Friday, 29 January 2016

Bringing Palmyra to Oxford

Oriel College, of which I am proud to be a member and to which I have donated annually since graduating, recently announced, and today backed away from, "a listening excercise seeking the views and ideas of a wide range of groups" regarding a petition the college has received for the removal of its statue of Cecil Rhodes. I am publishing my views here as well (because I am interested to hear what others think of them), and because I have already written favourably about the statue in the past, before any controversy had arisen.

The sad irony is, that the whole reason I've always loved the Rhodes statue is because Rhodes' legacy is one that defies simplistic appraisal. (Or so I always thought!) It's intellectually challenging. On the one hand, you have an outstandingly generous philanthropist, on the other, a ruthless colonizer. Yet the colonial legacy in Africa is less ruthless, in fact, than in America or Australia (if the extermination of native populations is what we measure by). On the one hand, you have an astonishingly successful business man, on the other hand, an arrogant racist. Yet his views were widely held at the time, so why single him out for being a product of his time and place?

Most challenging of all is the legacy of Rhodesia. Is it a racist, oppressive legacy, that deserved to be destroyed? On the surface, anyone with left-leaning views would have said so. Certainly at the time of the Bush War it seemed clear which side held the moral high ground, from afar. And yet, anyone who thinks that Rhodes' treatment of Africans in his day was appalling should read a bit about what life is like for many in Zimbabwe right now. This is not about abstract ideology, this is something that profoundly affects the lives of millions of people. It is impossible to argue, I would submit, that the country is better off for having been ruled by the anti-imperialist Mugabe, than it would have been had it continued as Rhodesia. For all inhabitants. The fact that black Zimbabweans would have been better off had they remained under white rule, even though white rule was patently immoral and unethical, is a hard paradox to reconcile.

Nelson Mandela, of course, understood this paradox profoundly, and was able to chart a way forward from it. It is thanks to the fact that he did that South Africa has not become another Zimbabwe. And, with regards to Rhodes' legacy, not only did Mandela not fight to erase it but actually added his name to it, via the Mandela Rhodes scholarship. Sadly, today, with movements like Rhodes Must Fall, and the push to marginalise the Afrikaans language (the majority of whose speakers are not white), there are signs that South Africa may be heading down the path of Zimbabwe now.

To say it straight, the rigid groupthink calling for the removal of the statue is uncritical, blind to historical context, and wrong.

Take for a moment the contrary opinion that they are right. There is no reason why a rigid standard of contemporary political correctness should stop at Rhodes' statue. What about the chapel? ("Offensive to non-Christians") What about the Codrington library? ("Built by a slaver") What about the Queen as our Visitor? ("Offensive to republicans") Was not British colonialism far more destructive in North America and Australia than it ever was in Africa? Or can that history safely be glossed over, since those indigenous populations have been reduced so close to extinction that they do not have the numbers to protest? Singling out Rhodes' statue makes no sense, since if the values espoused in the petition are taken to their logical conclusion, the entire university should be destroyed, since the entire institution is the product of imperial inheritance (as well as a pre-imperial history which does not meet any of the standards of modern political correctness either).

Clearly, if any and all legacies of the past which offend modern sensibilities of political correctness needed to be done away with, then Oriel College, the University of Oxford, and the country as a whole will need to be erased as well.

This being the case, I am saddened that the college has seen fit to take this petition as seriously as it has, since it is immediately obvious to anyone with an ounce of historical sense that the purpose of the statue (and naming the Rhodes building, and the Rhodes scholarship) is to show praise and gratitude to his (outstanding) philanthropy. It is not a canonization affirming his sainthood! To take a more contemporary example, I might not agree with every choice Wafic Saïd has made in his life, or its impact on the world, but I will absolutely praise and thank him for the specific action of funding the creation of the Saïd business school, an action which has benefited thousands of people and made a major positive impact on the world. And it is to recognise that action that the school is named after him.

If perfection were a prerequisite for public recognition at Oxford University, all the colleges would have to be named Jesus College.

The college's statement on this issue includes bien pensant sentiments about "being at the forefront of the drive to make the University of Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds". This is not, it should be noted, what the college was founded for. It was founded to house "scholars studying various disciplines in honour of the Virgin Mary", a mission statement which eo ipso limits its "diversity" in the modern sense.

I am not in any way arguing that the college today should seek to conform itself to the ideals of 1326, nor that being at the forefront of helping the university be more diverse is not a laudable goal; it was always implicit in the college's mission that, as knowledge was discovered, the institution devoted to its pursuit would adapt itself accordingly. But in order for Oriel to be what it is today (which is a phenomenal, diverse, and inclusive institution), Oriel must not forget what it was yesterday. I for one would never have studied at Oriel (or at Oxford) were it not for its traditions. There is always a balance to be had between remembering traditions and being bound by them, to the detriment of progress, but it is simply impossible to maintain any memory of Oriel College, Oxford University, or England as a whole if one erases all "racists" from their histories (in scare quotes since the term itself is anachronistic across most of said history). It should hardly need to be said that the correct approach is to develop a fuller understanding of the history of race relations, in order to situate contemporary values in their proper context, and take proper steps to correct the consequences of past mistakes. The college's measures to take part in this process, needless to say, I strongly support. But tearing down statues or burning books is no way to achieve that, and I am disappointed that, in responding to the iconoclasts in this way, the college implicitly is conceding to them that they have a point, when they do not.

To my eyes, this whole exercise is more worthy of Robert Mugabe than Oriel College (though perhaps the petitioners' aim is to have his statue erected in Rhodes' place). There is contemporary precedent, of course, for destroying all traces of the past which do not harmonize with a certain group's radical ideology. It is to be found in the Islamic State. May such denial for the objective facts of the past (however unpleasant) never hold sway at Oriel College. If leftist political correctness is to be a prerequisite for being a donor to the college, than I shall cease to remain one.

