-John Henry dips a toe into the warm waters of the Isis and Cherwell
I once found, whilst strolling in Christchurch Meadow, a scrap of cardboard about the size of a playing card, lying discarded upon the gravel. On one side had been drawn in pencil a caricature of an unshaven man in a ducal coronet, on the other was written; Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo. I recognised the Catullus quote, if not the identity of his Lordship. I was struck, though, less by the curiosity of this item as by the incidence of its lying unwanted on the path. It’s always possible that it was a part of some private joke, discarded by accident. But it seems a little more likely to me that it was dropped on purpose, with the precise intention of confusing whomsoever came across it. Oxonians have a bizarre sense of humour.
Oxford has produced some of the finest cultural achievements in the history of British art. Since the early days, she has not been decorated by the highest garlands of academe alone, the laurels of beauty too are draped across her domes and steeples. The spirit that inspired Campion to martyrdom, and Wilde and the aesthetes after him to further degrees of sensation and experience, is very much alive. There is something of sensation that one could be forgiven for describing as very intensely magical in those honey-coloured stones.
Nemesis to diligent, republican, protestant Cambridge, Oxford has long been known to possess a deep loyalty towards all things decadent and aesthetic and to harbour all manner of heresies to the values of the establishment. Oxford’s students tend to be shorter, slower, and deeper than Cambridge’s, more prone to laughter or to tears, more lazy and philosophic in their manner. Thomas Hardy had Oxford form the north-eastern corner of Wessex, and it’s oft been observed that Oxford people incline towards the Celtic West-country type, whereas those attracted to Cambridge are usually tall, serious and waspish.
All that can be said of Oxford’s students can also be said of her natives, except with more surety. Those fortunate enough to have lived all their lives beneath the dreaming spires are a class apart from the rest of the English. A true Oxonian is far more likely to be an artist, to be unstable, to be a Roman Catholic, to be a homosexual, to be an intellectual, and to be proud of one or more of these attributes than his fellow countrymen. He is also far less interested in conventional politics.
For such a diminutive city, Oxford has a marvellously disproportionate number of creative outlets. She also has a fabulous quantity of venues which allow comparatively unwashed home-grown talent to burst out of the box. Pubs such as Port Mahon in Cowley, the admittedly plebeian Wheat Sheaf on the High, and the Jericho Tavern in… well, Jericho (where Radiohead, Supergrass, and Camena all played their first gigs) always manage to provide a lot more than your average regional music scene.
Aside, perhaps, from Edinburgh, Oxford is certainly the best place to go for student and indie theatre. Creation Theatre continue to put on spectacular performances on floss-thin budgets. And the opening up of Blackwell’s basement to the players has created one of the most enterprising and symbolically powerful performance spaces in the country. Add to this Oxford’s own modern art gallery (itself an occasional music venue), and you may come to understand why her residents view this city as the most exciting in the whole of our fair Kingdom. Everything one ought to expect to find in London, one finds here. And Oxonians are not particularly bothered that the chatterers don’t mention that fact. There are enough tourists in Oxford as it is!
There is no single culture of expression in Oxford, no one scene. Movements blossom out of nowhere all the time, making a tremendous and energetic show of life as they grow, and then quickly withering to be replaced by the next big thing. However, it does seem that the current crop of young artists in the Oxford area are a little more motivated than the average generation of dreamers. It is useful that everyone seems to know each other; there are certainly no more than three degrees of separation anywhere in Oxfordshire. And while it may be premature to claim to see a united front presented by the various underground artists developing as I write this, there is an exciting feeling afoot that a good deal can be achieved by artists working in concert.
Oxford has no major poetry publications. Her poetry scene is beatnik at best. But this has allowed her wordsmiths to become hardened and indifferent to the pitfalls of success in the wider critical world. This is one reason Oxford still has it’s own distinct slang and accent (imagine getting on a bus at Clarence House and driving almost all the way to Bristol…). It is also why Oxford has failed for decades to truly affect the culture of the rest of the country (Foals, anyone?). She has long been insular and used to talking to herself, and if this generation intend to make a difference, it is time they allow their pride in their Oxonian identity to propel them towards the big cities elsewhere so that this very worthy vine may begin to show forth its fruit. Otherwise, people like me will just have to keep banging on about it all.