Life in the Bubble – A Day in Oxford

Harry Potter, “dreaming spires” and rowing was all I had to go on if I was ever roped into a conversation about the city of Oxford before I had the opportunity of visiting it for myself last Autumn. Now a year on my thoughts about the University Town and its famous colleges are still swirling and my opinions not yet formed. It is common knowledge that visiting anywhere on a school trip is a wholly different experience to doing so, say, with family or friends and Oxford was no exception. It is a well-known fact that school-tourism usually involves a) a museum (it’s always a museum, sometimes you’re lucky enough to get a castle or an aquarium, but there’s always a museum) b) the buying of tacky souvenir key rings, and c) the obligatory scrum outside the sole sweet shop.

The glorious day began with a guided tour round Christ Church College, which is so perfectly modelled as the image of British student life given that the few on show were walking around wearing satchels and all eating organic fruit. It’s almost too ‘Oxford’ for Oxford. We were reliably informed by a third year that the statue stood on top of the fountain in the centre of the courtyard had been knocked over four times in the college’s history; and that three out of the four culprits were British Prime-Ministers. How very reassuring. The “no walking on the grass” rule seemed a little unnecessary and consequently resulted in an unnervingly deserted courtyard, though in some ways this added to the feeling of timelessness.

Much as I admired Christ Church’s grandeur, however, the next door college of Corpus Christi stole my affections (and no it wasn’t just because there was a croquet game going on when we arrived) due to its relaxed, almost sleepy atmosphere, and secluded gardens. Here it was difficult not to imagine a rather perfect, if clichéd, four years – sprawling on the grass with a classic penguin novel and a glass of lemonade as the morning sun glinted off the dewy grass and the thought of joining a crowd of spectators watching a boat race in the afternoon a pleasing, yet still somewhat distant, prospect.

It’s all very well about the attraction of the colleges, but what about the nitty gritty? The annual University Guide pull-outs found in most broadsheets can always be relied upon to voice allegations of elitism about and cast a sceptical and scathing eye over the two most prominent universities in Britain. The lack of straight out answers to such questions unfortunately adds even more to the overflowing plates of prospective applicants, who not only have to endure a gruelling application process including aptitude tests and interviews lasting several days but also have to consider the social implications of accepting such an offer if one were to be given. Surely such a decision should be made purely on the basis of the individual’s personal needs and specifications – course content, fees, location – instead of whether or not they will be deemed snobbish, elitist, or most fickle of all, superior?

Alas it seems that the stigma surrounding Oxbridge is set to continue, though that shouldn’t put off those who truly believe they would be happy being a part of such an institute. After all, there’s nothing arrogant about writing Oxon or Cantab after your name; indeed there should be a certain element of pride about having gained a degree from one of the world’s highest ranking universities. Seeing the University of Oxford, its colleges and libraries in all their glory, made it all seem real, and I can honestly say that even a day visit gave me a new perspective on Oxford. There is an awful lot to think about over the next year or so, although sometimes I think it’s fair to say that the cons of Oxbridge are elevated in the media so much more than those of other universities due to a constant struggle between those who support their traditional and unique style of education and those who think both universities an automatic destination for the supercilious upper classes, irrespective of whether or not they deserve to be there.

So I’m pleased to be able now to say, if ever conversing about Oxford, that it is home to several fantastic bookshops, a library where students are required to sign a form swearing “not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame” and the most bicycles I have ever seen.

Bowing Out Gracefully – August Inspiration

This Was My Summer

This Was My Summer

Well it appears that this is it. Tomorrow we wave goodbye to August and with it the last remnants of the Summer. Without wanting to launch into a lengthy post about the transition from Summer to Autumn again (but if for some reason you are inclined towards that sort of blogging take a look at my last post) I simply want to talk about the things that for me, have made Summer, Summer…

First and foremost I have enjoyed the sun. No, we haven’t had much, but what we have had I’ve walked in, swum in and ultimately, revelled in. Summer wouldn’t be Summer without sun – something which Rosalind touched on saying that the element of the Summer she would miss most was reading outside in the sun. Summer is the time of the year when I myself read the most – a combination of longer holiday time and feeling relaxed and in the mood to sit and read and read until I’ve had my fill. When you’ve really got into a book, time is irrelevant – that’s why Summer holidays are the best time for them! But it’s not just books – being able to read the paper over a leisurely breakfast or lounge on the sofa flicking through the September editions of magazines is yet another, thoroughly enjoyable and leisurely pursuit.

So far I’ve finished How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran (but I’m sure you’ll be hearing my opinion of that in a future post) and With Your Crooked Heart by Helen Dunmore. I’m currently wading into the first chapters of Roger Deakin’s Waterlog and am already finding it highly enjoyable – both his excellent descriptions and manner of storytelling are extremely compelling and next in line is Laurie Lee’s Cider With Rosie. Another book I’m looking forward to settling down with is supermodel Alek Wek’s autobiography. Having read interviews with her in which she described her incredible journey from her native Sudan to the UK where she has become an international supermodel and one of the most recognisable faces in fashion. I found the book whilst perusing in the sale section of my local independent bookshop for just £1.99. A bargain if I ever saw one! I’ll be sure to let you know my thoughts once I’ve finished it.

