Sunday, March 22, 2015

Spring in Oxford

Today I went to Oxford on a whim, hoping that the city of dreaming spires would inspire my son to work a little harder. Sadly, I didn't realise that when the Welcome to Oxford sign appeared, we would be confronted with several miles of ring roads, light industry and shoddy housing estates. Brideshead Revisted was never like this.

But enventually we reached the real city and it more than lived up to our expectations. We began in this Saxon church tower, built in 1040:

As we climbed the steps, we could hear the hungry cries of baby pigeons, accompanied by the sublime singing of a young male student. The tower was reassuringly solid, with walls that were three feet thick. When we reached the top, we had a good view of the city:

I used all my guile to get my son enthused about Oxford:

"This is where they filmed some of the Harry Potter films...Do you remember that episode of Doctor Who when the young Amy was in that museum?"

He nodded politely. Then I casually remarked that the windows looked into the student bedrooms and my son suddenly lit up:

"Really? Oh my! I'd like to go here. Do you have to be very rich?"

The conversation continued. "Dad, why didn't you go to university here?"

I opted for the simple answer, deciding to leave out the possibility that I might not have been clever enough:

"I didn't work hard enough and I didn't love the subjects I studied. I wanted to do music, but I'd started too late to catch up. Whatever you do, do something you love and then it won't feel like hard work."

"Which famous people have been to Oxford?"

There were so many, I didn't know where to start. For some reason, Kris Kristofferson sprang to mind - he went to Merton - but that name would mean nothing to my son.

I had to think of someone that children liked: "You know the man who plays Mr Bean..."

The trouble with places like Oxford is that they offer a sensory overload. You wander around like an idiot, gawping with wonder, taking photographs of interesting bricks. It's not the linear square mileage that's the problem, but the temporal area - 900 years of history, compressed into a relatively small space, like the material inside a black hole.

I haven't even got to grips with Lewes yet. How long would I have to live in Oxford before I began to vaguely make sense of it?

I looked at the students and envied them, but then remembered that a friend's daughter studied here a few years ago. Naturally bright, she had sailed through every exam at school, but met her match at Oxford. After years of achieving top grades with very little effort, the punishing schedule of essays and reading lists came as a shock. She graduated, but seemed scarred by the experince.

However, it must be a very grounding experience to be part of a tradition that is almost a thousand years old, literally following in the footsteps of figures like Dr Johnson, John Donne and Erasmus.

In the photo below, the white house once belonged to Edmund Halley, of comet fame. I saw someone go in the front door and felt a momentary pang of envy.

I took this photo through the railings of a fence. It's a secret garden: Et in arcadia ego, which is the title of the first chapter of Brideshead Revisited. It looks like the perfect place for a picnic involving plovers eggs and a reading of The Waste Land.

This is the dining hall of Trinity College. Just in front of the mantlepiece, there is a large tomato ketchup dispenser. The seats have seen better days.

I watched a group of students sitting on a lawn, having an animated conversation and wondered what my son made of it all.

I hadn't brought him here to instill a burning desire to become an Oxbridge student. I simply wanted my son to be aware that he had choices, and that learning can become more interesting as you get older. 

I think he got the message.


Katharine A said...

Would you like to take my son next time & inspire him? We've yet to visit universities. That's a year off. However I think I've put them all off museums. For now!

Steerforth said...

I'm not sure if I inspire my son. I just put things in front of him and hope for the best. But that approach was a dismal failure with his brother, who started protesting at six. It's a complete lottery, which is why I want to punch smug parents who tell me that their darling Fifi loves the British MMuseuml.

joan.kyler said...

I've read that the Italians have an old saying that the problem with having children is that you don't know what kind of stranger you're letting into your house, or something to that effect. I decided never to have children, too much of a risk. (And too time consuming.)

Chris Matarazzo said...

It is interesting, isn't it -- trying to instill in our kids the difference between the foundational kind of learning they are forced to do and they joy of some day studying things they love when they "major" in someting in college? My 13-year-old loves history; he read his entire textbook in sixth-grade every night at bed time until he'd completed it. When I told him he could spend his life stydying history if he wanted, as a professor, he was tremporarily baffled, then intrigued. There really are two entirely different kinds of learning.

Chris Matarazzo said...

One more, if you don't mind: considering the museum comments from you and Katherine A above -- isn't it always things they find on their own that they love? I may be guilty of having pushed music and literature with my son, but it is history he seems to cling to. I think the "putting things in front" of them philosophy is best. When I told my son the story of The Odyssey in his younger years, I hoped it would lead to a love of story; instead, it seems to have contributed to a love of history. Then, of course, we, as parents, sometimes have to point out to our kids exactly what it is they are interested in or they might not consciously realize it. I once told my son that not only does he seem to have an interest in history but in language. The questions flowed from there...