I thankfully read today's announcement that the statue will remain, but the damage done to the college's reputation in entertaining the iconoclasts seriously is bound to be significant, and that makes me sad.

Posted by jon at 11:43 AM in Oxford 

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Oxford College Scarves

One of the traditions that students and alumni of Oxford enjoy, which I did not experience at my first university, McGill, is the wearing of college scarves. For those to whom this is a foreign concept, an analogous practice, yet again, can be found in the Harry Potter movies, in the quidditch matches. The crowds in attendance are all adorned with scarves of their respective houses (Griffindor, Ravenclaw, etc.).

In much the same way, Oxford students wear striped scarves whose distinctive pattern identifies them, to those in the know, as members of a specific college.

I first became aware of this practice when researching the various colleges on Wikipedia, where the scarf patterns are displayed along with the article for each college. (You can view a somewhat inaccurate version of the whole set by clicking on the image below.) However, finding other, more practical information was scant. Who wears these scarves? When? What do they actually look like when worn? Not having found any information back then about this, admittedly small detail of Oxford life, is what motivated me to contribute this article to the collective wisdom of the internet.

The first important thing to point out is that the aforementioned Wikipedia depiction of the scarves shows their cross section, not the whole scarf. In other words, unlike the Harry Potter films, the stripes run the whole length of the scarf (which apparently makes it quite difficult to knit your own). Some scarves also feature the college coat of arms and name on one end, while others have no additional markings (this was the original tradition). Arguments can be made for either configuration; I suppose one's preference ultimately rests on how attractive one finds the college coat of arms on an article of clothing.

Now a word on the sociology of scarf-wearing. I think there are a few key reasons why this practice came into favour. Firstly, Oxford is filled with tourists, at times seemingly outnumbering the students. These tourists happily buy Oxford University sweatshirts, t-shirts, hats, and anything else they fancy, to such an extant that, if you are wearing Oxford-branded clothing while in Oxford, you will be taken for a tourist, not a student. Therefore wearing college branded-gear (which the tourists don't do, since most of them don't understand colleges), has become the accepted way to show one's student pride.

Secondly, because central Oxford is largely university-dominated, one doesn't feel particularly special wearing Oxford-branded gear, since it seems like nearly everyone is an Oxford University student. One's college is more personal, and a natural way to display some school pride, while also marking one's distinctiveness from the larger student body.

A third factor may be that Oxford students, more so than most, tend to eschew t-shirts and sweatshirts in favour of tweed jackets and jumpers. Jacket and tie are required to dine in formal hall, therefore an accessory like a scarf becomes by default the preferred article of clothing to show one's college allegiance. College ties and cufflinks are popular for the same reasons (the latter can even be worn at black tie functions, which at Oxford occur quite regularly). But the scarf has the advantage of being unisex, and equally appropriate whether one is wearing a jacket and tie or in workout clothes.

So much for the what and the why of college scarves. The how is quite simple: too thick to be tied easily, the scarves are heavy enough to stay in place simply by throwing them once around the neck.

But how popular are they, really? "Not particularly popular, but by no means rare," in my estimation. They seem to be more common in some colleges than others—which makes sense, because each college has its own ethos, and the wearing or not of scarves to manifest 'college spirit' is bound to be a fairly ethos-dependent sort of thing.

One might also suppose that popularity differences between colleges may simply be due to the fact some colour combinations are more attractive than others. I did, in fact, see many more Blackfriars scarves (black with white stripes) than St. Antony's (blue with bright yellow and red stripes), despite the latter having far more students. However, this may also be attributable to the fact that St. Antony's students are graduates who probably spend less time downtown. And I saw plenty of Merton (a sort of deep fuschia with white stripes), despite their colours, which I would rank on the unattractive end.

Whatever the case, and not surprisingly given that I always have had a healthier dose of college pride than most, I wore my Oriel scarf proudly, and continue to do so outside of Oxford, despite most people simply finding it an uncharacteristically bold fashion choice of me to wear such a bright scarf, if they notice at all. The rare occasion when it is recognised outside Oxford (by an old Orielensis, or another Oxonian who simply happens to recognise the scarf), is always a pleasant surprise, and can lead to interesting exchanges with passerbys who would otherwise remain perfect strangers.

Posted by jon at 10:06 PM in Oxford 

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Oxford's most stunning libraries

This is my second article on the wonderful libraries of the University of Oxford. In the first, I explain how the system works, and why there are so many different libraries to chose from in the world's most famous university.

In this article, I simply want to focus on the most beautiful. These were the places I tried to spend as much of my studying time as I could in—even though in many cases it was hard to remain focused on one's work while there: there was always a lot of temptation to look up one more time, and take in the amazing surroundings again!

Duke Humphrey's Library

The beginning of the Bodleian, this library was built as an upper floor to the Divinity School, completed in 1488. It is the spiritual heart of Oxford University, one of those spaces which seems to exude a kind of power on the visitor. It is also, unfortunately, a place which I have never seen a photograph do justice to. The unusual lighting and the H-shaped arrangement of the room make it very difficult to photograph, and since photography is not allowed without special permission, not many people get to try (though it's just as well, as constant photography would ruin the place as a space for study).

While I would make it a point to pop in to Duke Humphrey's every time I was in the Old Bodleian (which was often), I did not actually prefer to study there, because, due to the presence of so many old manuscripts, there are restrictions on what one can take inside (I remember in particular pens not being allowed, only pencils.) This was no great hardship, however, as there were plenty of other amazing places to study.

The Upper Radcliffe Camera

The Radcliffe Camera is the most iconic building of Oxford University, and stepping inside it was the moment that I really felt I had made it into Oxford. For while every tourist gets his picture taken in front of the "Rad Cam", no tourists are allowed inside it, so that when I was at last able to show my Bod card and walk inside, it felt like a tremendous privilege. Unfortunately, like most domes, this is another space that it is hard for a two-dimensional photograph to do justice to.

