The Magazine

Remembering Oxford

Paul West's schooldays.

Apr 14, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 30 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Oxford Days

An Inclination

by Paul West

British American, 269 pp., $24.95

PAUL WEST came up to Oxford as a raw young man in the late 1940s, prepared to be burdened with the hoary weight of centuries and made drunk with the lingering vapors of greatness that waft out through cobbled lanes once frequented by Thomas More, Dr. Johnson, and John Henry Newman. For some, nothing could seem more oppressive. But for West, who was to become a respected author, going up was exhilarating. The son of a tradesman, he was not to the manor born. But, as Edith Sitwell once told him, "Oxford will make you reach beyond yourself and be something in this world." In "Oxford Days: An Inclination," he ruminates upon what he gained there.

Oxford memoirs can be, as a genre, tiresome. They're typically about privileged people telling other privileged people inside jokes that don't strike most of us as all that funny. But we join him in his wonder. Before going up, West was enthralled with the romantic's intoxicated sense of the place. He longed for the "pipe-dream." He wanted

gowns, candies, roaring fires; all clergymen who played squash; rosy-tinted libraries in which ancient scholars hung fire; deer, ducks, and bells; ramshackle bicycles called "grids"; quads, scouts, and bullers, dark blue boat races, huge arriving cabin trunks full of brand-new Irish linens; marmalade and porridge for breakfast, old stones and older tombstones, chamberpots atop the martyrs' memorial; Shelley, Waugh, Aldous Huxley, Pater and Sir Thomas Browne; port wine, multicolored scarves, furrowed Balliol brows, porter's lodges, and that interior yellow glow of evening lamps discerned by an adolescent cycling by with Jean-Jacques Rousseau in his pocket, unseen by the elect at their oaken benches as they sat in the laps of the Middle Ages to get their fill of Greats.

West wanted, in short, "all of old Oxenford." He would get less, and more.

Standing out from all the evocative and quaint anecdotes recounted in this book is the memory of West's famous supervisor at All Souls, John Sparrow, escorting him down the stairs and outside to the street to see his protégé on his short walk along the High to Lincoln College. "This gesture or stance of his," writes West, "impressed me no end as a badge of Oxford's gentility: none of your rough-and-ready bonhomie from the outside world, but a cloistered amenity that did not really want to part with you and so watched you dwindle away after a lively conversation." At Oxford, he notes, "whatever else you are doing, you are unwittingly absorbing something unique and choice--a sense of the unfailing caliber of mental things, providing you with indestructible inner resources in after-years."

These benefits, though, were not limited to the life of the mind. They enhanced the soul. This was a place, after all, where change-ringing bells--in his first days an annoyance to West, who chafed under the duties of religion--reminded all of "a higher service than mere thought." Although examinations had to be passed, essays vetted, and theses approved, Oxford was not about knowledge alone. It was about becoming something other and, one hoped, better. It was about becoming the sort of man the world could, and should, admire. But how did this metamorphosis occur? West never tells us directly. Perhaps it can't be told explicitly. But he puts us on the scent.

Arriving with the generation of George Steiner and Donald Hall, West began his time routinely. His entrance examination was a fairly straightforward affair, an exercise in "enchanting the converted." "The Fellows of the Colleges wanted to know what I knew and could do, . . . not what I didn't and couldn't." From the beginning, he endured the Spartan side of the ancient seat of learning, where one would spend most of the year shivering, standard heating not yet being standard. And his college's cuisine was often less than haute: "Lincoln's main kitchen was built in the early fifteenth century and sometimes smelled like it." Grandeur doesn't always mean glamour.

