Oxford’s burning destruction

This article was originally published in Cherwell on 10 June 2016.

A friend once made the point that the central quote from T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”, is the ultimate descriptor of Oxford: to chart our experiences with how much caffeine is needed to get through to the next panic-inducing deadline or scenario is quaint. But in this quote lies a contradiction: the considered nature of “measured” cannot coexist with the explosion of energy and pace conveyed by the caffeine of “coffee”. It is a striking, yet jarring, juxtaposition, one which comes closer to describing Oxford than my friend ever realised. Indeed, it is this which makes our collective temperatures rise – the dual necessities of calmness and freneticism.

Needless to say, Oxford leans towards the latter. Yet this is not only in an academic sense, as overwhelming as the demands are here. Instead, other spheres all vie for the same space in our minds, with politics, relationships and our own individual challenges coming to the fore to render any mental space a luxury – a psychological reflection of the Oxford property crisis.

The other day I walked to seek refuge in the tranquillity of Port Meadow. I bumped into some friends along the way, but their conversation was already firmly parked in the arena of economic debate and political allegiance. As much as I love them, I left them, and headed back to college, ironically to resume working. This is indicative of our mental state: the need to de-stress is scuppered by the pressing concerns which harass us into action. It is as if we cannot give ourselves the space we need to cool down when there is always something below the surface vying for our attention.

Referenda are the prime offender in this regard. While much of the campaigning the NUS referendum reflected that of the upcoming EU one, the former is over while the latter rages on. How should we respond to political foot-dragging when not directly involved? Railing against the world in its entirety is an appealing proposition, channelling the immortal cry of “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from 1976’s cutting, Oscar-winning satire Network. This anger can be cerebral, too: The Smiths’ defiant creed in ‘Still Ill’ of, “I decree today that life is simply taking and not giving / England is mine; it owes me a living” assumes a prominent edge in our battle not only to be heard, but to drown out the voices of those that we resent.

Yet sadly, in my experience, the likelier outcome is one of resignation. Jay McInerney, in the stunning post-modernist novel Bright Lights, Big City (1984), writes, “You suspected that everyone else had been let in on some fundamental secret which was kept from you.” It is perhaps the most brilliantly simple summation of the plight of the outsider – and indeed, the plight of the Oxford student.

This is an environment that fosters comparison – toxic, non-constructive comparison – and the baseless assertion that the whole world has their life together except for you. That you are the exception. That you are a failure. Thus, the natural evolution of our presence here leads to a yearning for a simpler time – a nostalgia for home, for school, for reckless abandon.

Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time) is obsessed with this notion: that the only true way to deal with failure is to scrabble around in search of a time long gone. The settings, books and characters of his narrator’s past are all identified, analysed and unfurled in much the same way as our own – a revision class with A2-sized paper and black marker pens brought back pleasing memories of my own faded school days of innocence and levity. “We can cap the old times, make playing only logical harm”, cries singer Paul Banks on post-punk band Interpol’s ‘Obstacle 1’. “We can top the old times, clay-making that nothing else will change”. All of this is the logical result of the natural need to grip a constant when everything else seems amiss.

Surely, then, the answer lies somewhere in the middle – to have enough of a sense of justice to get stuck in where necessary, but to always maintain enough of a sense of perspective to stay grounded. Indeed, in Brideshead Revisited (1945), Evelyn Waugh presents a recollection of an idyllic Trinity term and Oxford in the summer. His protagonist writes on reflection that “it is easy, retrospectively, to endow one’s youth with a false precocity or a false innocence.” So leave yourself no need to do any such thing.

Yes, Oxford and life are both catalysts for burning frustration. But what goes less noticed are the opportunities they give to cool down. Waugh’s breath-taking description of the ‘dreaming spires’ puts it best, writing of the city that “her autumnal mists, her grey springtime, and the rare glory of her summer days… when the chestnut was in flower and the bells rang out high and clear over her gables and cupolas, exhaled the soft airs of centuries of youth”. Look around you. Take it in. Cool your temperature. Measuring out your life with coffee spoons may well be necessary. But just make sure that you leave plenty of room between them.

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