Senior Library, Oriel College

Whereas the previous two entries were libraries I had only imagined seeing the interiors of before, I had looked with longing at a picture of Oriel's Senior Library for years before ever becoming a student there. Oriel's library has a long history, in fact I've written before about how it operated in 1329, but the Senior Library of today is housed in the Wyatt building, which, being completed in 1796, is one of the newest buildings on the college site.

The Wyatt building, more than any other, gives Oriel its varied character, its neoclassical architecture emphasising the fact that the college's quads are by no means a homogeneous bunch.

Lincoln College Library

This is another space that a photograph has a hard time doing justice to, and this is certainly a library so beautiful that it would be difficult to remain concentrated on one's reading. The only criticism I have with Lincoln's library is that, as it is built in a converted church, its design isn't really geared towards making it a good library. It's more like an amazing space, that they've put books in. Nonetheless, it is quite possibly the most beautiful college library in Oxford, although the next two are rivals to that claim.

Upper Library, the Queen's College

The Queen's College bucks the trend for traditional college architecture throughout, and its library is no exception. It is a masterpiece of baroque architecture, and being the room in which I got to examine a copy of Shakespeare's first folio, I can say that it is a fitting place to host the treasures the college holds. It is probably less comfortable to work in than Oriel's senior library (Queensmen tend to congregate instead in the more functional lower library), but it is still one of the most beautiful libraries on the planet.

The Codrington Library

Contrary to my expectations, the Codrington Library at All Souls' College is the one that emerged as my favourite place to study. Absolutely gorgeous on the inside and out, I think it is such a striking place to be in because its construction is so unique: all the books are on one side, on two levels. The south side is all high windows, filling the room with natural light, and because there are no rows of bookcases, it is an immense open space. Lincoln and the Upper Rad Cam achieve such spaciousness through height, but the Codrington does it while still seeming to be filled to the top with books, which is quite an interesting paradox.

The Oxford Union Library

The Oxford Union Library has a lot of things all the previous ones do: beautiful architecture, a famous history, and world-class art. To all of this it adds something that none of the previous libraries have: comfy leather chairs! Thus, if I was just spending time in a library to read for pleasure, with no need to take notes, the Union was the obvious choice.

I could go on

I could go on and on; the Taylor Institute Library is quite nice, as are many more of the college libraries, particularly the older ones. (And Merton College's is the oldest continually operating library in the world!). MBA students have a modern, dedicated library at the Sainsbury library of the Saïd Business School, but I am supremely grateful that I got to spend so much time in these legendary ones as well.

Posted by jon at 10:32 PM in Oxford 

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Preparing for Exams at Oxford

This is recycled from a couple of photos I posted to Facebook during the MBA, but I think it works equally well as a blog post. I wouldn't want my blog to give the impression that life at Oxford is all punting and Pimm's. In fact a great deal of it looked more like this. (Week 9 of each term during our MBA was revision week, in preparation for our exams during Week 10.)

One evening during this revision week, I posted this:

Week 9 at Oxford: Not quite so glamorous

The next day, though, I had this to post:

Well, maybe during the day, some study spots are a bit glamorous...

Future students: making good use of your college library, the Rad Cam, and the Bodleian, is a great way to add some variety to your inevitable long study sessions!

Posted by jon at 12:52 AM in Oxford 

Tuesday, 15 January 2013


I've already let slip, in my profiles of Oriel College, Trinity College, and Keble College, that I was drawn to Oxford to a large extent in order to feel closer to John Henry Newman. He had a tremendous influence on my religious thought, and it was in studying his life that I first became aware of Oxford and its traditions, planting the seeds of what has clearly become quite an infatuation.

On that count, I was spoiled beyond what I could have possibly imagined. The Holy Father came to England at the beginning of my Oxford year, in what was expected to be a troubled visit that, contrary to all the expectations of the British media, instead turned out to be a smashing success. And the central event of the Holy Father's visit was the long-awaited beatification of John Henry Cardinal Newman.

With the beatification, at last, altars could be dedicated to Newman in Catholic churches, and a masses could be celebrated commemorating him. It also meant that I was able to choose him as my Confirmation saint, something I would not have been able to do had I converted a year earlier. This led to me being able to experience first-hand one of the most historic events ever to take place in Oriel's chapel, when a votive mass, organised by the Newman Society in thanksgiving for his beatification, was offered using these new mass propers, in the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite. Being there was quite significant for me, knowing as I do how impossible, dare I say miraculous, in Newman's own eyes, such a thing ever occurring must have seemed.

So I went to Oriel to feel close to Newman, and I admit that there were many times that I did: Studying in the library (where he was librarian), praying in the chapel (where he was chaplain), and arguing about theology and current events with my peers in the hall (where he debated the same topics with his). But they were only rare flashes. There is a lot more to Oriel than just Newman—being there I also caught flashes of Sir Walter Raleigh, Cecil Rhodes, and Beau Brummel—and also spent plenty of time in the present day.

These brief flashes of connexion to Newman one feels at Oriel pale in comparison to the intense presence one feels at Littlemore.

Littlemore. No biography of Newman can avoid focusing on this place as the climactic centre of any narrative one might construct around Newman's life. For those who do not know the story (and have still somehow managed to read this far anyway), in 1843 Newman's doubts about Anglicanism forced him, as a matter of conscience, to resign his position as an Anglican cleric, and he retired to the tiny Oxford suburb of Littlemore, in a converted stable, for a period of intense introspection and prayer, as he struggled with what to do next.

