other people's life journey is always interesting. This could come under the title of 'An Oxford blossoming' because I think that's what you are describing.

Wisewebwoman said...

Thanks for opening the window into your world, Laura.

Loved the journey.


Dan said...

Really engaging recollections - some things were newly familiar for me too! Impressed just how much you achieved through hard work, application and indefatigable enthusiasm. Talent too, obviously ;o)

Must return to the debating chamber... it's really strong this term!


The Poet Laura-eate said...

Steve you're only 46 miles away (and almost the same age). You'll be telling me you've never left the country next! : - )

Thanks Steerforth.

Thanks for your lovely comment Katrina. Actually it was quite illuminating when I'd finished as I'd only intended to write about how one can obtain an Oxford education vicariously, just by living and working here.

Thanks WWW. I always love your own vignettes of your life and loves.

Thank you for your nice comment Dan. I am sure if you wrote down everything you had been to and done during your years in Oxford, you would find that it added up to more than you thought as well.