Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Dreaming Spires

Oxford skyline, photo by David Iliff

Humid the air! leafless, yet soft as spring/The tender purple spray on copse and briers!/And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/She needs not June for beauty's heightening

Thomas Arnold, Thyrsis

I received my copy of Oxford magazine in the post today and found myself reading a small article noting the death of John Fenton, a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford and one of my former tutors. It saddened me to realise that I hadn't known he'd died - back in December - for he was a lovely man and interesting, although we weren't close.

Elsewhere in the magazine I found other memories: Zoe Rahman, with whose older sister Sophie I went to school (notable because Bishop Luffa Comprehensive in Chichester, UK, isn't otherwise renowned for its former students as far as I'm aware...), and interviews with famous Oxford alumni such as Baroness Susan Greenwood (St Hilda's College), Dame Ann Leslie and Baroness Pauline Neville-Jones (both Lady Margaret Hall - my old college). The articles were all about breaking down gender stereotypes and how going to Oxford contributed to these women's lives, but what was lovely was to hear that it wasn't all about academic success. The experience of going to Oxford did indeed give them access to "an extraordinarily privileged quality of education" but it was about more than that: "I think I did a lot of growing up" (Pauline Neville-Jones).

I did a Bachelors degree in Theology simply because I'd had to take Religious Education as an A Level subject as my school wouldn't let me study any of my other choices (Biology or Geography). I had been labelled as in the 'Arts & Humanities' category and couldn't, therefore, trespass on anything remotely scientific. Yet I had to find a third subject for my exams in addition to Art and English Literature so I chose RE, my RE teacher had been to Lady Margaret Hall and it was she who encouraged me to sit the Oxford Entrance Examination... probably more because she thought it would improve my academic performance in the subject than because she thought it was feasible I would be offered a place! All I actually wanted to do was to go to Art School and I had a place at Central St Martin's School of Art in London picked out, but I think I had done a sort of deal with my parents whereby if I was offered a university place to study an academic degree I would... otherwise I'd go for art. In the end I was offered places at five different universities to do Theology, turned them all down including Oxford, and was finally persuaded by my mother (an all night talking session, according to family legend) to take up the Oxford place because I could 'always return to art later' if it proved to be what I really wanted to do.

I was so lucky, in so many ways. I was the first person in my family to achieve tertiary education, which was a milestone in itself. Both my parents are easily capable of the necessary academic skills but neither had the opportunity: my father lacked the encouragement and the cash, and my mother lacked the chance because she was a girl and would get married so in the meantime she was allowed to go to Secretarial School. I had the encouragement and the opportunity, but I was in a woeful state when I got to Oxford. I'd been so traumatised in secondary school that I was suicidal and terrified, and I made a pact with myself that if I didn't manage to make friends in the first term I could always kill myself over the Christmas holidays... Ironically my tactic for overcoming my terror at going somewhere new and meeting lots of strangers solved the problem for me: I took a kettle and some mugs with me and operated a sort of open-house for fellow undergraduates in need of tea, and I took off my glasses which meant I could see no-one clearly and consequently smiled inanely for the whole of my first term which apparently endeared me to everyone. Success!

I've been thinking about Oxford a lot recently, wondering if I can manage to spend the first Friday of my UK trip there as my alma mater offers alumni accommodation in college and a seat at the Senior table for dinner. Reading the articles while darling daughter was swimming this afternoon made me feel so nostalgic. I feel very tenderly towards my 18-year old self, equipped with two pairs of blue jeans, two men's lambswool V-neck jumpers, a pair of purple suede Doc Marten boots and a red china tea service, who turned up on that first weekend at Oxford and tentatively set herself up in a surprisingly large room in Deneke East wing in LMH. I still have my Bodleian library card and a photo of this 'other' self, shockingly young and naive. A few months later I was rowing for the College, working for the student Samaritans service and potting shots on the pool tables of Oxford's Working Men's Clubs. I did very little work and was lucky to get out with the Second Class degree that I managed, but I had a fantastic time and I loved my subject. What more could I have asked for?

1 comment:

  1. Holy Moses, Woman! You went to Oxford????? I am wholly impressed!


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