He was joined there by many of his students, struggling with the same issues he was, and they lived there in a quasi-monastic fashion, as the press mocked them as Papists. It was here that he wrote his greatest work, the Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, which showed that, despite all appearances, to an Englishman at that time, the Catholic Church was indeed the true Church of Jesus Christ. On finishing the book, he then proceeded to convert, making his confession, in an oft-represented scene, to a rain-soaked Passionist priest on a stormy night in 1845.

Although it was always on my list of places to visit at Oxford, it took me a long time to actually get there. Going home to France every weekend, it was not until the schedule of exams at the end of term justified me going home midweek and staying for a weekend that I was finally able to make the walk from James Mellon Hall down to Littlemore. While I had felt glimpses of Newman while at Oriel, it was in this place that I felt his spirit truly dwelt.

The site today is preserved and maintained by a Catholic community known as the Spiritual Family "the Work", who also provide hospitality to pilgrims and researchers who come to study Newman on-site. They are a unique community, with both brothers and sisters, and the sisters' choir dress is breathtaking: their veil is supported by a crown of thorns (recalling Christ's passion), and they hold in their hands lit oil lamps (recalling the parable of the wise and foolish virgins).

Their day-to-day wear is less elaborate, however, and the sister who showed me around looked like veil-less sisters typically do. She showed me Newman's room, preserved just as it was when he lived there, the chapel (where many converts are received into the faith), and finally, the famous room with the fireplace in front of which Newman made his confession to Bl. Dominic Barberi. This room displays a truly impressive collection of Newman memorabilia, including the writing desk where the Essay was written. (Because Fr. Dominic said Mass on it as an improvised altar, Newman would no longer use it as a writing desk, which is why it was kept apart and comes down to us today. Hearing that story made me love the book even more, if that were possible.)

I have read more than one biography of Newman (besides the Apologia pro Vita Sua, of course), but I still saw dozens of photographs I had never seen before, besides all kinds of Newman's possessions that I was unaware of. I was especially surprised to learn that Newman was using the Roman Breviary at Littlemore—and even more surprised when a brother of the Work, whom I later met through the Newman Society, explained to me the extraordinary story of how Newman had come to learn how to use it. (He later wrote an article on it, for those who are interested, which can be found here.)

In conclusion, I really want to insist on this point, that I had not truly grasped, and might have never learnt, had I not been in Oxford for a full year: If you visit Oxford to see the sights of Newman's life there, make Littlemore your number one destination. By all means, visit St. Mary's, visit Oriel (if you can get in), visit Trinity. Definitely visit the Oxford Oratory. But all of those should be secondary sights, for the Newman pilgrim. The spirit of Newman lives at Littlemore.

Posted by jon at 10:31 PM in Oxford 

Friday, 21 December 2012

Jonathan Craven's Oxford

Jump to college listing

A large part of the fascination that Oxford University commands comes from its unique traditions, and its collegiate system. I have attempted to shed some light on these in a series of blog articles, in which I share my thoughts on each of the self-governing colleges of the world's most prestigious university.

Before looking at individual articles, those who are unfamiliar with how the collegiate system at Oxford functions can read this explanation.

How to choose a college

Prospective students, trying to decide what college to apply to, should, before looking at my detailed college descriptions, apply a simple three-step process, in order to determine how much further research is needed:

  1. 1. First, learn which colleges take students for the degree you wish to pursue.
  2. 2. Second, consider whether Oriel College offers your course.
  3. 3. If so, choose Oriel. If not, consider other colleges.

Oriel College is the most prestigious college at Oxford. Its alumni are the most successful, and its students the most intelligent, athletic, and good-looking. In other words (for those who need me to spell it out): There is an editorial bias running throughout these college profiles. Caveat lector. (Although if you need third-party confirmation that Oriel is the most respected college at Oxford, I need only refer you to the film Oxford Blues.)

There are a lot of ways to choose a college, and some will put a priority on factors that are completely absent from my considerations in the following articles. (Potentially important points that I completely disregarded include: "how many people are doing the same subject as me?" "how much do rooms cost per term?" "what scholarships and bursaries are available for people in my course?" ). So my college profiles will only benefit you insofar as your criteria match my own; however, if you have a specific inquiry, please do write to me and I will try to answer you as honestly as I can. For the record, the factors I valued in a college were great architecture, a beautiful library, college history, illustrious alumni, and the observation of Oxford traditions, especially formal hall.

All this notwithstanding, I have made every effort to portray each college honestly, and in the most favourable light possible. (If I hadn't, given that I have friends at all of these places, I would have been in trouble!) With those remarks out of the way, here are, in alphabetical order, my thoughts on the colleges and permanent private halls of the University of Oxford. You may be also interested in these other lists: more about Oriel College, about my personal experiences at Oxford, or more about Oxford in general—a hodgepodge of everything from student customs to libraries. The bravest readers may even be interested in my obscure nuggets of Oxford history. These lists will be updated as new articles are posted (I've got plenty more in the pipeline!).

(All links open in a new tab.)

Profiles of Oxford Colleges and Halls

These 'profiles' are based entirely on my own personal perspective and opinions; prospective students are advised to look rather to the prospectus and alternative prospectus of any college they are considering applying to, rather than place too much stock in my descriptions.

Further articles about Oriel College

My personal experiences at Oxford

Articles about other aspects of Oxford life

Articles about more obscure aspects of Oxford history

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Oxford 

Monday, 17 December 2012

College Profile: Greek College

The most unusual former college of the University of Oxford is undoubtedly Greek College. It existed only from 1698 to 1705, and was founded as a college for Eastern Orthodox students. To get an idea of how bizarrely out of place this is, one must realise that this was at a time when Catholics, Congregationalists, Baptists—to say nothing of Jews or Muslims—were banned from attending the university! (If not hunted down and killed: see my aside on Edmund Campion in my profile of St. John's college to get an idea of how extreme this could get.) So who on earth thought the idea that an Eastern Orthodox college would fly?

