An Oxmas Carol

oxford snow.jpg

A long addendum to the post about Oxbridge. A few days after finishing it, I ended up in Oxford – partly through sickening hypocrisy, partly because I wanted to visit one of my oldest and closest friends who studies there.

It was interesting for two reasons: one, because it reaffirmed everything I remembered about Oxbridge. And two, because it was a rare chance to commune with someone with a very similar worldview to mine.

Oxford is different to Cambridge. It’s noisier and busier, and there’s a lot more of it. It’s a city. Cambridge is just a glorified town.

But the universities are near-identical. They’re both made up of thirty-odd self-contained ‘colleges’, fabulously rich and bafflingly archaic. And they both serve the same mainly white, wealthy, South-Eastern demographic.

I sometimes wonder whether I’ve convinced myself Oxbridge is more poisonous than it actually is – whether my memories of it have been gradually distorted in the years since I left, leaving me with an extreme and exaggerated mental picture of what it’s really like.

But traipsing around Oxford with my access pass-brandishing pal, I quickly realised that was balls. In almost all respects, it was exactly as bad as I remembered. In some ways, it was even worse.

My attacks on Oxbridge have always focused on the wealth and privilege of the people that go there (which is immense and disgusting, and I was entirely right to criticise). But what I’d forgotten is how rich the institution (the University) and the institutions (its college) are themselves.

In the space of two days, I went around colleges with their own lakes, woods, sprawling gardens, cinemas and sports pitches. Chapels and libraries and banquet halls rubbed up against multimillion-pound conference centres named after oligarchs and Saudi dictators.

One college had its own deer park. Another had Oxford’s biggest DVD collection. Nothing academic, just romcoms, action movies and the like – purely for entertainment. If they haven’t got one a student wants to watch, they just buy it in free of charge.

I’d guess your average Oxford college – home to a few hundred people tops – has better facilities than most British universities. Come to think of it, they’ve probably got better facilities than a lot of small-to-medium-sized towns.

But when I was there, those colleges were completely dead. Oxford the city was rammed. It was two weeks before Christmas – there were people everywhere. But the students had all gone home for the holidays. Here, behind the thick, ex-squaddie-guarded medieval walls, there was no-one.

When you’ve got people sleeping under old rags in bus shelters a few metres away, and tens of thousands struggling to afford rent and food and heating elsewhere in the city, that feels especially perverse.

I’d turn the whole damn place into a homeless shelter, of course. But now, when it’s savagely cold in the season of goodwill, you’d hope someone would think to implement a more meagre, temporary solution. Thousands of empty student bedrooms across the city, industrial-sized kitchens, vast dining halls – it seems obvious. I’ll give the colleges one thing – they’re ever so Christmassy.

My semi-native guide agreed. He’s at Oxford, but not really ‘of’ it. We’ve known each other since college – proper, real-world, doing-your-A-Levels college – and I can’t think of any living person who’s influenced me more (Chomsky doesn’t count because I’ve never met him).

In some ways, our worldviews are extremely similar. In others, they’re very different. His is emphatically religious. He’s a devout Christian – one of the rare ones who takes the egalitarian, nearly communist bits of the Bible seriously. I’m not.

But we’re both teetotal vegetarians who think the Western way of life is awful. We’re both driven by a righteous, almost fanatical compulsion to end human suffering – although he and his family, the most radically generous people I’ve ever met, are a lot better at acting on it than I am. And we’re both misfit weirdos in our respective camps. He’s too hippy and left-wing for most conventional Christians. I’m too dour and puritanical for most radical socialists. I think that’s partly why we get on so well.

He was always cleverer that I was, and a few years back he came to Oxford to do a PhD. He finds the institution almost as objectionable as I do, I think. But an academic he respects got funding and a permanent posting here, and together they’ve formed a little community that’s doing something flabbergastingly rare – using humanities subjects in a way that might actually be socially useful (I won’t say any more unless I get him in trouble).

I enjoyed being irreverent in the petty ways his all-access pass allowed us. Eating curry in a university building at 11pm on a Saturday night. Eating all the Oreos in the deserted bar of one of Oxford’s most exalted colleges. Walking on the grass whenever I saw a ‘keep off’ sign.

But on a more meaningful level, I just appreciated the chance to talk with someone who looks at the world through a similar lens.

In life, we run up against lot of the same obstacles. People find our hard-line outlook baffling. We’re against having too much fun in a world where millions starve. And we’ve both had dozens and dozens of conversations that were going very nicely until we said ‘I don’t want to do X’ – usually something lavish – ‘because people are dying in Africa’. It never goes down very well.

I stayed two nights at his flat, and on the last morning I woke up to find it snowing. Oxford had been iced like a Christmas cake. By midday, it was still below freezing.