How To Be A Woman

Continuing the cultural theme I’ve seen no less than two amateur dramatic productions whilst on holiday and have thoroughly enjoyed them both. There’s nothing like the excitement of watching enthusiastic performers burst into an infectious song as the lights go down and the sheer amount of time and energy that go into such performances is unbelievable. In my opinion live theatre can never be overrated – be it in the West End or a Church hall. I had the pleasure of attending one such production last night and even now I’m still singing the repeated two lines of the title song! As regards to events happening further afield I’ve been keeping up with all the goings on at the Edinburgh Literary Festival (follow them here on Twitter and try taking part in their daily #UnboundEd challenge) and have promised myself that one day I will be there – definitely as a paying spectator but one can dream of frequenting it as an author/writer!

The BBC have produced some excellent television over the past month or two including The Hour (lengthier post about that here) and Page Eight. I was delighted to read (in The Guardian I think) that The Hour has been recommissioned for a second six-part series next year in which Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West will all reappear. You can read all about it yourselves on the BBC Press Office site .

Freddie and Bel - The Hour

In other news I got to have a play with a Canon 500d the other day and was instantly hooked. I’m really hoping to acquire a DSLR in the near future so if anyone has any suggestions I’d be really grateful if you could leave a comment. I marked the end of Summer with the purchase of a knitted aran cardigan from an independent woollen jumper shop. It’s made from plum coloured aran wool with lots of cable knit pattern and I absolutely cannot wait to wear it. Oh and in case anyone was wondering, I checked with the shop-seller where the garments were all made and she told me that they are all sent from the factory in Leicester where they are made, a fact which I later double checked on the website. New, unworn, ethically made, guilt free clothes. Why can’t they all be like that?

Transition

Like all good things, the Summer of 2011 seems to be flashing by at an alarming rate. Already the shops are encouraging the back to school rush and everyone’s coming round to sinking back into their regular routines after the hype of the holidays becomes a happy, if distant memory. Summer can never last forever, much as we might want it to, but the earth keeps on turning and the heat of the summer blends into the cooler temperature of Autumn, with its leaves of red and gold and the feeling of standing on a precipice where the harshness, but also, the beauty of Winter lies beneath. Too often I think people wish Autumn away – longing for the festivities of Christmas, which, like Summer, are always over much too quickly – with only the dim lights of Easter acting as a form of a marker. It seems to be these times of bank holidays when the country gets a much-needed, if rather brief, breather from the pressures of work that people set their clocks by, or, I suppose, their Blackberry calendars.

It has become a part of our culture to always be in preparation for and looking forward to some big event – Christmas, Easter, the Summer holidays, a family wedding. We seem to crave these kind of events so that they may act as a marker in our year. Imagine if, at the end of every year, you sent out a newsletter to all of your friends and family you didn’t see very often to give them a round-up of your year. What would you mention? Special events of course. The activities that immediately jump out at you when you try to sum up your year. But why do we do it? Probably because it is the special events that we planned for and looked forward to that we can remember the most. Not the first day we could see our own breath in the air or when, walking along, our boots crunched over fallen leaves of red and gold. This year I want to enjoy Autumn – embrace it, lose myself in it.

With regards to getting dressed in the morning Autumn is most definitely my favourite season. Comfortable, practical Winter woollies in bright colours save us from the awkwardness of dressing in flimsy dresses and sandals in August even though it’s cold, wet and certainly not sunny. Out come the leather boots, the cosy cardigans, the cable knit tights and the hats, gloves and scarves. Unlike the rest of the year, the weather we are expecting usually falls into place between September and November. Cold, rain, wind. If the sun does happen to mistake his calendar and make an appearance it’s a pleasant surprise. Although the Autumn months in Britain are beautiful, I have always been mesmerised by shots of ‘Fall’ in New England in the United States. The colour of the trees and the leaves appear so timelessly beautiful and making a road trip through the states of New England in the autumn months is definitely on my ‘to do’ list for the future. Living with the UK weather may have its disadvantages (i.e. little or no sun in the summer months) but I wouldn’t swap it to live summer where there is no discernible change in the seasons. The weather and temperature they bring is what we set our clocks by and it gives something to talk about here in old England.

This summer for instance, I’ve seen some brilliant sunsets that have taken my breath away. On a three-hour train journey on Wednesday evening the train reached the crest of a moderately steep slope, and, as we emerged from the trees which screened us and the track from the rest of the world, the golden sunset blazed before me. Sitting alone in an empty carriage with my headphones on and my iPod in I felt utterly relaxed – like I was giving Summer a proper send-off, on my own, sometime between eight and half-past on that Wednesday evening. It is the little things – like the sunset – that prove to me that it is the simple pleasures in life that are the very best. The old adage “the best things in life are free” really does ring true.

Transition can relate any number of things – changing from one state to another, be it house, school, job, city or just moving on in life. I have always viewed September as a fresh start – here’s to the new beginnings. The image at the top of the page is a poster to mark President Obama’s presidential election campaign and I have it blue-tacked up onto the wall of my room. Why? Because it’s inspirational. Because we need change.