Oxford: A parallel world

What is the difference between just, equitable and fair? What happens to prices if several shops give best price guarantees? How do we know that there is such a thing as human rights? Are they merely a construct?

Those are the kind of questions I was asked when I applied for Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE), a three-year undergraduate course at Oxford University. But no worries, I had no answer to either of these. I was a callow student straight from school. Yet although I vaguely suspected that Oxford was Old-England, I had no idea of what I would get myself into.

More than two years have passed since my admission interviews and the written tests. Afterwards I was often asked why I chose Oxford, why Oxford chose me and what it was like. So instead of discussing that, and because a bit of luck certainly plays a role, I would like to share three very distinctively Oxfordesque experiences.

Picture the following situation: the clock strikes quarter past seven. Dinner time. You are sitting on a bench with your fellow students. As it happens, you are in an enormous, gloomy dining hall which is six centuries old. The oak-panelled walls are decorated with portraits. Only the candles on the tables illuminate the dining hall. You and your fellow students are wearing black gowns. The fire crackles. A knock resounds. Everyone around you stands up, and so do you. Silence. A number of older academics, also wearing black gowns, enter the room. They walk through the hall and take their places around an empty table. Their table, the high table, is set slightly above all the others and covered with a white tablecloth, menus and wine glasses. A fellow student from another table reads out a Latin grace. Amen, you take a seat and so does everyone else. Food is being served and the general buzz of conversation continues.

Harry Potter's Hogwarts? Close. Fair enough, you guessed it ages ago: Everyday life in Oxford and Cambridge. Now while these Universities are famed for their academic excellence, let us not talk of excellence today. The discussion whether prestigious institutions deserve their prestige is as old as the institutions themselves. On top of that, this topic is far too serious for dinner. Let us instead put ourselves into the shoes of a student, and see which other oddities we might stumble across.

Photo: John Smith
John's View at "All Souls"

It will hardly come as a surprise that the oldest University in the English-speaking world has kept up many odd rituals that will astonish the outside visitor. The most visible one is, of course, clothing. Students have to wear a gown for almost all ceremonies over the course of their student life: From matriculation and everyday formal dinners to exams and degree ceremonies. And even beneath the gown, every piece of clothing is dictated by the rules. During exam-time, brown rather then black socks might easily earn their possessor a fine. Sometimes I'm being asked whether gowns are comparable to school uniforms. Better avoid asking that here. Not only is Oxford not a school, so asking might upset, but also ninety-five percent of the time there's no need to wear a gown.

This, of course, brings us back to everyday life and a slightly more modern but no less peculiar feature of Oxford life: At the beginning of last year, I picked up a leaflet advertising ‘Midnight ice hockey', hosted by the ‘Alternative Ice Hockey Club'. The club conducts weekly hockey sessions in the middle of the night, from Wednesday to Thursday night 12pm-2am. You might think: A good time to write a last-minute essay! Or to go clubbing! Or get your beauty sleep! But ice hockey? When I picked up their leaflet, I initially thought the time was misspelled and rather intended to be 12am to 2pm, that is, Midday. I decided to turn up anyway and expected the ice rink to be dark and abandoned.

Yet, as it turned out, another sixty enthusiasts turned up. We paired up and played a number of quick games. Now, what made it distinctively alternative was the low degree of competitiveness. Rather than having to participate in regular games and practice sessions, you could just turn up if you felt like playing hockey. Very appealing to students, I have to admit. I have kept playing Alternative Ice Hockey ever since.

The key quality of Oxfordness, however, was best brought out by the novel The Golden Compass/Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, and its recent Hollywood adaptation: The novel's plot takes place in a parallel world, similar to ours but enchanted with all kinds of magic. A significant part of Hollywood film was made in Oxford and London. Yet as was recently observed, it is telling that in this parallel world, London looks remarkably different, while Oxford remains almost the same.

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