But it was a Sunday, and I needed to be in work a hundred miles away by 8.30am sharp on Monday – so out I went, plodding through the moonscape to try and get a train home. It was a naïve decision. I didn’t get far before I realised civilisation had collapsed like it always does in England when the weather’s bad. Buses weren’t running. Shops weren’t open. The people on the street looked dazed, but in a sort of happy, anaesthetised way.

At the station, sure enough, everything was closed. If your journey wasn’t essential, they were turning you away. Multiple point failures, drivers unable to get to work, the usual. I went and sat in a corner to weigh up whether work the next day classed as ‘essential’ or not.

It was quite nice to see society suspended for a few hours. As people got over the initial frustration, they started to look like they were almost enjoying themselves. Costa was commandeered at a seating area. The lone server at WH Smiths shut the shop, got a coffee and just went and watched the snow.

You could tell the usual cultural rules didn’t apply, because, miraculously, two English commuters started talking to one another. I was one of them. The other was a woman a few years younger than me. Mid-twenties, probably. Zany. Very un-Oxford.

I can’t remember which one of us started off now, but I liked her immediately. She was funny. Very quick. We talked about all kinds of rubbish for an hour, probably more, before I got around to asking her what she did for a living. And she replied that she worked at the University of Oxford.

I didn’t blow the doors off the conversation and blunder into it straight away. In fact, for a few minutes I inwardly debated whether to bring it up at all. But eventually I did – one, because I’m insatiably nosy, and two because she seemed good-humoured enough not to be offended. After a few banal enquiries about the specifics of her employment, I said – in as jokey and tongue-in-cheek a manner as I could muster – ‘But isn’t Oxford a terrible institution that perpetuates elitism and inequality?’

She didn’t like the question. She didn’t say so outright, but I could tell immediately. Her demeanour subtly changed. “You’ve clearly got beef”, she said dismissively, smiling, but not really. I made some comment about being a vegetarian that sounded funnier in my head.

Things went rapidly downhill from there. Really, I just wanted to know how someone very nice and intelligent and probably passionately un-elitist in lots of ways – she talked positively about Corbyn, for example – rationalised working at Oxbridge.

But to an almost fascinating degree, she was unwilling or unable to compute the point I was trying to make. She just repeatedly accused me of having a grudge against Oxbridge instead.

If she’d come back at me with rational arguments about why Oxford wasn’t bad, or at least had significant redeeming features, I would’ve respected that, and been very interested to hear them.

But whenever I’d try to bring her back to my core point – Oxford perpetuates elitism and inequality – she’d deflect the question with something defensive and only vaguely related instead.

She went on for ages about how closing the university would destroy Oxford the city – which had absolutely nothing to do with what I’d asked. Somehow we got side-tracked on private education – she argued private schools weren’t bad because her best friend went to one. The closest thing I got to a satisfactory answer from her was when she finally (and bizarrely) said: “the university has its problems, but I work damn hard.” I never said she didn’t.

At that point, I gave up. The conversation, like the British rail network, was going nowhere. She’d at least been an interesting study in how poorly even very clever people respond when you critique a system or an institution they’re part of. I made my excuses and went outside to watch the snow slowly bury the Margaret Thatcher Business Education Centre.

Before long, I got a text from my Oxford friend – his parents, who’d coincidentally also come up to visit him the same weekend, were heading back West. I could have a lift if I wanted one – which sounded infinitely preferable to waiting around in the cold for trains that might never arrive. They gave me a time and a place to meet, and so I trudged back into town to await extraction.

On the way, I passed the University’s History department. I did History at Cambridge, so I was vaguely interested in it, and stopped for a minute to have a look. The building was boring, but the snow in the gardens was pristine. I stepped forward to take a shoddy camera phone photo of it – but instinctively stopped myself a millisecond before I tripped over something on the slushy pavement.

At first, I thought it was a pile of rubbish – cans and food packets and rags, all covered with a see-through plastic sheet. But something wasn’t right about it. I had to stare at it for half a minute before I worked out what it was. Then it hit me. There, on the pavement, under that sheet, in a makeshift nest of coats and blankets, was a man, lying face up in the snow.

It was still minus one. It was still snowing. He’d probably been out in it all night. My first thought was money – I had no change. I looked around for a cash point but couldn’t see one. If I could find one, I could get him a tenner out. But I had a flattening feeling that even if I got a grand out of the bank, it wouldn’t get him somewhere warm.

I bent down to say something, but I realised that I’d have to pull all the blankets off for him to hear me. I looked around helplessly for I don’t know what. Presumably someone or something to help. Surely, the government, the police, the council, someone would do something. For painful minutes, I hovered, not knowing what to do. And then, to my utter shame, I just walked away.

This is what train station woman, and the people who think we’re killjoy extremists, and millions of others all around the country and the world can’t see. Wealth creates poverty. A society that allows institutions to be as rich as Oxbridge, and people to be as rich as the students who go there, will inevitably create the level of deprivation that sees people sleeping on the streets in the snow.

The solution is obvious. Or at least it should be. And until it’s implemented, I will be grumpy as fuck.