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Sunday, 12 July 2015

Life and Times at Oxford

It is a little-known fact that I spent the final years of my officially-sanctioned and approved education within the hallowed portals of Oxford University. The two parts of the college with which I was associated are joined by the celebrated bridge above. Not only did I attend Oxford: I came away with a good level degree, the best among the six of us in my year studying geography, my subject of (non) choice. My mother used to insist that I missed out on a 'first' only because I saved money by giving my thesis to a friend to type, rather than a professional typist, and she didn't make a very handsome job of it. My mum was probably right.

The mention of the place of my higher education to those who have not attended such an institution normally evokes a mixture of disdain and awe. Neither of these, I suggest, are particularly appropriate responses. Notions of unbridled privilege related to Oxford are only in part justified. During my residence, roughly half the students were like me, straight out of the state education system. The others were, truer to stereotype, from private and public schools, including a generous spattering from celebrated bastions such as Harrow and Eton. Socially and culturally, the two rarely mixed - seemed to form two quite separate worlds, in fact. The friends and acquaintances I passed time with were all from grammar schools, then the higher echelons of the state education system. We spent a lot of time playing bar billiards and listening to Roxy Music.

The effects of my years in this hallowed institution of learning on my employment opportunities in mainstream society have, in fact, been mixed. Following graduation, I took the not-exactly normal career path, setting up a commune with friends with the intention of eventually moving into the countryside and engaging in self-sufficiency. The project required funding, so I went in pursuit of work, only to be told at a number of industrial establishments that I was over-qualified, and therefore unsuitable. I eventually found employment at a Black and Decker warehouse, then as a local, sometimes friendly, Oxford postman. The one and only time that this Oxford degree has been an unquestionable jobs boon was some fifteen years later when, on exiting work within the Buddhist world, I decided to train as an English language teacher. The Oxbridge piece of paper proved to be an immediate help in this instance.

There are, in reality, two things for which I am most grateful from my years at Oxford. Firstly, my degree course allowed me plenty of spare and flexible time in which to explore the things that really mattered to me. During my first year I took up an active involvement with the national Vegan Society. I was a member of the young vegans; among other things, I fell hopelessly and helplessly in love for the first time, with another young vegan. The wheels fell off my honeymoon with organised veganism when I began to lose respect for some of those I was associated with, who seemed to find nothing better to do than feel paranoid about whether somebody had managed to sneak a few drops of honey into their biscuits while they weren't looking. 'Get a life' is the expression that would have come to mind, had it then been invented.

Then there were Oxford anarchists, a suitably disparate bunch of mainly, but not entirely, student politicos, or anti-politicos, depending on your take on things. I had little innovative to offer, but was a willing foot soldier, out on the streets cheerfully selling Carfax Comic. This was our regular broad/news sheet, Carfax being the name of the centre of Oxford. 'Carfax Comic, only a penny' I would shout out at all the passers-by outside the Bodleian library or on their way to pub lunch in Broad Street. We actually sold quite a lot.

The wheel started to slowly fall off the anarchist bus as well, as the realisation began to form of what later became formulated in 1970s terms as 'You've got to get your own head together before you can improve the world.' Societies and organisations were full of well-meaning folk who were, in the harsh light of day, just as 'hung up' as the 'straights' we were railing against.

This new awareness found full manifestation during my final year at Oxford. I met the people I was to enter into full-on communal living later, and our preoccupation became regular meetings to discuss details, visiting other communal projects in England, and generally preparing for the communal life. Three months before my final exams, LSD decided it was time to make an appearance; from then on, the personal landscape and its attendant maps were both comprehensively redrawn.

The second great boon of my years at Oxford was the way that it compelled me to rub shoulders with those who would, in time, be in positions of some power and influence in the world. First-hand experience of people who are supposed to be important has had a lasting impact on my take on life. On my degree course, I had two main tutors. One was, I always felt, a man of some substance and integrity. He is a leading expert in tropical geomorphology (the study of landforms) - though I notice that he has also become seduced by the global warming bandwagon (with Oxford you gain the impression that, if only enough people would get around on electric bikes, all will be well). My other tutor, within a few years of my leaving the university, became a Conservative M.P. He served for a time as a minister in one of Thatcher's governments, but arguably didn't do very well in the job, and was ushered upstairs, now sitting in the House of Lords. What kind of adjectives come to mind to encapsulate this man? Shallow? Ineffectual? Spineless? Lacking in fiber? Maybe I am being unkind. To see him promoted to ministerial status was an eye-opener for me: this is how it works, I began to realise.

My time at Oxford provided a general insight into that world of great influence, academia. I came out with the realisation that to be in awe of academics and their cerebral artifices is a grave error of judgement indeed. Academia weaves a magic spell over the populace, leading the gullible to believe that it is formed of an ever-so slightly superior form of humanity, one whose words and opinions should be taken most seriously. In its promotion of cerebral thinking as the highest of human pursuits, it represents the grandest of alienations, a split-off  mode of being, far from the totality of human possibilities. 'Reason' can be utilised to back up almost any spurious viewpoint, and is to be trusted alone no more than any other human faculty. This is a prejudice seeded into the culture over the past two or three centuries, and we do well to be aware of it as just that. My experience of academics and of those devoted to academia as a way of life was not generally positive. Clever reasoning faculties, but undeveloped in most other respects. The thinkers who have made a real difference to my life have tended to be self-taught, propelled, not by career, prestige, or a cosy life, but by an inner burning desire - the auto didacts.

So I would walk the streets of the city, the corridors of the college, sit at desks and tables in the libraries, and gaze around me at the future of the nation. It was nothing to be impressed by. The world these people inhabited was small, their minds limited. My commune friends were far more invigorating, stimulating; dare I say intelligent. This is the way things work, I began to see.

I still receive an occasional magazine from the university, to keep track of whatever might be happening. It is, in general, remarkably uninteresting, a tepid shrine to the memes of the day. So, should you ever bump into somebody whose official education pathway has taken them through Oxford, Cambridge, or the like, don't be taken in. View them with neither contempt nor unwarranted respect. Just check them out as any other human being.