It is a frightening and wonderful thing: a year of graduate study in England, Cambridge or Oxford.
From Sylvia Plath’s journal, June 1952
Oxford is time suspended. Cobblestone streets and corduroyed professors let years pass them by; it might not be the exact person or alley turn you recall from before, but it will be a specimen of the same kind, indistinguishable like a single bird in a moving flock. With centuries of history come layers of nostalgia and the idea that tradition is a good enough reason for customs both wonderful and worrying. The Lord Mayor has been inspecting the city walls for safety since the 12th century, albeit not so often now. Annually, Mertonians gather for their Time Ceremony: an hour-long procession of students walking backwards, dressed in formal attire and drinking port. It is supposed to stabilise the time-space continuum and save the world at that precarious point when the clocks are advanced to account for Summer Time.
I remember, in my first year of the two-year Programme, proclaiming that I would not want to stay here past the final exam. That there would be very little left to do and that I could not understand how anyone could stand spending four years in this city, as is required by the common length of an undergraduate degree.
It has been four and a half for me now, and, I guess, I should put some Oxford marmalade on those words and eat them. Yet, there is a part of my old statement that I would still defend: it would be utterly devastating to stay in this city after your graduation if you no longer have a connection to the University.
There is only so much surface one can enjoy without delving deeper, and losing the ability to go past the shut doors would mean sudden exclusion from the sphere you have come to see as your own. What’s Oxford without lectures, college formals, punting, bops, and waking up in strange rooms, at once picturesque and bitterly cold? Thank Thoth and Minerva for the Reader’s Card that lets alumni into the Bodleian Library.
Last Saturday I saw another group of friends graduate, dressing up into the heavy Master’s gowns, dressing down into civil attire, inhaling as many glasses and pints as humanly possible. Graduation comes with a mixture of emotions: there is relief, and joy, and a tinge of desperation. You are saying goodbye, and it is never going to be like it was before, but wasn’t it great while it lasted?
I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
I came across Paddy Summerfield’s photographs last year, when i-D published a review of his book, The Oxford Pictures, 1968–1978. Although featuring marks of the decade when they were made — bell-bottoms and platform shoes, long flowery dresses and long flowing hair — Summerfield’s photos have a timeless quality to them. It is forever summer and you have danced the night away and there is no hurry. Take your shoes off, we can kiss if you are not too tired.
Summerfield’s wonderfully languid, romantic pictures came as ‘a very personal exploration of feeling disconnected’. Born in Oxford but never attending the University, he spent his twenties capturing moments so understatedly dramatic they could have been staged. His photographs are about stretches of skin and open books, unions and loneliness. It is a delicate, uncaring sort of art. Once more, with feeling.
In his interview for the magazine, Summerfield said, ‘I think you could tell there was some sorrow within me, which I wanted to express. I felt I could make a personal story around student life down the road. In the city, the pubs and the cafes were full of smoke and chatter, but I chose to photograph the sad and thoughtful students lying on college lawns and drifting across the parks to the riverside.’
Oxford is an in-between state, so nostalgic for its own past that it is reliving it daily, every time the bells are ringing. Before the Victorians standardised time, the city was five minutes behind Greenwich, being slightly to the west. To this day Great Tom, the Christ Church College bell, rings out 101 times at five past nine in the evening — nine o’clock Oxford Time — urging the original 101 students of the College to return before the gates are locked.
If there are ghosts, there must be ghosts here. Perhaps, not the kind you expect; perhaps, you might come across a younger version of yourself and feel astonished at the difference. Do you remember that perpetual impostor syndrome? And falling in love with every bright, astonishingly talented, beautiful person you met? And wine so cheap it turned your teeth blue? Do you recall picnics lasting past dusk and visits to the cinema so that you can argue afterwards? The smell of old books and the noise that heels make against the surface of an empty street, making you and yours sound like a horse and a half? The cherry-eating ducks on the River? Do you remember them? Do you remember me?
The answer comes in many familiar and distant voices, with varied inflections, in accents belonging to places near and far. It arrives from Dublin and New York and Paris, from the white mountains of Norway and the plains of New Mexico — from every part of the world that has an Oxonian. It says, ‘I do remember. I do. I do. I do.’
Current album: Porches, Pool
Current book: Daisy Johnson, 2 Stories
Current TV series: Bob’s Burgers, Series 1 (2011)