Oxford from South Park in winter
Artillery Row

Happy Holidays?

View from Oxford: a year in woke

At Oxford the end of Michaelmas Term follows the same pattern every year. “Oxmas”, as that festival of convenience has come to be known, falls on the Sunday of Eighth Week. An associated suspension of disbelief sees college chapels packed to the gunnels for their Carol Services: Advent Sunday in the morning, and Christmas by the evening. It is an exhilarating concertina of fast and feast much anticipated by the initiated, but dizzying for its unsuspecting neophytes.

This year’s celebrations were obviously and understandably muted. No packed feasts in garland-decked halls; no well-watered choirs carolling from the galleries, like their minstrel-predecessors of old; no Twelve Days of Christmas with glasses of cheap wine downed by Low Table at each return of “five gold rings”; no JCR Nativity Plays, with their laboured in-jokes and incoherent punchlines.

The young people were sent home the minute term ended, with most taking advantage of the “student travel window” in early December. Some made arrangements with friends in private accommodation; the Oxford Mail and then the Daily Express reported that one, Chloe Jacobs, intends to live in a converted jalopy when she returns: “something that on the outside looks like a Transit van, but on the inside is very homely.” With Oxford rents being what they are, good luck to her.

By the end of Ninth Week Oxford was visibly depleted; in Tenth Week it had been reclaimed by the residents, going about their business in what is now left of the centre. Boswells has gone, having traded since 1738; other premises are also empty and boarded up. Meanwhile, the iconic Randolph Hotel has changed hands once more; rumours that it is to be renamed the “Graduate Oxford” have not been well received, with or without shades of Dustin Hoffman, Anne Bancroft, and Katharine Ross.

With that end of town in mind, I do not think that the JCR Vice-President of St Anne’s, Bilal Aly, is ever going to reply to my request for comment about why he chose to apologise publicly to this year’s freshers that Melanie Phillips and Edwina Currie were among the college’s alumnae. A friendly source pointed out that his comments about these two Jewish, conservative women—which the college at the time insisted were entirely unproblematic—had been deleted shortly afterwards.

Across the city, behind the high walls of Christ Church the war of words continues. The Dean has been suspended yet again, and very soon there will be a whole generation of junior members who have never known the community without internecine conflict. The latest news of Melanie Onovo—the focus of an online summer storm over alleged endemic racism at the college—was that she was seeking “a contact for any member of the Royal Family”, for whom she had “big things planned”. Perhaps the Sussexes will be in touch.

Identity cards will be issued to Christ Church’s bona-fide meat eaters, apparently

The JCR has now moved onto its next cause célèbre. After a vote to establish vegetarianism as the normative option in Hall, the Oxford Blue website reported in solemn tones that “the Christ Church undergraduate population has around 60 vegetarians and 30 vegans of an onsite college body of around 400 students. While this is the minority, there is hope that making vegetarianism the default option may encourage reducing the consumption of meat amongst non-vegetarian students.” Identity cards will be issued to bona-fide meat eaters, apparently.

Opposite Christ Church’s back gate, Oriel’s Rhodes Commission has yet to submit its report; it has recently been hosting online meetings as an “evidence-gathering” exercise. For its part, Rhodes Must Fall Oxford organised a “dance-protest” – available on YouTube – “to rearticulate the persistent demands of the movement and to call global attention to the many anti-oppression movements and solidarity campaigns that emerged this year.” One of its organisers, Claire Paetsch, “saw the strength of dance allowing us to express a non-violent and yet very emotive rage translated through performance.” It transpires that one can record one’s own routine, if so minded.

From its public orisons, it is not always obvious that Rhodes Must Fall does not represent everyone for whom it claims to stand. Marie K. Daouda, for example, herself an African woman of colour, recently questioned in these pages the appropriateness of St Hilda’s alumna Zeinab Badawi’s membership of the Commission in the light of what might be argued to be a worrying lack of historical rigour in her recent BBC series The History of Africa. I do not suppose that Dr Daouda, who has urged those who would rewrite history to be “careful, and very humble”, will be sending in a dance.

In non-Covid times, these last couple of weeks would have been full of departmental drinks parties and hearty Senior Common Room dinners. Such events have been missed across the board, of course, but every cloud has its silver lining. At least this year the absence of feasting on a grand scale meant that the Fellows of Oriel didn’t have to worry, while tucking into their sweetmeats and quaffing their claret, about how many of their regular treats—festive or otherwise—are still being paid for by the posthumous munificence of the late Cecil Rhodes.

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