Many followers of the Protestant "Reformation", you see, went along with it because they believed they were going back to the beliefs and practices of the early church, which had, according to them, been "corrupted" somehow. Because the Orthodox maintain intact the traditions of the early church, and also accuse Catholics of introducing corruptions to the early faith, the two, some Protestant leaders assumed, would be natural allies. (The enemy of my enemy is my friend?) But indeed one would reasonably presume that, if both were correct about following the beliefs and practices of the early church, then they would necessarily believe and practice the same things.

This is what Puritan worship looks like:
long sermons in a space devoid of images or ritual
In reality, of course, the Protestant reformers' idea of what the early church was like were fantastically inaccurate, being compiled as they were on the basis of a scant fraction of the contemporary texts and evidence we have today. The Orthodox did have access to this information (and always had), but by the time the dialogue began between the two sides, many systems of Protestant dogmas had already been elaborated, and they were not open to change. The founders of the various reformed sects had already decided what the early church was like, were certain that they were correct on the matter, and were not open to correction on the basis of further information. Clearly anything the Orthodox were doing that was unlike what they had determined must also be a later corruption.

As we know today, then, Protestantism and Orthodoxy share very little common ground, in terms of what sets them apart from Catholicism—this is especially true of the kind of Puritan Protestantism that was common at that time. A Greek College at Oxford, therefore, was a disaster waiting to happen, and the most amazing thing about the college is the fact that such a fantastically ill-conceived project made it so far as to actually be launched. Within seven years, however, the Patriarch put a stop to the project, and this very odd chapter in the history of the university was brought to a close.

So what would a Puritan in 1700 think when he saw
what Orthodox worship actually looks like?

There have been no attempts to re-introduce an Orthodox college to the university since it became open to other religions in the 19th century, and despite Kallistos Ware's long tenure at Pembroke College, the Orthodox presence in the city today seems surprisingly small (in institutional and architectural terms). In many ways, though, St. Antony's College, named after the great Eastern saint and founded to foster a better understanding between the West and the traditionally Orthodox countries, is the true successor to the Greek College. The fact that international relations and politics, rather than theology, dominate that discussion, is more an illustration of the changes in the ways in which countries relate to each other today, than it is an actual shift in focus.

Posted by jon at 7:00 PM in Oxford 

Friday, 7 December 2012

College Profile: St. Bernard's College

As much as Oxford colleges, especially the ancient ones, project an image of permanence and timelessness, history shows that this is not the case. While Oxford has preserved its unique character better than any other mediæval university, colleges have, in point of fact, come and gone throughout its long history. I have already written about Green and Templeton colleges when I profiled their successor Green-Templeton College, but with this article I turn to a long-forgotten former college of the university, St. Bernard's.

As its patronage suggests, St. Bernard's College was founded by the Cistercian Order, in 1437. It came to an abrupt end with the dissolution of the monasteries under the schismatic Henry VIII (it was located on part of the ground now occupied by St. John's College). Many colleges, with ties too close to the now outlawed monastic orders, met their end during his reign. Those that survived either had ties to diocesan bishops, instead (who either backed the king, or who were replaced by men who did, allowing their colleges to survive), or like Oriel, backed by the monarch himself. (However, Oriel would become less commonly known as "the King's College" after Henry VIII, who with the spoils of the monasteries took over Christ Church when he ousted Cardinal Wolsey, making it the primary object of royal favour in Oxford.)

Benedictine monks would not study at Oxford again until St. Benet's was established in 1897.

Due to the changes in Western monasticism that I describe in that article on St. Benet's, it is extremely unlikely that a Cistercian house will return to the university in my lifetime (especially since most Cistercians today are Trappists, who place a greater emphasis on simplicity and manual labour, typically agricultural work, as opposed to the more academic OSB Benedictines of St. Benet's).

But who knows, perhaps in another 500 years that, too, will change and a new St. Bernard's could be founded. Stranger things have happened in history. Stranger things have happened at Oxford.

Posted by jon at 6:30 PM in Oxford 

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

College Profile: The Queen's College

I ended my profile of Lincoln College by saying that, if I had to make my college selections over again, I would still put Oriel first, but would probably now put Lincoln second. The reason I had said "probably," is because I would be very tempted to pick the Queen's College as my second-choice college instead.

While Lincoln and Oriel are both fairly typical Oxford colleges, architecturally speaking, the Queen's College boldly stands apart. I love its neo-classical look (proving I am at heart more a classicist than a mediævalist), although I was also teased for this, because the effect is that the buildings look more French than any others in Oxford, which some took for a sign of homesickness on my part!

Queen's is written with the apostrophe where it is (importantly, as this distinguishes it from Queens' College, Cambridge), as it named in honour of Queen Philippa of Hainault—which is significant to me as she was born in Valenciennes, where I used to live. Founded in 1341, it is the next oldest college after Oriel, although, somehow, it is considerably wealthier. (We'll have to do something about that, Orielenses.) Associated with students from the north for much of its history, this also appeals to me given my (distant) family origins in Yorkshire. I also like the coat of arms, not so much for its innate æsthetics as for the fact that it is canting Eglesfield, the college founder's name. (It's a 'field of eagles', get it?)

The neoclassicism of the college is backed up by its dining hall and chapel (with an excellent music programme), but no part of the college can hold a candle to the library, which I consider to be the best college library in all of Oxford. Holding over 100,000 volumes, and numerous rarities, including a copy of Shakespeare's first folio (which I had the privilege to inspect first-hand), the senior library is also a beautiful space. With its mix of baroque and rococo elements, it really is magnificent, and Queen's students are truly privileged to study there.

