7 SEPTEMBER 1951, Page 9


Oxford and Cambridge

ByNORMAN ST. JOHN-STEVAS (Christ Church, Oxford).

INEVER realised when I first decided to go to Oxford and Cambridge the seriousness of the step I was taking. One might have gope to Eton and Harrow and got away with it. Devotion to those establishments is the privilege of an esoteric circle about whose rivalries the mass of the people care little. Oxford and Cambridge, however, are a national passion. Father is divided against son, mother against daughter, aunts against nephews and nieces; by a fierce emotional conviction that they are either " Oxford " or " Cambridge." Residence at one of the universities is the least qualification for entertaining such feelings. Indeed, it seems stronger amongst those who have not attended them than with those who have. The crowds that throng the towpaths of the Thames on Boat Race Day, sporting their various shades of blue, are only the outward manifestation of what St. Augustine or Dr. Jung would have styled an archetype.

In this glorious rivalry I can never take part. An invisible barrier separates me from my fellow-men. It is exhilarating to respond to the ever posed question, " Oxford or Cambridge? " with an enigmatic " Both." But the thrill is only momentary, and is rapidly dispelled by the look of shocked disapproval on the face of the questioner. At my club, appropriately enough " The Oxford and Cambridge," I feel that less scandal would have been caused had I been at neither. Perhaps one would fare better at the " United University," but, no doubt the name is deceptive.

Suffering can, however, be borne, and is at any rate refining. What is intolerable, and even degrading, are the jokes which relentlessly pursue me. Everyone permits himself the luxury of one, little realising that it is a privilege of which countless hun- dreds have already availed themselves. I am constantly told that you can tell a Cambridge man from an Oxford man by the way he talks of our two great universities. Alternatively it is impressed upon me that when an Oxford man enters a room he looks as though he owned it„ whereas a Cambridge man looks as though he couldn't care less who owned it. Cambridge is the capital of the fens, while Oxford is described as the Latin quarter of the Cowley works or the city nestling on the outer fringes of Lord Reading's marquisate.

Nevertheless, when all has been said, the unique advantage remains of being able to survey both the universities from an inner standpoint. Similarities, of course, are many. The college system creates a solidarity and sociability which Red Brick can never achieve. An ancient tradition of centuries is shared by both, and the baleful threat of modern scientific education is equally felt. Scientists throng King's Parade as much as they do The High. They scuttle into the laboratories by day and out again by night. Rigid requirements of work, overloaded sylla- buses, endless and mysterious experiments preclude them from the more genial activities of university life. They form a vast, silent, Nescafe-drinking mass. Government grants and State scholarships foster an unhealthy sense of duty which demands imperiously a steady second or a brilliant third. Utilitarianism is an unattractive philosophy and reduces a university education to the status of one more -lever in the struggle for social advancement. If similarities exist, the differences are deeper marked. The most striking contrast is the difference in ethos between the two. Cambridge is a matter-of-fact, down-to-earth, sensible university. It is still defiantly progressive and somewhat-less defiantly Pro- testant. Oxford, despite the impact of Lord Nuffield, is very much the city of dreaming spires, the home of lost causes, Catholic and conservative in its deepest roots. Eccentricity is frowned on at Cambridge ; at Oxford it is a cult. Poetry flourishes at Oxford ; philosophy finds its home in Cambridge. Oxford undergraduates have a certain brilliance ; their conversa tion sparkles ; they are intimately concerned with their inner reactions and feelings. Cambridge undergraduates are more con- cerned with their relations with their fellow-men ; they get on with the job and leave the devils, or the angels, hidden away inside. To sum it up in psychological jargon, Oxford is intro- verting whereas Cambridge is extroverting. Generalisations are inevitably faulty.. Oxford types may be found in Cambridge and vice versa ; individuals exist who defy any classification ; yet by and large the distinction is true, although it is a differentiation of shades rather than a-contrast of hues.

Oxford is undoubtedly—to use an unpleasant word—the more fashionable university. Rich undergraduates, a rapidly diminish- ing class, tend to go there. Oxford is news in a way that Cam- bridge never is. Ever since the unfortunate " King and Country " motion the Oxford Union has enjoyed & certain notoriety, Americans always want to go to Oxford. They fill the streets they flock into Christ Church ; they " do " Oxford in a way that they never " do " Cambridge. This has advantages and dis- advantages. Dons mix easily with Cambridge undergraduates ; at Oxford they sit in an ivory tower. Port is drunk in Oxford ; light table wines and sherry at Cambridge.

Is Oxford more beautiful than Cambridge? The question is unanswerable. Oxford is an architectural treasury of the Middle Ages ; Magdalen, with its slender tower, shady cloisters and stately deer-park, is an enchantment ; the grandeur of Christ Church Hall and Tom Quad, the eighteenth-century magnificence of Peckwater could hardly be surpassed. Yet there is nothing to equal the loveliness of the backs at Cambridge in the height of summer, the nobility of King's College chapel, or the elegant and perfectly proportioned Senate House. Architecturally. Cambridge is to Oxford what Paris is to Rome. In Cambridge, as in Paris, everything is on show, and the whole is laid out to the best advantage. Oxford, like Rome, abounds in beauty, but it is a hidden beauty that must be sought for.

Cambridge is a delightful county town with restaurants and shops generating that easy, convivial atmosphere that can only be found in small English towns. Oxford bears the unmistakable marks of a modern industrial city, with its seething crowds of shoppers and rash of chain and other stores. What Cambridge is on a Saturday afternoon, Oxford is all the'week, and only on a Sunday, when the roar of the buses and traffic has ceased, does Oxford become a university town. Industrialisation has forced the university to retreat into itself and so be saved from city inundation. College loyalties are thereby strengthened, but between town and gown there is a severance and a tension that Cambridge has never known.

I have always been told that it is dangerous to write about places until one has left them, and I have an uneasy suspicion that this contains some truth. This short account can claim to be nothing more than a subjective impression, with all its short- comings and defects. And if any reader should happen to wonder what would be my reaction to the most searching test of all, namely, to which university would I send my son, I cart swiftly set his heart at rest. I intend to remain a bachelor. Thy question therefore does not arise.