By B. R. BARRON (New College, Oxford)
UNLIKE the majority of undergraduates going up to Oxford today for the first time, I did not just catch the train at Paddington or the 'plane in New York. I well and truly " went up," as I began my journey some 13° S. of the Equator, and went right up north to the rather cooler latitude of Oxford. I was keeping up the family connections, following the family's footsteps, even though they were not the footsteps of the usual father or elder brother, but of a pair of pre-war uncles.
It all began early one Sunday morning in August with a farewell I shall always remember. As I drove away from the house for the last time, for several years at least, I noticed that a crowd was gathering at the end of the drive. Instead of the usual Sunday morning quiet, there was a growing noise. Then I saw that seven large squat Diesel lorries had been drawn up in a semi-circle facing the drive ; the idea was to create as much noise as possible, and so every lorry's engine was " revved " to capacity, every hooter was blown, while a passing bullock-cart was persuaded to remain and lend local colour to the general effect. A throng of small children wildly beat empty petrol-tins, while over everything hung a haze of pungent blue smoke from the exhausts. Only the bullock re- mained impassive. It was a moving farewell, but I have yet to discover whether there was any intention behind it of accustoming me to the supposed clatter and crowd-effects of Oxfold, as it existed in the imaginations of the inhabitants of Central Africa, or whether it was in the nature of a grand finale, since my next three years would be spent in quiet contemplation and sober study.
All that day we motored the two hundred and thirty miles to the first stop. My companions were my mother and a houseboy's wife going to have her tonsils removed. There were no mishaps, and we dustily arrived. The next day I changed my mode of transport to a small and staid Rapide biplane, which carried me slowly over the four hundred miles to Salisbury. It flew over hundreds of square miles of characterless bush, mostly owned by Portugal. The Zambesi River, the one great landmark on the trip, was visible for half an hour before we flew over it. As I looked down, I could see the tiny settlement of Tete on one of the banks, the farthest point reached by the Portuguese knight-explorers who marched up the steamy river-valley in full armour. After a four-hour flight, I landed at Salisbury and civilisation. I was now in a city of tarred roads, of plate-glass shop-windows, of two-storeyed houses and buses, all of which were lacking in my own neighbourhood. Salisbury was an important stage in going up. Here I expected to collect my luggage, which had had to be sent by road a fortnight earlier ; and here, as if by a miracle, I did find it.
I entrained for Johannesburg, once again changing my mode of transport. Johannesburg was forty-eight hours' travel away, half of them through the Kalahari desert. All along the line in the Kalahari the natives tried to sell us hideous wooden animals, scorched to give them colour and with none-too-clean rabbit-fur glued on in the appropriate places. They also, and more success- fully, tried to sell us lovely little table-mats and necklaces of stone beads. The whole of one day was spent in the long climb to Johannesburg, six thousand feet up. The train pulled slowly across the high veld, rolling plains with little towns scattered over them. These towns were almost exact replicas of every Wild West cinema town. Opposite the station there was usually a hotel, with horses tied to the railings, and there would be one dusty main street, one big store, while opposite the platform would be some corrals filled with long-horned cattle. -
If Salisbury was civilisation, Johannesburg was " this modern age." There is all the rush and noise of a modern city, especially an American one, in Johannesburg. There are lofty buildings, juke- boxes, cars with too much chromium plating on them and not enough space in which to park. The hotels are lit by invisible fluorescent lighting, whereas in Salisbury we had to do with plain
electric bulbs. I caught the Blue Train to Cape Town. It is South Africa's luxury train, and possibly the only train in Africa that averages more than 35 m.p.h. for any distance.
I arrived at Cape Town, the second important stage in my journey to Oxford, for here I caught the boat. I was quitting the land of many servants, and I believed I was going to a country of queues and cold weather. I had my last good meal, so I thought ; one that seemed fit for any Elizabethan traveller. Perhaps the first thing I observed on board ship was that all notices were in one language. All the way to Cape Town they had been in Afrikaans or Portuguese as well as English. It was a quiet voyage ; the ship was only half- full. There were the usual ship's Derby, visit to the bridge, auction on the day's run. 'The passengers were pleasant and ordinary, and, as there were few of us, was able to get to know nearly everyone, including one unfortunate boy going to Cambridge.
The ship had loaded its supplies in England or else was under the Ministry of Food, for we had our one-egg-a-week ration, a great surprise to most on their first breakfast. I thought that my worst forebodings were realised about England, and I conjured up visions of a hungry student for ever thinking of food when not of his work. One morning in September I awoke and heard the unusual but expected sounds of the docks, and I knew I had nearly reached the journey's end. It was the point where I picked up my uncles' foot- steps; they always went up from London, so to London 1 went.
I gazed avidly at the, to me, famous English countryside, the lovely greenness of it all, the flatness and the freshness. I saw the unusual hedges ; I felt the greater speed of the trains ; I heard the unfamiliar accents. But the most striking aspect of England was the rows and rows of chimney-pots. The nearest thing to them I had ever seen was on a Nature study film at school showing hundreds of swallows resting on telegraph wires. Then I reached Waterloo, where I met my relations (but not my uncles).. I passed a few days in London, which seemed a far more peaceful city than Johannesburg or Cape Town. I saw my first play, Oklahoma, and travelled on my first Tube train, both of which gave me enormous
pleasure. I dutifully saw the sights of London ; I - the famous places, and then one day I realised I had nearly arrived. I was almost up, for I found myself at Paddington asking for "a third single to Oxford, please."
I no longer felt I was going up, but going along. I seemed to be coasting down a well-worn path which so many •thousands of others had followed before me—including my uncles. The journey quickly slipped past, while I dreamed about what I was coming to and the end of my travels. Outside the countryside was looking grey and damp, covered with a faint mist, but still retaining much of the pleasantness of what is new and fresh. Then suddenly I saw Oxford, the Oxford of the past, with its towers and steeples, turrets and battlements, looking like an unmade jig-saw puzzle. But it was soon obscured by the Oxford of the present, by rows of small houses, by the gasworks and goods yards.
- I ended as I began, in a car, which drove slowly through the town with its strange mixture of the old and new, with the ancient colleges on one side of a street and modern shops on the other. Everywhere there were bicycles, also old and new, but mostly very old, and which seemed to have an unofficial right-of-way. Then I turned down a narrow, walled-in lane and stopped before the great college gates, through which I could glimpse patches of green through the piled-up trunks in the lodge. I stepped out of the car, through the gates and into a new life. I was up.