Visiting Oxford

With my Masters Degree course drawing to a close, I have begun wondering which city I’d most like to live in and consequently work [as a librarian]. New York, Tokyo, Glasgow and Birmingham all have things going for them (though I have wimpy apprehensions about moving abroad) and I’ve recently begun to think about Oxford too. Currently visiting with my parents in Dudley, we took a trip to the not-far-away city of Oxford for a bit of a look around.

My parents are somwhat Apollonian individuals so today began at the improbably early hour of 7.00am. After a hurried breakfast, we piled into a pre-packed car and set off for Oxford, arriving there before anything of note had had chance to open. I took this opportunity to stroll around the high street area. Remembering ‘s analysis of New York magazine kiosks (“[to] see what kind of glimpse they provide into the American soul”) I idly and in a somewhat unsystematic fashion tried a similar thing with Oxford’s store fronts.

A Starbucks; a Woolworths; a McDonnalds; a Pret a Manger; a WHSmith; an Edinburgh Woolen Mill. What was the point? It has just the same brand name stores as any other city in the country. There was no insight into the Oxford soul here. If I was looking for a city with difference – for something exotic or less blase – I’d probably have to uproot entirely and live abroad. My first superficial glance at things resulted in false impressions of course: an Oxford shopping street does have a few differences to those of London or Glasgow or Birmingham: everything has become kinda “integrated” into Oxford culture. Everything has adopted a slightly-less-vulgar-than-usual tone. The McDonalds for example is wooden-fronted rather than smacky plastic yellow. While the same evil exists here as anywhere else, it has had to adopt a slightly different aesthetic tactic to the other cities I’m familiar with. The semiotics of brandname outlets and tastefully appropriate aesthetics oppose each other somewhat but speak volumes.

We found a Cafe Nero that had opened early and I ordered a round of coffee. When I handed over my Switch card, the Barrista apologised and told me that they took no plastic. I was surprised as much as embarrassed about my having to run out for cash: every Cafe Nero I’ve been to in Glasgow readily accepts payments by Switch. How strangely unprogressive of Oxford. Perhaps another window into its soul had been discovered.

After delivering the coffee safely to the table at which Mum and Dad were patiently seated, I looked for a copy of The Observer at the news rack. The only piece of it that remained was the “Review” (art/culture) section so I took that as well as a News of the World. I realised that the only copy of The Observer had been dispersed between the patrons of the cafe: one guy had the sports supplement, another fellow had the news, I had the review, a grey-haired lady had something else and the Barristas were arguing over the free fold-out poster (depicting various types of freshwater fish – I have the butterfly version they did a couple of weeks ago) that had come with it. The tabloids were piled up in the stand without being touched aside from my News of the World. It’s as though trash culture is trying its best to infiltrate Oxford but the studious population are just not having it.

After our coffee, we looked at the city from above. I can’t remember what it was called (I was too sleepy and suffer mildly from a fear of heights) but money was paid to climb up to what was allegedly Oxford’s highest point – some sort of bell tower (pictured). It was something of a crappy tourist trap and I exclaimed that my work at the University library in Glasgow has me working and studying (for free) at higher altitudes than this but the view of the city’s spires was nonetheless quite pleasant.

There was much walking around the university and its museums to be had and much photographing of Gargoyles and sculptures on behalf of my snap-happy mother (the photos in this entry are all hers). I thought about how universities are intrinsically connected to research and consequently to the military and the government and I wondered about how Oxford’s tidiness and tastefully put together buildings might be funded.

The clash of the ancient and the modern is something that occurs in many cities (Edinburgh and Glasgow spring to mind, as do Prague and Amsterdam and Paris) but often in separate ‘quarters’. In Oxford, however, the ancient and the modern clash throughout like something from an episode of Sliders in which a modern San Francisco is occupied by Wizards. In spite of Oxford’s central institutes being at the cutting edge (The Bodders for instance is one of the best libraries in the country and the world), bicycles assuredly outnumber cars and the classical aestheic is everywhere.

It’s nice. Are there any Occasional Papers readers who live or work in Oxford? Perhaps you can give me an insider’s perspective or at least tell me that my observations are as ill-conceived as they most certainly are.

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