Monday, 1 August 2016

A Brazen Soul

If you're here for Blaugust, you've come to the right place, but if you're here to get the lowdown on video games, I'm really not your guy. The Leaflocker strays into video game territory now and then, but we tend to march to our own drum. Since you're here, I hope you enjoy the rhythm.

For almost a year now, I’ve lived here in the dreamy tourist town of Oxford, and I figure that it’s just about time that I actually get around to doing some of the touristy blogging that I’ve been promising folks back home that I would get around to doing eventually. This feels a little weird, as I’ve been here so long that I don’t feel like a tourist any more, or at least I don’t block traffic like all those naughty tourists out there in the square frustrating the locals. In a sense Oxford is the sort of town that just has SO much history that even people who’ve lived their whole lives must feel like they’re just skimming the surface on a quick visit, so maybe we’re all tourists, and I figure that until I’ve done a good bit of poking about, at least in most of the colleges and museums and things, a duty that I’ve been a little lax in fulfilling, then I definitely have a licence to do the tourist blogging for a little longer.
Brasenose Old Quad - with some humans messing up the view
It seems appropriate to start with my own college of Brasenose, for two reasons. One is that being a member of the college I don’t feel that awkward sense of the embarrassment of being an outsider whenever I raise my camera inside college grounds, meaning that it’s one of the few Oxford locations where I’ve actually taken half-decent photographs (though I was able to find worrying few when compiling this). The second reason is that it seems timely to offer up this post as a sort of tribute, as this weekend I bid a fond farewell to my dear friend Charles, kindred spirit and our Brasenose mentor, who to my mind invokes the very essence of the college. Charles isn’t dead or anything, but he’s going down to take up a Ph.D. at Cambridge, something any Oxonian (and Charles himself, at least prior to drinking the punch presumably spiked by errant Cantabrigians) would gleefully tell you is a fate worse than death.

That’s one of the wonderful things about Oxford. It’s exactly what you expect. In the rarefied air of Oxford, the Harry Potterisms, quaint traditions, senseless rivalries and genteel snobbery pervade everything, but Oxonians are refreshingly honest and open about them. They’ll disparage their fellows ‘from some insignificant place North-west of here’, but drudgingly admit that at least they’re better than, well, anyone else - the poor souls just weren’t fortunate enough to come up to Oxford. They wouldn’t dream of getting rid of sub-fusc, the strange gowns-and-bow-ties uniform of the middle ages that students gladly pull on for any and all formal occasions, including exams, because that’s how it’s always been done. In many ways, Oxford and the Oxford student, particularly classicists like Charles, are the champion of a bygone age. Not to say it hasn’t played a critical part in progressive thought over the centuries, that is what education is all about, after all, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Oxford was already a flourishing town at the time of the Norman Invasion (that’s 1066 AD, for those playing along from home). Thanks to some handy concessions, it quickly became a centre of scholarship. Hundreds of small academic halls sprung up to house and educate the ‘poor and indigent’ scholars. Some of these residential halls were more successful than others, and Brasenose Hall slowly grew, and grew, and took over their neighbours so that they had more space to store all those irritating student types that kept showing up. As much as Charles would insist that the real glory days of Brittania ended when the Romans left, the period following the Norman invasion really was a period of great population growth and improvement of the quality of life in England, and Oxford's handy location put it in a great position to take advantage.

Brasenose Hall - the knocker is just under the portrait of the bishop
Named Brasenose after their distinctive brass doorknocker, the Hall even survived some of their students walking out in the mid-14th century and stealing the doorknocker away to start their own rival Brasenose Hall in Lincolnshire (one can only assume they it allowed blackjack and hookers, the sorts of things that conservative Oxford would have frowned upon). Brasenose has a long memory, though, and when their rival Hall went up for sale more than 500 years later, the college bought the property just to regain the doorknocker, which now sits in pride of place above the Principal’s chair in the college hall. It doesn’t do anything, it’s just there. Personally, I think for a place with as many time-honoured traditions as the ‘Nose, there really ought to be some kind of knocking ceremony, but maybe I’m just not invited to the right sort of parties.

