Across the Pond: Oxonian opera

Stephen Nordin

I feel that to begin an article about the University of Oxford and its surroundings, one must begin with Yeats: “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.”

This article is my first experience travel writing, and I shall attempt to avoid the tempting crutch of drawing constant analogies between the familiar and the foreign. Music, however, is a common experience that will serve as an expedient metaphor.

While I do wish to retain my democratic American sentiments in this bastion of the Mother Country’s Establishment, the allure of a Latin benediction in a church hundreds of years older than the United States is certainly more powerful than the dubious charms of Ke$ha.

But is Oxford all champagne, black-tie and the blissful appreciation of masterful arias from a private box?

As a visiting student, I’ve noticed that there is, for lack of a better word, a “bubble” separating the university from the outside world. When walking along the stretch of the Thames that goes through Oxford, which is called the “Isis,” nothing shows this disconnect better than a crew of rowers with Grecian physiques propelling a shell past Strongbow-sodden vagrants listening to cheap portable radios on the river banks.

The two elaborately-carved and studded medieval doors to my college, Hertford, protect the immaculate Old Quadrangle from the omnipresent tangles of tourists. A bowler-wearing porter and velvet rope hold back Harry Potter pilgrims from breathlessly aristocratic and gothic buildings of Christ Church.

I knew of the historical tension between Oxford students and the locals, from a previous article about “town-gown” relations for The Lawrentian, such as the St. Scholastica’s Day riots of 1355, where Oxford residents shot at students from rooftops and scalped anyone wearing an academic gown in response to university drunkards harassing a local innkeeper.

I was unprepared, however, for my encounter with a panhandler while walking back to my room from a night of jazz and cocktails under the portraits of Thomas Hobbes and John Donne, Hertford alumni, in the college’s wood-paneled hall.

The gentleman in question, noting my smart garb, started walking in front of me, bowing and asking “sir” for a few pence. After I demurred, he shouted and cursed, calling me a “Tory wanker”, implying my membership among the privileged and politically conservative class of the UK. He also loudly commented on my deficit of bonhomie toward my fellow man and implied that my sexual tastes were more Oscar Wilde than Charles II.

After experiencing this absurdly Dickensian event so early in my stay here, I have to ask, why this resentment?

Is the university to blame, with its multi-billion pound endowment, well-heeled students, traditions spanning the centuries, its pedigreed and accomplished alumni, robes, proper dinner jackets, formidable gates and cordons? Does the University deliberately seek to separate the Ivory Tower from the chavvy Great Unwashed far below?

Perhaps it is the skittishness of the endangered that makes Oxford so insular, fearing the predatory tourists who threaten its unique habitat. Are these outsiders the hunters, who trample from their fast-food lodges across the medieval cobblestones and manicured lawns, armed with cameras and guidebooks, seeking the pelt of history in a cheap sweatshirt to drape across well-fed and foreign shoulders?

I, like many Americans visiting the opera, must confess to not understanding the language or plot. It is my hope that with time, my ear will become attuned to the complexities and conflicts of this place, which make the opus that is Oxford.