11 August 2019

Talking Oxford (2)

At the 2014 Encaenia, the then Public Orator, Mr Richard Jenkyns felicissimae memoriae of LMH, had used a phrase which one of his hearers ... none other than the then Vice-Chancellor himself, a poor silly Professor A D Hamilton ... had disliked so much that he cherished it, for four months, in a Resentful Bosom. When he came to make his own Oration in October at the start of the 2014/2015 academic year, Hamilton, speaking in English, had this to say:
"I want to reflect with you on the public value of Oxford; the benefit that flows to others from who we are, what we do, and how we do it. And if, in the course of these reflections, I manage to say something of wider interest and relevance about the special importance and value of higher education in the world of the twenty-first century, well, then I shall consider I have not entirely wasted my time or, more importantly, yours."

Oh dear. Not a word of this is Talking Oxford, is it? How terribly portentous and consequential! How full of a Politically Correct sense that we must demonstrate the vast amount of good we do to others! Might it even contain 'virtue signalling'? Do you feel the adjective "pompous" struggling to make itself heard in your mind? Not a touch here of that quick and allusive levity, that faux self-deprecation behind which Oxonians lightly conceal our feeling that we are so obviously unique that we don't even need to remember that fact, still less to be so unspeakably vulgar as to assert it. Even worse, observe the implication that Oxford is relevant. Nemo qui mammas almae huius Universitatis ipse suxisset haec vel talia unquam proferre potuisset! Quid de apicibus somniantibus? Quid de rebus desperatis? 

This sad (and now happily long departed) Hamilton was not a man who, in those formative youthful years, was woken daily by his College Servant bringing him hot water and the information "Good morning sir, quarter to eight sir, blizzard in the night sir, three cars crashed on the ice coming down Headington Hill, eleven people killed sir, will there be anything else, sir?" vel similia. You see, Talking Cambridge is a class dialect designed to condescend and to insult those marked out by the speaker as social inferiors. But Talking Oxford is a style of processing and assimilating reality, of cutting mere facticity down to size, a style which in my undergraduate days owed as much (at least in the men's colleges) to our beloved and respected College Servants as to dons or undergraduates.

Let us resume our reading of poor daft Hamilton's embarrassing Oration.
"It was our celebrated Public Orator, Richard Jenkyns, at Encaenia [2014] who stated in the course of a typically mordant review of the worldly achievements of Oxford alumni, I quote: 'Life - always our most dangerous competitor.' He captures neatly that too familiar perception of the academic world having little if anything to do with life, certainly life as it is lived; life with a capital L.

"Well, this morning I want to try not just to take issue with that perception by illustrating some of the ways in which it is woefully wide of the mark, but to go further and even to argue that life as it is lived - still with that capital L ..." and blah blah blah for several pages more. Dinosaurs competed for mention with budgerigars. Honest! Heaven help us.


Left-footer said...

At my son's degree ceremony in 2000, the orator made great play of Oxford's being a "world-class" university. The sheer crassness of the speech drove me from the Sheldonian. In my day, 1961-1964, either I was drunk (unlikely) or the ceremony was at least partly in Latin, with no vulgar bragging.

Jesse said...

Father, your explanation of the Oxford idiolect has enabled me finally to understand a conversation I had in 2005 with a member of staff at the Bodleian Library.

On the occasion of that exchange, instead of taking the interminable X5 cross-country coach from Cambridge, I had splurged on rail tickets via London. As I was leaving, my wife of less than a year had handed me a £20 note, urging me to take a taxi between King's Cross and Paddington. She was worried that the Tube might not be safe, since it had just been announced that London would host the 2012 Summer Olympics. I assured her that I would follow her advice, but resolved mentally to take the Tube anyway and to spend the money at Blackwell's.

Later that morning, I was happily labouring over a tenth-century manuscript in Duke Humfrey's Library when I became aware that a librarian was hovering at my elbow.

"Excuse me, are you Mr. Billett?"


"I have your wife on the telephone."


"She wanted to make sure you arrived safely."

"I see?"

"Probably because of the bombs."

"The what?!?"

It was the day of the 7/7 terrorist attacks. About twenty minutes after I had boarded my surface train to Oxford, a suicide bomber had blown himself up on an Underground train travelling from King's Cross to Paddington, the same route I had just taken.

It was the librarian's "Probably" that particularly struck me. It deftly allowed for the possibility that there was some far more important reason, unrelated to anything so trifling as "the bombs," for my wife to be worried about my safety.