Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Oxford - Et in Arcadia Ego?

After graduating, I came to England. I had got a job as lecturer at Hertford College, Oxford. The appointment ("tenure") was for 2 years. These two years turned out to be the happiest of my life - after Oxford, nothing ever really lives up to it, you just get used to things because you have to... But that's not what I'm writing about.

I was about 100 years younger than the youngest don there, so whilst officially part of the Senior Common Room (all the teaching staff of a college), my social life happened in the MCR (i.e. the graduate students). I still saw a lot of my colleagues though, mainly at the daily High Table dinner where you wear a gown, Grace is said in Latin, and you make formal conversation over not so good food.

You'd expect an Oxford college to be a hub of academic internationalism. Researchers from all over the world mingling for multinational exchanges. But this wasn't the case at all. I was the only foreigner and one of only two women. Conversation with me at High Table was laboured - Rhine cruises were remembered, and war reminscences (possibly not their own, their fathers'?) offered with the tough duck à l'orange. Narvik featured heavily. It wasn't easy to chime in, I had never been on a Rhine cruise "That must have been so lovely!" and Narvik meant nothing to me "That must have been... terrible!"

Over in the MCR, it was the polar opposite - the graduate students came from all over the world, fee-paying Americans, Japanese, Nigerians, Dutch. In fact I only remember one British national there. It was lively, fun, international - one got to know people and learnt an awful lot.

It struck me, that living in Britain, my life is still organised along those lines: The international background through family, friends, travel, and media. And on the other side there's Britain. Yes, there may be a whole multicultural aspect to it, but that SCR-Britain prevails. British reality is still mono-lingual, awkward with foreigners, still treating "abroad" with polite suspicion. It still chews on that tough duck. Proudly chewing, but inward-looking, and increasingly marginalised.

*)On the photo, the window of my room, second floor on the left hand side, is just about visible.


  1. Another alumna of Hertford College Oxford wrote this

  2. Super, but I'm not an alumna, I just taught there for 2 years.

  3. Hmm...anonymous - what exactly does your comment have to do with the thoughtful piece above the line?

  4. Interesting viewponts and illuminating to a non-academic living in a mono-cultural town. We do have a smattering of Poles, Turks and Asians but otherwise the demography is white working class.

    I'm lucky in having been able to travel a little and try to keep an open mind. My big regret is that Britain doesn't encourage multilingualism in its education system.

  5. Does pig latin qualify as another language? If so, I am bilingual. I have always wanted to live in England...

  6. As an alumnus of Hertford myself I can totally understand. It's a bafflingly different world all round. Lovely post!

  7. This sounds exactly like my first ten years as naval wife in the UK. Norway featured heavily during official dos. I'd never been to Norway either and felt offensively blonde and foreign.

    Helena xx

  8. Nice post. It's somewhat ironic that the parochialism of High Table conversation chimes in totally with the insularity of much of modern day Britain, despite (in London at least) its extreme multiculturalism. And ironic that ignorance (which surely has to be at the bottom of cultural narrow mindedness) should be a consistent theme...Oxford being a seat of learning. But when I think about it, enjoying pre-eminence in the UK academically - being a Don at Oxford as an example - to me was never really a convincing concept when compared with the wider world of thinking and intellectual enquiry - in France, America, or Germany....but on an island, who cares? No man, perhaps...But as the name Bridge of Sighs suggests, reminisence rather than reality is perhaps the best way of thinking about Oxford, Arcadia and Egos....Amen ;)

  9. Great observations about Englishness ... My husband went to Millfield and there were students from all over the world, yet sadly he has few of them as friends.. my sons also go to a multicultural school and seem to be loving it, mixing with children from so many places .. I get so annoyed when outside people comment "Too many Chinese." These children are from all over the Asian continent and have to speak English to communicate. There are children from all over the world .. but because they are caucasian people think they are British. I do however find it amusing that my boys now want to learn Spanish, after me encouraging them for years. I think its to do with the rather hot Columbian girls that come over to study :)
    I am just pleased that they are interested in these other nationalities and want to learn more about them and their languages x
    Maybe a new form of Brit is sprouting xx

  10. Great post Margit. It's so interesting to read about one's experiences with human behaviour (switching to British spellings now). I'd copy the last few lines of your post for the people of Mid-West America too. I've seen people being far more 'open' to the folks from 'abroad' in the East & West coast, but my husband & I still get double-takes when we visit rural towns of Minnesota. I wonder when the acceptance and mild xenophobia will go.

    I'd have to say it even gets in my way at networking events where I find myself being the only coloured person in the room. That apart, I feel a strong communication barrier and really reaching out to someone I've just met. Makes it so much harder to make friends here!