Notable Queen's men include Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, famed astronomers Edmund Halley and Edwin Hubble, and Rowan Atkinson (better known internationally as "Mr. Bean"). Besides these great names, King Henry V also studied at the college—meaning that not only does the college own a copy of Shakespeare's first folio, but can even lay claim to one of his plays being written about one of its members!

In addition to this, the college has an excellent bar, and the MCR is beautiful, and beautifully located, overlooking the High. The college really is a complete package, and for anyone as partial as I am to neoclassical or baroque architecture, it is a heavenly place to pass one's time.

Posted by jon at 7:30 PM in Oxford 

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

College Profile: Linacre College

Like Wolfson College, which I've written about before, Linacre is a graduate-only college from the 1960s, and one that does not fit into the the traditional college mould. Unlike Wolfson, though, I must admit that I find its architecture quite charming. Linacre's excellent location, sitting alone surrounded by the University Parks, but in close proximity to the science area, and only a few minutes walk from the city centre, is also a major plus, especially for scientists.

While there is certainly nothing mediæval about the college, it does not seem unduly modern, either: being surrounded by huge green spaces, its noble Queen Anne-style architecture is reminiscent of an English boarding school. It strikes me as quite fitting for its surroundings. Although I had little interaction with Linacre during my time at Oxford, I already get a sense that, had I studied there, I would have really grown to love the place.

Besides its setting and architecture, another thing that sets Linacre apart from other 1960s colleges is its founding vision. Linacre set out from the beginning to be what typifies the Oxford collegiate system at its best: an interdisciplinary community. While this has come to be a typical characteristic of most of the colleges of the university, it is in fact quite rare to see it pursued from the start. St. John's College was originally only intended to train Catholic priests. Lincoln College was founded to train theologians to combat the heretical teachings of John Wycliffe. Harris Manchester College has reinvented itself too many times for me to list here.

These original founding visions dissolve over the centuries, and each of those colleges, originally founded with a narrow purpose in mind, now are home to scholars across a wide variety of specialties in the sciences and humanities. (This evolution is a side-effect of the colleges being independent, self-governing institutions.) The strength of belonging to a college is the chance to interact with similarly bright minds from such diverse areas of expertise.

Even so, when a new wave of college building began in the 20th century, nearly all were again founded with a narrow vision: Nuffield for social sciences, St. Antony's for international relations, and Green and Templeton Colleges for medical graduates, and business education.

It is for this reason that Linacre stands out. Taking its name after renaissance man Thomas Linacre, who combined scientific and humanistic knowledge, as both a physician and a gentleman classicist, the college has always viewed itself as interdisciplinary. I admire this founding vision, which to me shows a great deal of awareness, on its founders' part, of what makes an Oxford education great.

Of course, for most Oxford students, Linacre is best known as the host of the yearly "Sexy Sub Fusc Bop". I've half a mind to let the reader's imagination supply what this could possibly mean, but essentially it's a major party following matriculation in which the theme is to make sub fusc, the second-most formal tier of Oxford academic dress, look sexy. The difficulty in this, is that the very nature of the sub fusc dress code makes it nearly impossible to turn 'sexy', such that working out a satisfactory interpretation of "sexy sub fusc" is actually one of the more difficult intellectual challenges that freshers face.

Posted by jon at 10:00 PM in Oxford 

Saturday, 17 November 2012

College Profile: Jesus College

I'm sad to say that I did not get to know Jesus College as well as I would have liked: I never did make it there for a formal hall, or do much socially in the college—though I did attend a few lectures and networking events there. Since the other two Turl Street colleges, Exeter and Lincoln, are both in my top five, to have more or less skipped over the third one leaves me feeling like I probably missed out on another great college.

At any rate, being a Turl Street college, Jesus has a great location, and the buildings are quite nice. It is larger than its Turl Street neighbours, making it feel more like a High Street College. (It is quite similar architecturally to Univ and Oriel.) Historically, the college has an association with Wales, and this lives on to some extent through certain scholarships, St. David's day festivities, and the frequent use of the Welsh dragon, as this rowing trophy shows:

Historically, many of the colleges were founded or associated with particular areas (both Lincoln and Exeter were originally, funnily enough, for men from the dioceses of Lincoln and Exeter). Besides Jesus and Wales, other associations were the Queen's College with the north of England, Balliol with Scotland, Brasenose with Lancashire—even the modern St. Cross was created to provide a college for the increasing number of overseas students. (My own Oriel was the first college to be founded with no geographic orientation.) Like subject focus in a college, though, geographical focus tends to dissolve over the centuries.

The only college founded under Queen Elizabeth I, in 1571, it was also the first college to be founded as Protestant. Its most famous alumnus is probably Lawrence of Arabia—one of Oxford's rare famous adventuring imperialists not to have come from Oriel college! Besides that, the college's name gives rise to a number of silly puns among Oxford students, who enjoy saying thing like "I'm going out for drinks with Jesus tonight" (i.e., with the Jesus College MCR), etc.

Beyond its history, location and architecture, Jesus offers some special perqs as well. These include on-site graduate accommodation (see my article Oriel beyond the Cherwell to get an idea of how rare this is), and a travel stipend, which can be used to pay for travel to conferences in line with one's course.

As I say, I'm sorry I did not get to spend more time in Jesus College, but from all I can gather, it belongs in the same company as Exeter, Lincoln, Brasenose, and Corpus as "a typically Oxonian, slightly smaller, old college, with a central location and long history".

And it has dragons.

Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Oxford 

Friday, 9 November 2012

College Profile: St. Edmund's Hall

One of the fun quirks about Oxford's colleges and halls is that St. Edmund's Hall is actually a college, whereas Regent's Park College is actually a hall. (Another one I like is that St. Cross College is found near Magdalen Street, whereas, on the other end of town, Magdalen College is not far from St. Cross Street—or that the so-called New College was founded in 1379.)

