Almost five months ago now, I graduated from the University of Oxford with a Master’s degree in English with American Studies.
In many ways, my arrival in Oxford last September was the final stage of a long journey back. Nearly 23 years ago (yikes) I was born in Oxford in the John Radcliffe Hospital, and lived on Great Clarendon Street in Jericho with my parents and later my younger brother for the first couple of years of my life. We left the city before I had even turned two, but returned periodically for day trips throughout my childhood, and throughout that time, ever since I can remember, I wanted to go to uni there.
I’m sure most small children don’t fantasise about the university they’ll one day send their UCAS forms to, but I did. I was one of those unbearably ambitious children who’s always shoving things they’ve written or made in your face and telling you how big and famous they’re going to be when they grow up. (I say “unbearable” as if I won’t defend to the death small children’s radiant ambition for their futures. Don’t be fooled by this. I am very much pro-precocity.) I dreamed relentlessly big and out loud, and my grandiose speech was always pretty much the same: I was going to be an author, and I was going to do English at Oxford University.
Now, I have done that, albeit a few years later than planned, but ultimately in a better way than I could have imagined. (Well, the Oxford part. Still working on the other one.) I initially applied to the University at undergrad, interviewed at a few colleges, but was ultimately rejected. I’m sure it sounds like saving face now – and I’m not denying that at the time I was disappointed and periodically very depressed about it – but getting rejected by Oxford at undergrad was possibly the best thing that ever happened to me. Scroll back in this blog and you’ll see how much I loved where I ended up for undergrad, and I think I’d probably be very different and arguably worse if things had all gone to plan. But getting there, finally, after such a long time, after so many changes of heart and mind and relationship with the place, was a provoking enough experience to me that I thought I should try to explain it, write down my impressions of the place, as much for myself as for the benefit of anyone else. So here it is.
Oxford comes to me now mostly in terms of spaces. Spaces in and out of sight; the thin membrane of locked doors or ‘Closed to Visitors’ signs that separates the indiscriminate street from the discriminate (and often discriminatory) enclave of the University.
For years – for as long as I could remember, even – I had been an outside visitor, and the condition of possibility created by the University’s enforced privacy had allowed my imagination to run wild. In my head, rooms bloomed behind the college walls: rooms endowed with no physical features as such, but instead a kind of amorphous promise, an almost electric charge that crackled in the air and wriggled into the bloodstream so that those granted entry carried it around in their veins and nerve-endings long after leaving, alive with it.
There was a slight shift in this thinking as I moved to undergrad in York, visiting Oxford two or three times a term to see my boyfriend. I was now allowed mediated entry into the inner spaces of the University, and the life associated with them – formal dinners, black tie balls – but the membrane was still robustly intact. If I wandered outside of it unmet or unaccompanied, I could be stuck on the other side, lacking a student card to swipe me back through. Oxford is not the easiest place to inhabit without a University library card – there are few places, even in the city centre, in which you can be inside without paying anything, and where you can stay as long as you like. The result is that it was a place that was difficult to totally relax in. In winter, I’d find myself either trying to amuse myself in my boyfriend’s study bedroom all day while he worked in the library, or wandering around the city’s collegiate facades, exposed to the cold, lacking a broader selection of shelter.*
So, to suddenly – or so it seemed to me last autumn – acquire the means to pass back and forth across that barrier at will (which is, really, to make it disappear altogether) was slightly strange. I guess it was a case of seeing the city from a new perspective again, an opening-up: looking out from the library or classroom window at the watcher in the street, at the camera lenses that blink up at you from wherever you look in Oxford, rather than being the one with their feet on the cobbles, their finger poised on the shutter.
That inside-outside negotiation is, I think, my dominant association with the city. It is always going to be a place that I view multiply. There are so many different perspectives or lenses through which I do view or have viewed it. There is, of course, the rosy lens formed of idolising it, outside-in, growing up. The haziness around the edges, every space an imagined or half-imagined mirage. And then there’s the practical, day-to-day lens, tempered by the act of living in the place for a year. Its scenery become a permanent backdrop, its quirks and shortcomings absorbed into the texture of my life.
