Image Description: Oxford High Street circa 2019
In the old days, before the plague, Oxford was a different place. The students of the University lived a blameless life, in some ways unchanged for hundreds of years. Many a fresher has asked me what it was like in those halcyon days. As a Classicist, I supposedly have a keen interest in ancient history. And so, for the good of everyone, I am channelling that interest not into my Thucydides revision, but into this guide to that lost Garden of Eden. My tutors won’t thank me, but you will.
I will start in the obvious place. Matriculation is a process steeped in a dense fog of incomprehensibility to outsiders and insiders alike. Nobody knows why it exists. The rumour is that it began as an elaborate practical joke. All you know is that you dress up in subfusc and listen to the Vice-Chancellor mangle some Latin.
What you don’t know is what used to happen after the underwhelming ceremony in the Sheldonian finished: a hunt over University Parks. The hunted? Freshers. The hunters? Hungry third years, who had been kept isolated in their rooms and fed only on hall food for three weeks prior. We ran for our lives when the trumpets sounded. To this day I remember those who were not quick enough. They were eaten alive. At the end of the day, the trees were searched for survivors by a ravenous Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education teetering precariously on a ladder, driven mad with rage by his inability to get anyone to fill in his yearly survey.
Yet this savage welcome did us good. Frankly, we enjoyed it. We were made of sterner stuff back then. Duly initiated, we moved onto the rest of our degree.
Tutorials and Tutors
Tutorials, without the shackles of Teams and propriety, were conducted in a variety of manners. One known hardliner was rumoured to institute a dunce cap for his slower students. Another was known to swing a cricket bat menacingly when an answer was not forthcoming. On the other extreme were tutors who managed to fall softly asleep as their young charges trilled out their meaningless essays. This phenomenon was commonly put down to their age. In reality, it was a product of boredom. It was not unheard of for tutorials to descend, by 5th Week, into tense competitions between tutors and tutees to see which could slip out of the room first.
There was much more to life than work, however. Highlights included:
May Day: during which revellers were known not just to dress in branches and leaves but terrorise whole garden centres in the vicinity of Oxford under the pretence of “err, celebrating nature or something”.
Oxlove and Oxfess: which back in the day were in fact not Facebook pages, but actual people. In a service paid for by colleges and dating back at least 2000 years, Oxfess or Oxlove could be summoned to your room by a friend. In the dead of night, as you were just falling asleep, Lord Oxlove would appear in full Medieval dress, smash your door down with his ceremonial mace, unfurl a scroll of parchment, and read aloud:
“HEAR YE HEAR YE. [email protected], I THINK YOU’RE CUTE!! BLUSHING EMOJI.”
He would then bow and leave in silence.
Punting: Although commonly remembered as an idyllic past-time reminiscent of Brideshead Revisited, punting could easily turn nasty. On hot summer days, the sheer density of punting traffic on the river sometimes led to a kind of road rage, as angry punters tried to barge (boat pun intended) ahead of each other. Police were called to the banks of Christ Church Meadow one mellow afternoon where a group of Magdalen punters had boarded an enemy vessel and were proceeding to ransack it. Close examination revealed that the Magdalenites were intoxicated and their Pimms was confiscated.
College Rivalries: These ebbed and flowed in intensity over the centuries before Corona moved them online. In recent years, relations on Turl Street deteriorated to such an extent that Jesus became the first college in the University to enrich uranium, building a nuclear program as part of its deterrence against Exeter. Exeter responded by entering into an unprecedented non-aggression pact with Lincoln. International observers called for a relaxation in tensions.
Balls: Each summer, college ball committees carried out a secret competition amongst themselves: who could come up with the most pretentious theme? There were three main categories:
• weird pagan stuff, e.g., “Solstice”
• weird classical stuff, e.g., “Bacchanal”, “Arcadia”
• vague word signifying totally nothing, e.g., “Rebirth”, “Delirium”, basically anything the Isis might call an edition of their magazine.
Alas, the fun had to end at some point. And so came Graduation. After a short religious service giving thanks to the obscure and ancient god of Oxford, the Shibboleth Identity Provider, graduands would troop into the Sheldonian, once again in their subfusc, where the Vice-Chancellor would officially bid farewell to them in a time-hallowed way: the symbolic sending of the first alumnus email asking for cash. Directly after the ceremony, humanities degree holders would form a line of mourners, grieving for their own employment prospects. Their heads bowed, they would shuffle slowly out of the city for the last time, in the general direction of London.
Yet this is the Oxford which is no more. It has been replaced with a world of online classes and online friendships. The domesticated and tame Oxford which Coronavirus has begotten is not what we were promised. It is not what we deserve. Let us pray for the hour when the old Oxford will rise from the dead.