The Magazine

Remembering Oxford

Paul West's schooldays.

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