Founded in 1957 as a college, Teddy Hall (as it is affectionately known) instead prefers to insist on its ancient origins, which may go back as far as the mid-1200s. Personally I find this a bit silly—as though Trinity claimed Durham College's date of foundation, or Worcester claimed Gloucester's. Or, I would have continued, if St. Peter's claimed New Inn Hall as it's own, or Hertford claimed Hart Hall, although both are increasingly starting to do just that.

The issue is somewhat complex, and Teddy Hall's claim is better than most, since, unlike St. Peter's, it can claim an uninterrupted continuity from its 13th century predecessor. However, claiming a date like 1278, whatever justifications one might bring, still clashes with so many other aspects of Oxford history as to make it seem somewhat suspicious to an outsider. Why are Univ, Merton, and Balliol universally recognised as the three oldest colleges, Exeter as the fourth, and Oriel the fifth, if St. Edmund's Hall was founded in the 1200s? And why is the date of foundation not known exactly? Why, if the college is so old, are its grounds and buildings not large and majestic like the other old colleges? In essence, whatever the historical arguments on either side, Teddy Hall looks in many ways like a college founded in the 1950s, not the 1200s—because that is what it is.

This is not to say that St. Edmund's Hall does not have some absolutely lovely old buildings, and a centuries-old history; it most certainly does. But those buildings are grouped into a slightly claustrophobic space, hidden behind High Street shops, so I do not think one can fairly say that the grounds exude the same air of secure privilege that other old colleges do. Teddy Hall is different, although some of its rooms do ooze Oxford atmosphere along with the best of them.

The difference is this: Univ, Merton, and Balliol (the authentic thirteenth-century colleges) all trace their origins to the thirteenth century as independent, self-governing institutions. St. Peter's and Hertford, which are not mediæval colleges, claim (or, more accurately, frequently allude to) thirteenth century origins because there were halls at the same locations back then—but there is no institutional connexion between them and the current colleges. (In fact the halls on St. Peter's site were actually taken into Balliol.)

Blackfriars' grounds for claiming a thirteenth-century origin are a third case: it is not on the same site as the thirteenth century Blackfriars, but it does have legitimate institutional continuity. However, the hall was absent from the University of Oxford for centuries, when Catholicism was outlawed.

St. Edmund's Hall, on the other hand, was the last surviving hall of the mediæval university. Before there were colleges, students lived in common in halls, which were not so unlike the modern frat house in America. They were practical living arrangements for students, and also places to socialise. Unlike colleges, which came into existence after the halls did, there were no fellows (faculty) living there with endowed livings who governed the institution's affairs.

Eventually, the colleges came to take control of the various halls, and the halls that were not bought up by colleges went out of business. (Over time the university also began to take a more negative attitude towards unaffiliated halls, as the colleges gained in importance—and the sorts of problems that one might expect of an institution that might be anachronistically described as "like a frat house" took their toll.) Teddy Hall itself came under the control of the Queen's College in the sixteenth century.

At first, the halls often remained separate possessions of the colleges, but eventually they came to be merged into them. Ultimately, in the twentieth century, St. Edmund's emerged as the lone surviving hall, and rather than assimilate it, the Queen's College progressively granted it independence. The name of "hall" was kept, as the first principal was keen that St. Edmund's should remain the University's oldest hall, rather than become its youngest college. Successive generations of Aularians ever since have held the same attitude. So, while St. Edmund's Hall does legitimately lay claim to over 800 years of presence in Oxford, this explains why it does not have the grand surroundings to show for it that one might expect from such an age, and why it is not counted among the ancient colleges.

Teddy Hall numbers among its alumni a surprising number of comedians, Monty Python's Terry Jones probably the most famous among them, which suggests to me that it must still be a fun place to study. It also has been Oxford's dominant college in rugby union, dominating cuppers just as Oriel dominates the Head of the River.

I think that for those who are attracted to its unique community, or its unique Aularian history (aula is just the Latin word for 'hall', by the way), which makes it truly one-of-a-kind at Oxford, St. Edmund's Hall must be a fine choice of college. It is a hidden treasure, passes unnoticed by tourists, all while still being centrally located and offering a full, traditional Oxford experience among a fun and friendly student body.

Posted by jon at 6:40 PM in Oxford 

Sunday, 28 October 2012

College Profile: St. Anne's College

St. Anne's College
, like Wolfson (and for many of the same reasons), was not one I paid a lot of attention to. The photograph below, is about the most flattering photo one can take of St. Anne's, which already says a great deal. (Contrast that to my articles on Oriel and Exeter, and I hope one will not judge too harshly my decision not to make visiting St. Anne's a priority.)

St. Anne's, as its patron saint indicates, was founded for the education of women. Co-educational since its centenary in 1979, the college has grown organically, buying up houses and surrounding buildings as opportunities arise, like Kellogg College, rather than being built from scratch. This has the disadvantage of sacrificing architectural unity, something only St. Catherine's College can really boast of among modern colleges. (I'm not counting Keble as modern in this context.) But such an approach does mean that the college owns many nice Victorian houses that students can live in, so being at St. Anne's does not preclude living in a quaint, historic building.

By and large, though, the college ethos is based on being informal and modern. What I wrote about Wolfson is fully à propos for St. Anne's as well:

I can take one look at the place and say "this college is not for me", but I know full well that plenty of people set foot in Oriel and have the same reaction—they feel too out of place in this "other world". They fear they might not fit in such surroundings, just because they didn't go to Eton or Harrow, or that everyone will be very stuffy and pretentious. Such fears could not be more unfounded—but the fact remains that there are plenty of people who are put off by Latin graces and black tie dinners, just as much as I am turned on by them.

