Oxford in the Vacation
By DAVID WAINWRIGHT (St. Edmund Hall, Oxford).
ACANADIAN lady was recently reported to have said that she had found Cambridge more attractive than Oxford, " because the village is so much prettier." This endearing remark may be seen to plumb the depths of the situation, at least so far as Oxford is concerned. The city is no longer the pretty village of a hypothetical yesteryear. But perhaps the Canadian lady was a little hasty. It is true that there is no longer academic calm in the High, except very early on Sunday mornings in the winter; it is unfortun- ately correct that dons crossing the High preoccupied with deep thoughts are likely to reach ari early eave. In Charles Lamb's Oxford the vacation was quiet. ' The walks at these times," he wrote, " are so much one's own—the tall trees of Christ's, the groves of Magdalen ! The halls deserted, and with open doors inviting one to slip in unperceived, and pay a devoir to some Founder. . . . " Today, the halls are filled with gentlemen from the National Coal Board, intent on some course or conference. One slips through open doors only to be ushered firmly towards a lecture on budgetary controls on overheads (at Queen's) or improved methods of production (at University College). '
Oxford, is on the main routes for day trippers. On Saturdays and Sundays the High crawls with enormous luxury coaches. These we might have expected. But during the week we are invaded by ladies " doing " Oxford between Blenheim and Eton. In the last month we must have been hosts to the sixth forms of every girls' school in the British Isles, and several from the continent, as they cavorted on our lawns and chattered in our chapels. Each batch is escorted by ladies who are pressed by their charges to expound the mysteries of " bumps "; and the results of Eights Week, chalked on our walls, evoke explanations which are always ingenious and often accurate. The ladies of Somerville and Lady Margaret Hall must have been watching the river all the time. These girls are up and about early—so early indeed that one is hurried to complete one's morning toilet before the route to the baths is barred by a score of pretty prying Amazons of the guide-book. Little Mary wants to take a photograph of our well, and her clear young voice (as she tells all twenty of her friends, individually and with affec- tionate schoolgirl slang, to get out of the way) penetrates the furthest recesses of the library. Joan (self-willed girl !) wants- to snap the chapel, and they argue the merits of their respec- tive views with some heat.
Scarcely has the lowest leaf on the smallest tree calmed down after fluttering its leaves in flirtation when the first elders arrive, climbing out of their coaches to exclaim, " Oh, look, isn't it lovely I " It is; but quarter-hourly acclaim becomes wearisome. These ladies are accompanied by a guide with some knowledge of the history and traditions of the buildings. The guide imparts this knowledge to her party in the lodge, which is an excellent sound-box, and everyone can hear quite clearly every word.. Then they process solemnly round the quadrangle, as if carrying out some strange religious rite—as, of course, they are.
Then there are the foreign tourists, who are altogether more unpredictable and delightful. I have it on reliable authority that the other day a taxi screamed to a standstill outside my college. In its last convulsive jerk it shot out from the back seat a gentleman in slouch hat and very pale clothes, with camera at the ready. He dashed through the lodge, took a snap, paused in flight to mutter " Gee ! The smallest college ! " and then tore back through the lodge and into his taxi as it began once more to move forward. But most foreign visitors are not so hasty, and they take immense pains to record their enjoyment. Last week we met Pa (who had a large plate camera), Ma (pocket camera slung round the neck), Junior (with the next smaller size in folding cameras) and a small boy of not more than five years, who waddled about cheerfully, pointing a 'box camera at the college cat.
Perhaps these visitors would have driven Charles Lamb away for ever, had he not already been frightened by the nightly rush-hour.. All the city workers cycle across Magdalen bridge to their homes in ,Cowley, while the Cowley workers cycle the other way across the bridge to their homes on the other side of the city at Botley. This two-way traffic is symbolic of the city's delight in the small paradoxes of life. But Lamb would certainly have gone to Bodley and watched Mr. Mark Batten carving the likenesses of two university officers on the bosses at each side of an entrance arch. During the last few weeks it has been a pleasant speculation to consider whose these chiselled features might turn out to be_ Now, the secret is out, and they are announced in the Press as the University Registrar and Bodley's Librarian.
Not so long ago the pavements outside the Examination Schools saw the traditional celebrations when the written papers of the Second Public Examinations ended. Now, in twos and threes, we drift back in sub fusc for our vivas; but to the people in the streets we are strangers. They watch us walking down the High, and the piercing shouts of small boys ask perpetually, " Mummy, why is that man wearing those funny clothes ? "
Oxford today poses as a scholar with a penchant for show- manship. It still has that " wondrous charm of antiquity " which appealed to Lamb—who was himself a mere visitor, " defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution." He could take Addison's walk, though, today; • or stand in the shadow of the mighty Bodley, and still feel that " nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks at, as one or other of the universities." I was reminded of him by an old gentleman, over eighty, from Bradford, who sat beside me in the Botanical Gardens one fine morning last term. He told me that he was being /driven about the country by his children, who the week before had taken him to Cambridge. " But," he said, " I've always wanted to come and see Oxford." He looked up, and watched the sun playing on Magdalen tower, in the clear air.