Memoirs from the Dreaming Spires
"Excuse me," the mildly overweight, middle aged man says. I'm in a bookshop café on St. Aldate's, run not as a commercial enterprise but as a way to keep the 12th century building it's in upright. And although, to the untrained observer, it appears that I'm engrossed in Plato's Republic, I'm eavesdropping.
"Excuse me," the man repeats, in the general direction of one of the young shop assistants. "I was wondering, you see, ahm, I had a favour to ask of you."
One of the assistants - a woman - turns to him, unsmiling. "What is it?" she says, curtly.
"Well, you see," the man dodders, "a colleague and I were hoping to play chess in the Christ Church meadows around the corner, but we have no board. Would it be possible to borrow yours for half an hour?"
"No," the assistant says. "No, we can't possibly let you have it."
"Oh, I see," the would-be-grandmaster says, dejectedly. "But nobody's using it, you see, and we had so hoped to have a game ..."
He is met with a cold, icy stare, and after realising the hopelessness of his struggle, slowly leaves with his head down. Outside, a man wearing sandles and the world's largest beard walks past, whistling Brahms. Two Italians walk three paces behind a woman in a croptop as she discusses Chekhov (the playwright) with a friend.
I live in Edinburgh, sure, but it hasn't always been thus. My formative years were spent in Oxford, the city of the dreaming spires and 900-year-old university in the south of England. It was there that I went to school, learned to ride a bike, went to my first gig and had my first pint of beer. (It would have been where I had my first kiss and found myself, too, had I not been both cruelly persecuted by the daughters of professors and completely fucking useless.)
Oxford has a lousy reputation. Yes, the university is world-reknowned (although in Britain it definitely comes second to Cambridge), but to dismiss the town as merely a one-trick pony is to do it a disservice. While, sure, it's where a centuries-old string of history's greatest figures received their education, it's also an industrial town at the centre of England's Victorian canal network, and where many, many cars have been made over the past forty years. (The Cowley car plant at the edge of town used to make Rovers; it now produces cars for BMW, including the new Mini.) The result is a city formed by the very rich and the very poor - and nowhere is the gap between town and gown more profound.
But as a result, for the children of these two groups at least, the inequalities are less profound than they might be. The offspring of professors and dignitaries share schools and pubs with the children of factory workers and ordinary people, which means that the latter get a better education than they ordinarily might, and the former get to have a taste of a world they might not ordinarily be privy too. The result is, among the MTV generation at least, a much better understanding of each other. And, more often than one might expect, gangs of toffs going joyriding and crashing into buildings while kids in the working class neighbourhoods doing well in school, getting into further education and going on to form hilarious satirical dotcoms with their university friends. Cough.
More than anything, Oxford is very different from the windy city where I've made my home. Two things in particular strike me every time I come back:
1) Everyone in Oxford is much more attractive than in Edinburgh. My Edinburgh friends and colleagues aside - they are, of course, stunningly beautiful - people up north aren't getting something people down south are. I don't know what it is; perhaps it's nutrition, or something in the water, or just an attitude or a way of live. People in Oxford gleam, to the extent that you find yourself wondering why you're not anywhere near as good looking as them. People in Edinburgh glower, and you kind of hope they'll go home and get some rest. (Of course, unfortunately, the money gap has a lot to do with this. I would feel guilty about being completely disparaging about Edinburgh types, because they - we - don't make anywhere near the same amount of cash, and therefore probably aren't nutritionally as well off. Although by the same token, someone really has to tell the Scottish as a whole to stop eating the fucking pies.)
2) Oxford has really great weather. During the summer it's sunny and warm. During the winter it's cold, but not such that you worry about your nadgers cracking into each other like a pair of frostbitten man-conkers. During the spring and autumn it rains, but in a good way - you don't get as much of that pissy drizzle stuff. When it pours, it pours down like a pressurised firefighter's hose, and you appreciate it because at least it's making the effort. And then you go home and change your clothes, which you also appreciate because - hey! - it's an excuse to get naked by a radiator. Everyone secretly enjoys that, I'd like to think.
And yes, I'll admit it, every time I come back to Oxford, I want to come back for good. And then when I get on a train back to Edinburgh, I want to be there for good. I'm torn; I also want to live in a half dozen other places, all of which have similarities. Boston is one example, and Bath is another. They're all pretty great.
Although it's not all laughs and flowers. Oxford, incidentally, usually wins the annual Britain in Bloom competition, thanks to its ubiquitous trees and floral displays. The local Oxford in Bloom variant is usually won by my old neighbour, who works at his 12'x12' plot for the rest of the year with a stupefying array of gardening equipment - including a full-size flamethrower - to ensure that his house looks marvellous come summer. But beyond the gaiety and apparent pristine utopia lies corruption and idiocy.
The city council is one of the most corrupt in Britain, and regularly throws money at its building company friends by building roads, tearing them up and rebuilding them ad infinitum. A traffic-calming scheme made local contractors millions, while screwing money out of the hospitals and schools and actually making both pollution and traffic density worse. Road humps and delightfully floral bollards are now commonplace.
The other problem is, many of the people just aren't very friendly. The class structure is still very much in place in Oxford society, and many people just won't talk to you unless you're wealthy enough to own one of the Victorian town houses in the north (which sell for upwards of half a million pounds). While the parks and vast areas of greenery are for all, certain areas of town might as well be surrounded with big iron gates labelled, It's Not For You. (Antagonistically, these often border the poorest parts of the city.) If you're not a part of the North Oxford set, greeting someone in the street is often the social equivalent of tearing their children open and stuffing them with rat poison - even if you're actually living in North Oxford. A friend moved there and greeted their new neighbour in a nearby corner store, only to be greeted back with a terse, "do I know you?" This attitude extends to the schools, where if you can't fit in with the prevailing attitude, you're stuck out in oblivion with the rest of the non-conformist plebs.
Personally? I don't know. I guess my motivations for wanting to go back do involve my childhood, and the perpetual desire to do things better; this, however, is partially what growing older is about. You can see the mistakes you made when you were younger, and must resign yourself to the fact that they've happened and nothing can change that. You can only make things better in the future.
I walk back from St. Aldate's towards the centre of town, where an armada of foreign students is congregating outside McDonald's. For them, it's just a tourist attraction. For me, it's most of my life.
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