Steerforth said...

Joan - I didn't have much choice in the matter! Mrs Steerforth made it pretty clear that we were definitely having children and a world of meals out and holidays abroad came to an abrupt end. Children are the doubtful guests, but love conquers all, thankfully.

Chris - Your son's lucky he has a father who recognises him as an individual rather than a extension of himself. There's nothing wrong with encouraging your own hobbies and interests, as long as you know when to step back and allow the child to follow their own enthusiasms. It sounds as if you got the balance right.

Lucy R. Fisher said...

My niece went to Oxford to do an MA and yes, was daunted by the work and the approach. She's now at Goldsmith's, much happier. But surely the estates, industry and ring roads are also "real"? Next visit, explore Jericho, the meadows, the Iffley Road. I lived there briefly and pretty much ignored the Harry Potter aspect. Have happy memories of a Chinese resto in the mall, and the rep cinema (now the Ultimate Picture Palace).

Lucy R. Fisher said...

Oh, and my dad said there was no point studying history because nothing happened the same way twice. I studied history.

Steerforth said...

Lucy - Yes, the other parts of Oxford are just as real, but it feels as if they've been grafted on to the city rather than evolved naturally. It's a pity the city's expansion wasn't managed in a way that was more sympathetic to the historic centre. The outskirts of Cambridge are equally uninspiring.

Your dad's view of history is an unusual perspective! Most of us feel that nothing ever changes.

Canadian Chickadee said...

I loved visiting both Oxford and Cambridge. I found just being in the presence of something like the King's College Chapel in Cambridge, or the Ashmolean inspiring. All that knowledge -- and so little time in a single lifetime to explore it.

My parents insisted that I go to university and that I finish and get a degree, though I think they were a bit baffled when I got a degree in mathematics, as I've always loved reading history and biographies. Or a really good mystery. Preferably an English one.

But in addition to the practical usage of listing a degree on my CV, mathematics teaches a kind of mental discipline that's important in every aspect of life.

Your sons, though so different from one another, will find their paths one day, though there may be some surprises along the way.

Thanks for an interesting post. xoxox Carol

StuckInABook said...

It's always fun to see 'my' city through the eyes of a visitor - I forget how beautiful it is (and for many years the Radcliffe Camera was my 'office', which does seem very lucky).

I went as a student in 2004 and stayed as one until 2013... despite finding it rather overwhelming as an undergraduate. You're absolutely right that you have to REALLY love your subject to survive the intensity of that course. Masters and DPhil were a breeze in comparison!

Foolishly, I always assumed Rowan Atkinson was part of the Cambridge set, so nice to know we can claim him as one of our own.

Oh, and I agree about how unprepossessing Oxford is as you enter - traffic jams, or the ugly buildings around the railway station. But luckily the countryside is also very close, which has made living in a city more bearable for a country boy like me.

Steerforth said...

Carol - I can see the attraction of studying mathematics and you're right about the wide range of applications it has, whether you want to be an accountant, software designer, philosopher or a musician. The purity of maths appeals and it certainly commands a lot more respect than many subjects, so you made a good choice.

StuckInaBook - Lucky you, having the Radcliffe Camera as your office! It must have been very rewarding to live in that environment, studying something you loved, even though the novelty value may have worn off quickly.

The one thing I didn't like were the tourists, but as I was one myself it seems rather unreasonable to object.

zmkc said...

Somehow just put a comment meant for here on another post - but I promise, really, I am not a robot, just an incompetent with comments

zmkc said...

Somehow just put a comment meant for here on another post - but I promise, really, I am not a robot, just an incompetent with comments.
PS The last sentence of Carol's comment re paths and surprises is so wise.

Lucille said...

Slightly off topic, but I just wanted you to know that the latest personality quiz Where in Britain Would You be Happiest? has me happiest in Lewes. Now of course I want to know if you should be living in Oxford.
I was an academic dunce, but the two strangers we introduced into our family have given us a glimpse into the world of the Cambridge undergraduate.

Steerforth said...

Zoe - Replying to your comment that appeared on the previous post, I just told my son that he had to work hard and be good at what he did. There's still something of a meritocracy, for those who try enough.

Lucille - I took the test and apparently I should be living in the Skipton area or, if I have to stay in the SE, Oxford! However, I'm not completely out of sync with Lewes.

I wouldn't say I'm an academic person either - too mercurial - so I'm not sure why Oxford would be a good fit.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

Blimey you've made it look nicer than I saw it in 18 years! At least half of Oxford is a dump, sadly with terrible architecture sprouting up all over the place.