Monday, 15 August 2016

Not Such a Good Pun After All

Oxford colleges are generally closed to the public, presumably because if they weren't then the students would never get any actual study done. As it is, we often feel like zoo animals as the occasional paid tour group wanders through, taking photos of us drinking tea and playing croquet and the like (the joke is on them of course, as I am not a student and their photos of the Oxonian student experience are thus corrupted).

Every now and then, generally during holidays, some colleges throw open their doors and let the great unwashed in to look around for free, so back in January (remember, January is winter, which is why I'm wearing my beanie) Mrs. Owl and I went to do the tourist thing and have a look around the venerable old Magdalen College, which is one of the 'tourist colleges' that people at home had suggested that we avoid signing up for, along with Christchurch, because pushing your way through crowds to get to your lectures and having to deal with porters in bowler hats is an irritating way to live your life.

It's easy to see why Magdalen is a popular place with the tourists. Even if it didn't have the extra street cred of having had CS Lewis (and let us not forget, our own Malcolm Fraser) amongst its alumni, Magdalen is obviously an institution that has had far too much money for far too long, and hasn't been afraid of using it to beautify the place. The college is littered with pieces of art new and old, and most notably, many of the buildings are dotted with gargoyles many and various, which would be a fascinating subject of study for someone with a lot of time (in fact, by the mid-17th century the meaning of many of them had been lost, and the principal at the time ordered such a study, which is apparently a good read, if you read Latin).

The college tower is the tallest building in Oxford (though not in the best location, an honour that goes to the Engineering Department), and has a special place at the heart of the annual Oxford May Morning traditions, which involve the singing of suggestively bawdy folk songs (as if there's any other kind) from its rooftop. The gargoyles decorating this one apparently depict staff and students as well as the building contractors that restored it in the 70's (a common theme in gargoyles, also visible above the High Street entrance to Brasenose).

A series of interconnected quads display the classic Oxford tradition of building with no particular thought to the future, but also to the resourcefulness of a series of college administrators, resulting in strange dark passages, impractically narrow and steep staircases ascending into old roof-spaces converted into student sets (have I talked about 'sets' yet?). Even access to the dining hall (sadly closed to visitors) is via one of these strange staircases.

In the finest tradition of the churches being the stodgiest places around, there's no cameras allowed in the chapel, of course, but it was pretty darn fancy. Not quite the most impressive of the Oxford chapels (for my money that honour goes to New College if you ignore Christchurch, who are totally cheating), but certainly more than a bit posh, with a graceful taste that is not displayed in the decor choices of some (cough, cough, Brasenose, cough), and with a shape that suggests wonderful acoustics, though I refrained from shouting to test them out because I am a good rule-abiding young man, and besides, the porter was watching like a hawk. Up high on the wall in the ante-chapel (so high that Mrs. Owl missed it completely) is a full-size (3x8m) replica of Leonardo's Last Supper of unknown provenance but at least 400 years old, just in case it's ever needed.

Set back from the rest of the college is another building (creatively called the New Building) that mostly hosts fellows rooms, originally designed as the first side of yet another quad, but it's quite nice by itself, even if the open nature of it makes it feel, dare I say it, a bit Cantabrigian. But hey, it makes for nice photos, an attribute that in our rush to see all of the college we failed to take full advantage of.

Then to the gardens. There's a long path around an extensive meadow up to the River Cherwell, that also passes by the Magdalen Grove (allegedly Brasenose's small courtyard is called Deer Park in imitation of this feature, though ours (until recently, anyways) has a plastic flamingo instead of Magdalen's famous herd of deer). Cross a bridge and you're into the Fellows garden, a meandering walk down the Cherwell (the local punting river, since the Isis is dominated by rowers) down to University Parks.

Finally, no post about Magdalen could be complete with out mentioning the pronunciation. As specified in the founding documents, the college (named after Mary Magdalen) is pronounced the old English way 'mawd-lyn' instead of the fancy newfangled French-influcence 'mag-dal-in'. This means it sounds like 'maudlin', that feeling of students following exams, which I'm sure would be a hilarious pun if it weren't for the fact that the two have the same root and the word maudlin actually comes from the attitude of Mary at Jesus' tomb, the realisation of which makes it less funny and more one of those moments where you accidentally learn something. There is a 'mag-dal-in' Street in town, but for the most part, Oxford people pronounce all the Magdaleny things (there are a few: the college, schools, the road I work on...) as 'mawd-lyn', and learning to do so is one of the shibboleths that we all learn quickly after coming up.

All in all, it was a most agreeable day out. And our jealousy only lasted until we remembered that the students here are bothered by nosy parkers like up every day of the year. Well, maybe a little longer, but for all the living-in-a-shoebox feel of it, I don't think I'd trade the friendliness of our Brasenose family for living in the beautiful, spacious surrounds of Magdalen. It feels like too much of a gentleman's college, whereas we're definitely more the 'poor and indigent students' type.

Blaugust Writing Prompts
1) Have you accidentally learned anything lately?
2) When picking a home, what are your priorities?
3) If you could own a full-size replica of any work of art, which would it be?

1 comment:

Mark said...

Porters in bowler hats? Deer that are not to be fed? I can indeed see why it was not to be chosen!