by Monim Wains
Just last year, I sent in my first nervous attempt at writing for The Poor Print. I wrote about ‘A Fresh Perspective’, a reflection on freshers’ week of first year. Now, as an old and aging second year, I tap away in the library. My age is no longer ‘-teen’, my college no longer new, and Oxford no longer fresh. Like a stale piece of bread, I have grown hardy to the knocks of this place, able to last and sustain myself through the nights. The hollow crust that used to hide the tender feelings of a daunted fresher has toughened and baked into an Orielensis. It’s a monumental change, and an inevitable one; perhaps a preserving of the magic of the spires into a chewy maturity.
It has been good. Better than good.
Only on reflection can I appreciate the change. If you’re a fresher, look forward to it! If you’re older, I wonder if you can relate.
The most striking difference that I have thought about has been a comparison of Michaelmas in first year and Michaelmas this year. It has been a long term again – I kept thinking that it was the end of seventh week until I checked, and it said Tuesday. But it has been a good term. I remember that, last year, it was as if I was paddling furiously away on an ocean, swept by crashing waves that rolled over me by the end, bobbing up to break through the water for a panicking gasp of air. I hope you have had a better time than that but remember that it gets better regardless. That current still exists, but I can waddle with it now, plodding along, still with difficulty, but not in a panic. Sometimes, inevitably, there is still a wave that goes over my head. Overall though, I know my place, edging close to the raging white foam of the rapids, but keeping myself from getting sucked in. There were no whirlpools for me this Michaelmas. (Although, eighth week is really trying to change that…)
What is the difference? Why am I able to write this, pretending to have some vaguely thought-provoking reflection?
Part of it is definitely habit. You get used to the work, and everything else. Emphasis on ‘everything else’. Work is immanent within these walls, but so many of us decide to fill up our lives with other things, either as groups or on our own. That is good, for sure; it is making the most of the opportunities we have. But that brings with it a cost, and additional pressure. That too becomes habit.
More importantly, though, I think the change has been dismissal. I have dismissed ‘Oxford’.
‘Oxford’ is the view that I had – that I think most people have – of this uni. It is prestige, respect, and intimidation. It is the ancient stone paths anchored beneath our feet as if they were alive, singing deep harmonies that drum through the ears, beating to the rhythm of another essay or problem. But those walls are not alive. There is no drum, nor beat. There is no ‘Oxford’.
You’ve seen all that there really is, in tutorials and lectures, in meetings and emails. Oxford’s just a bunch of people labouring to run an ancient ‘system’ that never existed in the first place. I don’t know what this means for the university, whether it is good or bad, or (almost certainly) inevitable. What I do know is how I feel about it.
I feel that this place isn’t real. It’s a fable, made up and continually perpetuated by people no better than us, and you. This isn’t in terms of intelligence or capability – the people running a behemoth like Oxford will be intelligent – it is in terms of persons, in terms of worth. My view in second year is an understanding of the façade. It is a jaded view of the fact that Oxford is just human. It is broken, and slow, and fragile. It is tired, and it is clumsy. It is you, and it is me. ‘Oxford’ is made up. ‘Oxford’ is like the face you put on before stepping out of your room, when you fix your hair just right in the mirror, so that they can’t tell that you were in a rush.
That duality, between the dreaming spires and reality, is both good and bad. It means that (as you’ve definitely realised by now) Oxford isn’t the perfect fairy tale it wants to seem, that you wanted it to be. Instead, it means that Oxford is you. Oxford is yours. It is yours as much as it is mine, or anyone else’s, to make, and to define. Because there’s no such thing as ‘Oxford’. ‘Oxford’ is a tradition, old and limping. Oxford is the people, and that’s what actually matters.
There is no structure, nor power, nor entrenched institution, that extends any further than people. People just like you.