Oxford Blue: Godchecker goes to university

One man’s quest for a reasonably-priced tome

In his quest for knowledge and wisdom, Chas, our Godchecker-in-Chief, has been to Oxford. Here is his report:

The dreaming spires must be sulking. The old Oxford buildings are of course magnificent, but nothing added after the 19th Century is of any merit at all. The scruffy high streets are full of tatty tail-end outlets with their plastic logos. McDonalds, Kwik-Print, Boots, Barclays, Woolworths and the like. Nothing with any character or individuality. The grandeur is sadly lacking.

I prowled with the camera. Most of the college gates were closed to visitors, so it was very much an outside prowl. And not much use without a zoom lens. I got a crick in the neck from gazing upwards to avoid all the scruffy plastic. I should have taken binoculars.

Ah… Oxford, home of Oxfam, the famous charity store chain. There must be a charity store here. Well, apart from a slicked-up one with mostly new stuff, I tracked down the Oxfam Bookshop. Old paperbacks from £3. Then first editions. First editions in a charity shop? Prices to make one shudder. All labelled and catalogued like a library. Two haughty old dears looked on with stern disapproval. They were probably ex-chief librarians. Drop a book and they might charge you for breaking the silence.

The case of the Missing Culture

There must be decent book stores in Oxford. But I couldn’t find them. Waterstones, yes. WH Smith, yes. Secondhand books? Forget it. Just a solitary antiquarian bookseller with price tags beyond the reach of sanity. And mostly ecclesiastical tomes. The prices turn one white with fright.

But surely there are happy undergraduates, full of cheer and chatter? Wrong again. Pale, thin and scruffy. All the girls have stringy hair, pimples and clothes that you’d be happy to store your waste paper in. There is little integration with the male students who are weedy, scruffy and talk in hushed-over cultivated voices. They don’t bustle. More a bemused drift.

Do they drink in the pubs? Well, not on a Tuesday lunchtime. It seems nobody does. Even the (few) historic pubs were scruffy, run-down and hardly functioning. From an old pub guide I chose a backstreet annexe called The Turl. It was empty. Utterly. In a little courtyard outside an old couple twittered in tones of scholarly correctness. I sat outside with half a pint and started twittering myself.

“So I returned with exactly what I took: A camera, a bag, and a map.”

Ah yes.. the map. Before the trip I found a rather good map in an old guide book pinpointing all the historic buildings. Had it scanned and blown up to A3 size. Around 3:30 I started to wend my uncertain way back to the coach, which was due to leave at 4:00. Not sure of the direction, I opened up the map and a great gust of wind whipped it away down the street.

I hurtled after it shouting “Stop it! Stop it!” to startled passers-by. They looked at me with open mouths, totally ignoring the poster-sized sheet of paper whistling past them. One woman found it wrapped around her legs, leapt back in alarm, stamped all over it and ran off with a cry. So off it went again.

Dear oh me, I can’t run much faster at this speed. Just within reach… no. A final flip and it goes under the front wheels of a moving bus. I gave up. But the wind didn’t, and with a final flourish it whisked the map back into the air. With a frenzied one-handed leap I caught it. Gasping more than somewhat, I turned back to see a line of people all looking over their shoulders, walking away from me as fast as they could.

Why is it I can never travel anywhere without some crisis involving an assault course?

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