Once one's intellectual credentials had been established, university fellows were better able to get down to the point of it all, which is the serious work of civilizing. The inner workings of Oxford still have much to teach us. Pupils don't customarily take classes in the modern sense. Instead, they attend formal lectures and, most significantly, one-on-one tutorials with college fellows--the oldest, best, most efficient, and least economical form of teaching. Dons, the old dominical tag for tutors, play the parts of what we now call "role models." Teacher seems too small a word for the best of them. "There were times," West recalls, "when I felt adopted, learnedly attended to." The pupil's knowledge and convictions, not to say poise, were tested in the heat of stringent cross-examination. The pupil learned to joust with words and ideas.

IT'S A CONGENIAL, if politely pugnacious, picture. But the catch was that the pupil, in his mental poverty, was supposed to rise up to the tutor--the tutor did not bend down to the pupil. To arrive unprepared for a tutorial with some dons was to court humiliation. West, fortunately, did well, although he failed to take optimal advantage of his opportunity. His years there would be a blur of books, walks, late-night conversations, dinners, drinks, boat races, and stolen moments with idle nurses. Eventually he came to lead a predictably dissolute literary life, trying for the occasional prize and hoping to write deathless lines of verse or bestselling fiction. Oxford would be for West an anteroom, if not to greatness, then to literary respectability. He was among that group, always numerous, who go up to write, not to learn. Oxford was, in the end, a "champagne cotillion" for this young man and his cleverly ambitious friends, a "mellifluous beehive, a whirligig of amateur fascination" that saw them all into the larger world armed with a spot of knowledge, a kind of polish, and against all odds, civility.

We might ask, however, if even the comparatively unromantic Oxford of West's memory still exists. Fifty years on, it's no longer a man's world. Women are now members of every college--though, ironically, they still have a few of their own--so the male presence, for better or worse, has been diluted (some might say relieved). But this inevitable revolution can be, as it's been, embraced. Not so other changes.

The city of Oxford has been compromised for over a century by creeping industrialism. It's a driver's nightmare. Oxford has now become, West says, a "glum, sulfuric place, filled with traffic regulations," and labyrinthine regulations at that. If somehow you reach your destination in Broad Street or along St. Giles, parking slots are at a premium. It's a flagrantly inconvenient city. It's best to get a bike--with a lock.

But other changes are more profound. West believes that Oxford has "degenerated into an ammoniac show-palace." Where it once enjoyed a well-earned though quiet fame, it is breaking under the weight of its own publicity, inviting all comers to gawk and be photographed beside the Sheldonian Theatre or along Magdalen Bridge. The month of August finds it something like a cultural theme park. It's a tourist's mecca, complete with costumes and scenery, which is a bizarre fate for any university. (All those towers and spires make it a spiffy location for movies, too.) During the summer months one half expects to find Mickey Mouse scampering about in subfusc.

THEN, alas, the Americans are coming. Oxford has always benefited from cross-fertilization with foreign lands, and many Americans--along with Frenchmen, Germans, Italians, Israelis, Indians, Saudis, Chinese, everyone--have distinguished themselves there. West mentions a few of these foreign students with real respect and affection. But too many foreigners, including Americans (I was once one of them) can alter the place fundamentally. And now American colleges and universities sponsor nicely lucrative "Term in Oxford" programs that invite American college students with the cash to study, more or less seriously, in Oxford for several weeks or months. A few of the natives complain that every third voice in the street now seems to be non-British, and their regret is worth pondering. This mix of peoples might make for a great city, a cosmopolitan city, but it doesn't quite make for an English city.

Much of this may explain why West went back, many noisy years later, only to find it "haunted." One senses from his book that Oxford is a city of shades and shadows. "I was among ghosts," he says upon returning, "old stones, hallowed sites available to everyone, and I had missed them until I went back, astounded to find how close the university had been to the church, to an Old Testament full of threats." West sets out in this florid, well-composed memoir to obey an old injunction: Exquirite antiquam matrem, seek out the ancient mother. Her visage is chipped, but still he finds her.

Tracy Lee Simmons is director of the Dow Journalism program at Hillsdale College and author of "Climbing Parnassus: A New Apologia for Greek and Latin."