It’s rare that these lenses ever slide across one other, line up just right for me to see in its many-layered entirety what Oxford means, has meant, to me. Like a lunar eclipse, it’s a momentary event, and occasions for it are few and far-between, but maybe it’s fitting that my most vivid memories of it happening are from sitting in the library at dusk, and watching the sun set over the familiar rooves around which I’ve been skirting what seems like my whole life. Glancing out and suddenly being hit over the head with it, red light on the RadCam, and realising I made it to a seat I’d wanted to be in for so long. Not only that, but that I’d managed it so thoroughly that I actually had the audacity to find it uncomfortable.
Picture it – you’re sitting there, thrilled at your occupation of this (symbolically) fantasy seat, and yet also cognizant that this is not the best seat in the library. All the adjustable, more comfortable chairs were taken. In fact, this library, the most picturesque, is not even your favourite. You could sustain a good ten-minute rant on why this library, in fact, for all its beautiful ceilings, is actually vastly inferior to many other libraries outside of this hallowed institution for the simple fact that it does not the most efficiently facilitate its purpose: effective university study. You realise that you finally know all the little things about what it’s like to actually work in this library day-to-day because that is what you do; you finally know all of the things that you couldn’t have imagined from the outside; you know its reality, because it is your reality. And yet, the sudden reality of the situation similtaneously makes it more surreal. For a moment you are both inside and outside, you’re amazed and you’re impatient, you’re everywhere, you’re all over the place. This is your life!
Then, of course, you get back to the task at hand. The light fades as you shift in your uncomfortable chair. You work on your essay notes ‘til the library closes and then cycle home in the cold, every time trying not to think about the bicycle accident statistics on the Cowley Roundabout as you’re crossing Magdalen Bridge. You get home, make dinner. Sleep in your uncomfortable and overpriced single bed. This is your life.
Of course, it’s not my life any more. I’m back outside the membrane now – though there are ways in and out if I want to go. But by and large, the barrier is back up and the open book of ever-expanding possibility that Oxford was for a good nine months has gently closed.
In a lot of ways, it feels good to stand outside of it. In this laboured metaphor of inside versus outside space, it’s probably appropriate that the Oxford atmosphere could very often be oppressive. As much as you can read the disappearance of the barriers into the University as the opening-up of the city for me, in some ways it was like a closing-down, or a swallowing. There’s a reason they have such beautiful ceilings in libraries at Oxford: they hope that if they’re at least pretty, you’ll forget how much time you spend under them, and how little time you spend out, away, doing anything or thinking about anything else.
An example: in the spring I completed what was undoubtedly the most full-on essay period of my life, wearing my fingers to stubs on my keyboard and hardly having time to think about anything else. When I had finished, I went to the Exam Schools on the High Street to hand the final essay in (evidence again of Oxford’s obsession with the crossing of a physical and exclusive threshold to achieve literally anything). I then cycled to meet fellow survivors at The Perch pub on the edge of Port Meadow. I was tired, exhilarated, slightly in denial that I had actually finished the essays and not perished in some kind of referencing-induced swoon. I coasted down Binsey Lane towards the river, nobody else on the road, and looked up for the first time in what felt like forever at the sky overhead, pale and high-up. I remember laughing as though a sudden burst of oxygen had rushed to my head all at once. Getting out of those spaces, sometimes, could be just as good as getting into them. There’s more air out here.
So that’s Oxford, I suppose. Multiply-meaningful, impossible to pin down to one thing, or one emotion, even one period of my life. Even since graduating I feel like I’ve conducted a whole other life in the city that was equally as new and different to those that went before it. So it goes. It both was and wasn’t like living inside a dream, and going back, as I always have, and maybe always will, will probably keep on feeling familiarly strange.
The world surely has not another place like Oxford; it is a despair to see such a place and ever to leave it, for it would take a lifetime and more than one to comprehend and enjoy it satisfactorily.
– Nathaniel Hawthorne, The English Notebooks
I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I was him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.
– F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
*I would like to add that the city centre has become a bit more congenial now. For visitors to Oxford looking for a free place to rest or wander, I recommend the relatively recently-opened Weston Library, where they have running free exhibitions of the University’s archival materials and, mercifully, benches where you can sit, for free, and watch people eat overpriced scones in the library tea-room. You’re welcome in advance for your exploitation of this resource.