Though Brasenose had been around for a while, it only officially became a College with a capital C when it received its royal charter in 1509, 13th among the 44 colleges and halls still in existence today. It had a reputation for traditionalist values from the very beginning, being dominated by Catholics during the Reformation (six of the fellows were executed and many more dismissed for their papist tendencies) for, the Cavaliers during the Civil War. (the royalist principal of the time locking himself in his lodgings and continuing to direct the affairs of the college despite a new principal with more politically fashionable views being appointed), and the Jacobites during the reign of George I (stirring up riots in Oxford - students never change, do they?). Back in the day, the scholars would mostly have studied theology, but as the middle-ages wore on and Europeans rediscovered the Latin and Greek authors, classical studies (or ‘real studies’ as Charles would say), became more common. Later still, the sciences started bring studied to, but as undoubtedly our good friend would say that that’s when the rot set in, we’ll not mention them further.

New Quad and the college chapel - courtesy of  Fran because my photos suck
The Brasenose that you can see today is clearly the product of this historical identity. The Old Quad was finished in the 17th century, built in a period of booming student numbers, stands on the site of the original halls, and the oldest and grandest of the rooms in the college, including the original library (now creatively called the Old Library) and the Hall date from this period. After that, the college expanded upwards, adding a second, and eventually a third level to the quad to accommodate students when financial woes would have made the addition of new buildings or the acquisition of new grounds prohibitively expensive. As you might imagine, this means that student rooms (or sets, because apparently students are badgers?) are pretty various in size and quality, some of the nice ones like the fancy one Charles is always bragging about, are bigger than our two-bedroom apartment and come with all the mod-cons, and some people kind of miss out. But hey, at least they get a bed, I guess. During a period of puritan tastes the decidedly extravagant Chapel was erected, the dignified Oxford principal’s equivalent of blowing a great big raspberry at the current government. I’m sure there are interesting stories to tell about the erection of the New Quad at the turn of the 20th century, but as that’s the domain of undergraduates I don’t tend to venture over to that side of the college.

Brasenostrils (yes, that’s the official term) haven’t always been old-sticks-in-the-mud, though. We were also one of the first colleges to admit female students in a tradition that had only enrolled men for the preceding 700 years, which can’t have been an easy step for anybody involved in a place that takes its traditions so seriously. As to traditions, well, there are some corkers, but I think it’s probably best to leave them to the posts of their own that they so richly deserve and simply say that you’re in for a treat if I ever get around to writing about the Ale Verses or Ascension Day. These traditions are lovingly handed down amongst students from age to age, and the stories naturally conflate with the telling to such an extent that it’s hard to know what’s true and what’s not, but it does make for some wonderfully strange rituals.

All this combines to make a humble, egalitarian place of learning where we’ve felt very much at home since first arriving in Oxford, not the sort of inaccessibly formal place that I was expecting before I came. Yes, I can’t help but be constantly struck by the reserved, dignified, almost ethereal beauty of the place, and the absurd stuffiness of some of the rules is simply infuriating, but the college is undoubtedly our home-away-from-home, a place to relax, drink pots of tea and shoot the breeze with the fellow students that have become our treasured family while we feel so isolated from our folks back home in Australia. Charles, with his anecdotes about Roman legionaries and Aristophanes fart jokes, wasn’t the first person to make us feel at home here, and I’m sure he won’t be the last, but I can’t help but feel that there’ll be a little part of Brasenose that will always be missing for me from this point forwards.

At least he’s an alumnus now, so he’s sure to come back now and then if only to sample the generous meals the college regularly puts on for Old Brasenostrils. I hope the next one is soon, I miss him already.

Blaugust writing prompts for those who need a little prodding:
1) What has changed about your life in the last year?
2) Have you ever met someone and just known that they were a kindred spirit?
3) What have you learnt about your local area lately?

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