There are only three things guaranteed in this life: death, taxes and – if you live in Oxford – the confounding experience of Cornmarket Street. It is a rare thing for a street to inspire such emotion, and yet the mere mention of Cornmarket provokes more reaction than my accommodation’s kitchen fire alarm. Love it or hate it, though, there’s no getting around it.
With central Oxford’s highly convenient McDonalds, Boots, and Pret, Cornmarket is an attraction in and of itself, but it’s also an unavoidable thoroughfare. Somehow, no matter one’s college or faculty, they must, nevertheless, brave that passage. In a way, amidst the intense social fragmentation (a product of the collegiate system), Cornmarket is something of a unifying experience. Every Oxford student, regardless of degree, seems to have some improbable story to tell of that infamous street.
If nothing else, Cornmarket Street helps to make Oxford feel like a city and not a town. Although Oxford is by no means provincial, it does not compare to the hectic rush of a proper big city; but Cornmarket is the exception to this rule. The sheer confluence of people and personalities evokes New York City and, if nothing else, the street is an antidote to boredom. The most curious sight on a bustling street in a global capital is the distinct scenes that occur all at once. Cornmarket, in tiny little Oxford, somehow possesses this same universality. It can even be beautiful. There is certainly talent in the musicians who play on the sidewalks, and as of late, the Christmas lights add a sparkling charm. On a good day, delightful aromas of coffee waft out of Pret, the throngs of pedestrians aren’t quite crushing, and the path to one’s destination is smooth.
Beyond the imminent threats to life and limb, Cornmarket supplies a great many ideas about death, religion, and salvation.
A good day, however, might not be the representative experience of Cornmarket. As far as reputation goes, it’s “the one where they keep telling me to follow Jesus!” or a place only acceptable when one is “either desperate for skincare or coming back from a night out in need of McDonald’s.” Though it might be navigable on the way to a weekday lecture, getting stuck on Cornmarket on a busy Saturday is the surest way to add ten minutes to a commute, and lose ten years off your life. In perspective, it’s certainly not the worst busy street in the world, but in the land of Oxford? It is a shock to the system.
In the same way that conversing with local cab drivers is often useful for understanding the politics or opinions of a place, walking down Cornmarket is another way to place one’s fingertips on the pulse of Oxford. One is invariably met by many a group handing out leaflets or papers, asking passers-by for a donation or a listening ear. Often, these are environmental, political, or religious groups; they preach about the Labour party, about oil drilling, or about God. Alternatively, people will walk up to pedestrians sans signs and brochures to lasso them into a conversation; the agenda is unclear until five minutes in.
Cornmarket can force a person, on a random Tuesday morning, or maybe walking to college from a lecture, to confront the idea of death. There are the cyclists, to start, it’s difficult not to fear for one’s life. The poor visibility, especially on a particularly crowded or rainy day, forces one to place faith in whatever higher power they choose – there are no shortage of options on Cornmarket – and blindly cross the street with fingers crossed that they’ll make it to the other side.
Beyond the imminent threats to life and limb, Cornmarket supplies a great many ideas about death, religion, and salvation. Representatives of many faiths, while handing out free copies of their holy texts, challenge people, through loudspeakers:
‘Don’t you want eternal life in paradise, and to live forever in grace and mercy?’
And of course, this is a rhetorical question. Who wouldn’t want such a thing? But sometimes it is thought-provoking; what if the answer is no, if life on earth is enough? Here, Cornmarket forces one to confront the spiritual.
However, while existential contemplation can be a rote aspect of the Oxford experience, sometimes that just doesn’t accord with the mood of the day. As it was so aptly put, ‘I don’t want Jesus, I just want to go to the pharmacy!’
Yet, sometimes the path to Boots, or wherever else, does not allow for a simple dismissal of the eternal.
Image description: An illustration of Cornmarket Street