St. Anne's differs from Wolfson in having undergraduates (a great many undergraduates; it is one of the largest colleges), whereas Wolfson is graduate-only. St. Anne's also has a better location—still not central, but not quite so cut off from the rest of the university. And it does have formal halls, although only once every two weeks, not nightly like Oriel, Christ Church, or Merton. To my regret, I never made it to one at St. Anne's, making this one of the only colleges I did not experience from the inside. Doubtless if I had, then like Kellogg or Catz, I would have come away with a much greater appreciation for the college.

In general terms, though, St. Anne's offers an informal setting, a large student body, modern facilities (including an excellent college library), and it counts among its alumnæ the author of Bridget Jones and the director of American Psycho— which in and of itself points to a fairly diverse and interesting student body! I would also give good marks to its coat of arms, which would make a proud addition to any alumnus' cufflink collection :)

Posted by jon at 12:00 PM in Oxford 

Wednesday, 24 October 2012

College Profile: Lincoln College

Lincoln College
, founded in 1427, is one of my absolute favourites. It's a small, old college, with everything a college should be expected to have, in just the right proportions. Its dining hall is also lovely and atmospheric. If I had to pick one college to cite as the quintessential, typical Oxford college, without being 'too this' or 'too that', my pick would be Lincoln.

Nonetheless, Lincoln does have a lot that makes it unique. As I mentioned before, in conjunction with its rival Brasenose, every year on Ascension Day the door connecting the two colleges is unlocked, and Lincoln students give every Brasenose student a glass of beer with ivy in it, in reparation for a Brasenose student that was killed by an angry mob in the middle ages (the Lincoln students escaped into their college, but the porter would not allow the Brasenose student in). The ivy is put in the beer, depending on whom one asks, either as a poetic gesture—to call to mind the bitter circumstances of the event that sparked the tradition—or, to discourage excessive consumption.

Later, Lincoln College was the place of birth of the Methodist movement, when fellow John Wesley began hosting prayer meetings in his rooms there. Author John Le Carré, the current Duke of Norfolk, and Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) are also alumni of the college.

The college bar has the incomparable name Deep Hall, and the name fits the place (and is also home to the college gargoyle, their mascot). Its MCR is impressively large for such a small college, and is in fact the oldest MCR in Oxford. All of this, however, pales in comparison to its library:

The Lincoln library, converted from the old All Saints' church, is a jaw-dropping space—in a city of jaw-dropping libraries. The only reason I do not regret not being able to study there on a regular basis (only members of the college have that privilege), is that I'm sure I would have been too distracted by the beautiful surroundings to get any work done!

All in all, if I had to make my college selections over again, while I would certainly still put Oriel first, I would probably now put Lincoln second. (I say 'probably' because it is a toss up between Lincoln, and the college I will be writing about last, so stay tuned...)

Posted by jon at 10:30 PM in Oxford 

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

College Profile: Brasenose College

Mine was a bad year to be a brasenostril, as the college was being completely torn up for renovations, so I will be the first to admit that I did not get to see the college at its best. Even so, I came away with a very high opinion of Brasenose, and consider it by and large to be the college whose ethos is closest to Oriel—which is extremely high praise, coming from me.

Firstly, I will freely admit that architecturally, I find the exterior of the College of the Brazen Nose to be the most beautiful in Oxford. More modern than Magdalen*, but every bit as ornate, I simply find the stonework of the college to be tasteful, æsthetically pleasing, and impressive all at once. The college's history is interesting, too, with its colourful name and bronze door knocker. The college scarf and tie are black and gold, which would have been a fun call-back to my Iowan origins, if I had gone there. It's even paired with Gonville & Caius College at Cambridge, which would have been my first choice had I gone to the Other Place instead. (On the downside, though, the college coat of arms, like Corpus' and Lincoln's, is a bit of a mess.)

(*When I say it is more modern than Magdalen, I only mean architecturally—the college was founded in 1509, less than 50 years after Magdalen, but most of it's buildings are from the 17th century and later, whereas Magdalen's buildings incorporate a mediæval Crusaders' hospital which predates the college.)

The college is located right on Radcliffe square, surrounded by the dreaming spires of St. Mary's, All Souls' College, the Old Bodleian, and the Rad Cam. The flipside to these enviable surroundings, however, is that the college has never had a lot of room to grow. Its Old Quad is quite small in comparison to other colleges, and when a second, still smaller quad was completed, it was dubbed the 'Deer Park'—a comical nod to the actual deer park Magdalen College has on its grounds.

Brasenose counts among its own alumni famed Monty Python alum Michael Palin, and current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom David Cameron. (Earlier, more controversial alumni, include anti-Catholic polemicist John Foxe and the sociopathic general Lord Haig.)

Only two things about Brasenose disappointed me. (Although, again, it is one of my absolute favourite colleges!) Firstly, the conduct at formal hall leaves a lot to be desired. Gowns are required, but students can wear them over everyday clothes, so jeans and bright sweatshirts are a common sight in what is supposed to be "formal" hall. (In contrast, at Oriel, jacket and tie are always required, and a suit on Sundays and Wednesdays. If you want to be informal, it's no problem: that's what informal hall is for.) Secondly, the hall itself is disappointing, especially in light of how amazing the college looks from the outside: small and low-ceilinged, it does not compare favourably to the relatively grander halls of the other ancient colleges. The doorknocker on the door through which the high table enters, however, and the infamous unicorn, do add a lot of character to the place. (The chapel, on the other hand, is pretty impressive.)

Brasenose students are also entitled once a year, on Ascension Day, to pass through the ancient door (usually locked) that connects it to Lincoln college, where the Lincoln students serve them a glass of beer with a sprig of ivy in it—a quintessentially Oxford tradition if ever there was one! (I explain the history behind this tradition when I talk about Lincoln). So, while I do wish they held to a higher standard at formal hall, I must rate Brasenose as one of the top colleges of the university, on my personal ranking.

Posted by jon at 8:00 PM in Oxford 
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