Scoffs and toffs

I like to think that I’ve had a fashionable set of odd experiences as the slow march to summer vac begins. On the few occasions where one has been given time to reflect, an especially vivid memory was when I was sitting at some awful function, with some awful music and less awful company. Somewhat less awful at least. Lounged on some JCR sofa as the most rinsed of Coldplay’s discography blared, I watched two students introduce themselves to one another. Obviously this was not special; I have practised that horrid ritual of the Oxbridge introduction (Name, College, Course) too many times. What I, tipsy from a dangerous mix of elderflower and Coca-Cola, found really quite strange here was the trajectory of the conversation. Within maybe two sentences of poor small talk, one asked the other whether they were “Private school or state school?”

It was not the topic of conversation. It was the boldness by which the topic was addressed. Usually, people find roundabout ways of discerning the other’s social capital – thinly veiled facades framed with questions of “Where are you from?” or finding out how many formals with old friends from school one has booked. There’s often a reason why a quarter of your sixth form had interviews in December. But it is never put quite as bluntly between two strangers. That felt odd. Usually, etiquette stipulates you might want to discuss a little more than just the weather before jumping into discussing whether it’s tax avoidance or tax evasion. 

The question was undoubtedly about class. Because everyone is always talking about class here. Cl[ah]se. Cl[ass]. Always. Not without good reason though. Oxford is a place that advertises itself as incestuous, as self-masturbatory – that’s often the appeal. So and so came here, toffs, gowns, sub-fusc, college puffers – you are to feel that you are nestled within something tight-knit, a place that revels in being described as the ‘breeding ground’ for the English political class. It is as jarring as it is attractive.  Being at an institution that defecates social capital creates an environment where many feel the need to linguistically distance themselves from its (true) stereotypes and customs. Similarly, it should not be surprising that others lap it up or for middle-class types to play themselves up or down depending on who they’re trying to impress.

And so schools just become another part of the performance you’re meant to engage in, so when someone angers you, you can rightfully put it on their upbringing here or there. It is not secondary to the experience, or an unfortunate but avoidable aspect of the experience. It is a package and parcel of the experience. On some level, I’ve come to think you’re almost meant to. You’re meant to carry out just a little bit of that pompery and snobbery. You’re meant to accept those totalising statements and let a stranger know where you stand within society by your dreadful years as a teenager. Without those clear lines drawn between, Oxford would not be Oxford.

It did cross my mind in that abysmal function that not only was this not normal, it was not right either. One cannot help but become a slightly insufferable pseudo-thinker while Pompeii plays for the seventh time in a night. The class alienation that is so woven into the fabric of our conversation and culture is not just off-putting; it’s vapid, useless, and outright disgusting. But as much as this place is a bubble, it does not exist in a vacuum. Wherever these conversations happen, whether it be a tired JCR or the gloom of a club smoking area, they are conversations rooted in our Great British social context. For Oxford to change, so must Britain.

The function did not get any better. The music remained awful, but I’m glad, and equally distressed, that  I now know where two other people went to school. 

Image Credit: Johannes Riese

Image Description: Oxford Students during matriculation.