Plodges, pidges and battels: how to learn the oh-so Oxford ropes
0th Week (pronounced 'noughth week' – an Oxford oddity)
MY world has suddenly turned into Brideshead Revisited or an episode of Lewis. After some tricky traffic negotiation in a cyclist-dominated city, found Pembroke and was helped to my room by friendly pink-clad second years. Pink, I discovered, is Pembroke's colour. Milled around the beautiful flower-filled quads in the sunshine.
The master's wife gave us a tour of the college, which included the room where J.R.R. Tolkien penned his books. Exchanged tearful goodbyes with family and carried on mingling. A pub quiz at The Blenheim was a brilliant ice-breaker where I met all the visiting American students, followed by clubbing in beach costumes.
Drinks, followed by a meal with our tutors. Spent morning buying gowns (yes, gowns) and mortar boards. We have to wear gowns to hall (Oxford language for dinner) three times a week with 'sub-fusc' – black skirt or trousers, black tights and shoes and white blouse. I watched the procession of students going into the hall with the Harry Potter theme tune running through my head. Latin grace among candles and 400-year-old portraits. Giggled nervously and spent rest of evening avoiding eye-contact. Got engaged in a conversation about classism with a northern girl and a public-school boy; sociologists would have a field day in this place.
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Introductory lecture today at the Exam Schools, where come summer we'll all be sweating over 'mods' (more Oxford lingo for end of year exams). Subject was Jane Eyre, one of my favourites. Pleased to discover lecturer echoed my own views. Unfortunately it was a trick lecture inspired largely by the kind of 'tired cliches which usually crop up in first years' essays'. Whoops.
Tutorial: Where the Oxford teaching system differs most from other unis; instead of a classroom group shown into what appeared to be someone's living room in Old Quad, sank down into a plush sofa and discussed Dickens with tutor and my one tutorial partner over tea and biscuits. Nowhere to hide. Tutor proved to be wonderfully friendly in spite of my garbled answers and frightened silences and I left feeling positive, if overwhelmed.
Matriculation day: Now officially a student of Oxford University. Champagne breakfast (student organised, so it consisted of cheap cava and toast) followed by photos. General panic over confusing art of tying a bow tie, or in the girls' case a strange little black velvet ribbon, and how to arrange the flaps on our gowns.
We were informed that if caught wearing the mortar boards we would face a £60 fine (we are only supposed to carry them with us until we graduate). Lined us up in height order – interesting to think this will be the photo they show on the news if a future politician from my college ends up involved in a scandal.
We became a veritable tourist attraction as we stood outside the Sheldonian theatre. Matriculation ceremony included speech with a joke about bankers. A few uncomfortable faces marked out the future bankers/bankers' children who found the quip too close to the bone. Spent rest of day drinking Pimms in Christchurch meadows in a strange parody of ourselves; this is the Oxford of myth and legend, not the day to day reality.
Learning old English. Expected it to be slightly more difficult than Chaucer but if anything it's closer to German. No idea how I am supposed to write essays on a language I can't speak.
Tutor is very intelligent but a little odd. She concluded our lesson by smilingly saying 'You will cry during this course. Quite a lot. Hahahahahaha!' So, an inspiring genius, but quite an intimidating one.
Homesick. Burst into tears over eggy bagel. Possibly to do with sleep deprivation; was sorted out by a biscuit and hot chocolate session in my room with the girls in my corridor. The workload is very, very heavy; typical week involves two essays of around 3,000 words and the reading takes a long time. Social side is not sacrificed but am averaging about four hours' sleep a night and have had a heavy cold since the end of freshers week.
I have finally become able to use Oxford language without irony. The porters' lodge is 'the plodge' dinner is 'hall', the cleaners are called 'scouts' (and they are shockingly underpaid), the exams at the start of term are 'collections', our pigeon holes for post are 'pidges'. 'Rustication' is the term for a disciplinary action which involves being sent away for a year. It has already happened this term to someone who replied to an email from his tutor asking 'Why don't you do more work?' with 'Why don't you **** off?'.
'Bop' means a college organised party, usually in fancy dress. We had one themed 'pmb', our Pembroke College initials, which was a slightly odd theme but resulted in fantastic costumes: a Poorly Made Bear, a Pack of Meat Balls, Paul McCartney's Bane (a Heather Mills mask). I donned a tutu, drew on half a moustache and went as a Partially Male Ballerina.
'Battels' is essentially an ongoing tab for dinners and events, that get billed to us at the end of term. It feels like Monopoly money. There are also copious fines for anything from running across the quad naked (a standard forfeit for losing badly at pool or table tennis) to leaving your bike locked up against a tree (a genuine punishable act in Pembroke). The heftiest fine, however, is the £500 for tampering with smoke alarms.
At the Balliol College bar I tried a frightening fluorescent concoction called the Balliol blue. I met a boy named Diego, though it came out 'Jeygu' with his private school accent, from Christchurch, the rich tourist-popular college and fierce rival to Pembroke. My family came to visit. I won't have time to go home; the work is too heavy to miss a weekend of library time. We went to college bar, run by 80-year-old 'Len'.
Fourth week blues hit me hard due to having a Victorian essay and an old English essay to hand in within two days of each other, plus a presentation on aestheticism. Much chocolate consumed. But it culminated in a really lovely Bonfire Night display and a giant burning effigy for which the American students teased us on account of our British paganism.
I am in a play, Antony and Cleopatra, and today was our final dress rehearsal. What we were not told was that it would last for 18 hours, which I'm fairly certain is a breach of basic human rights; I went roughly ten hours without food. There was no mobile phone signal in the theatre, which the director refused to let us leave. I returned to a frantic group of girls who had spent the evening convinced I was dead. Felt awful for causing so much distress, but rather moved at how much they care.
The play is giving me exhausted emotional energy. This week's reading list is particularly interesting and I get to rant about social issues in one of the essays. I even managed to go to a late night amateur ice-hockey session. Unfortunately, as they caught me on the way back from a performance I had to skate around in full stage make-up and a cocktail dress which I had run to the theatre in after attending a drinks evening at the house of the college Master. My friends all came to see the play at different points throughout the week. I was giddy with the stage rush as we took down the set and headed off to the cast party; a haze of wine and in-jokes which lasted till the wee hours. Between work, and socialising, I feel I may never sleep again.
The majority of Pembrokians are from private school, which is a strange thing to get used to, and coming from a very multicultural school it's strange to see so few ethnic minorities. Even anyone who lives outside London is a fairly rare specimen. But in other colleges the true extent of wealth and privilege is becoming apparent. I met a boy from Brasenose College (Tory PM factory and David Cameron's old college) who attended St Paul's, one of the most expensive public schools in the country, yet he still felt that he was on the lower end of the financial spectrum in his college.
Woke up on Sunday morning with no clue how I got to bed, asking myself such questions as 'How did I get back to college?' and 'Why is there a tray of crispy cakes on my floor?' Last night was a rugby organised university-wide party where the drinks are free all night. About ten people in the college were fined heavily for drunken behaviour, and one girl broke her arm. But we simply have to shake it off and get on with essays this morning; such is Oxford life.
Went to my first ball. It was the 'rag' ball, rag being the term for any charity fundraising efforts, and also the cheapest ball of the year at £60. The theme was the Great Exhibition, and it was a night of pure decadence. Chocolate fountains, an ice-room with a vodka luge, an ice-cream parlour, a wine-fountain, a 'silent' disco – this was the most fun I've ever had for charity.
8th Week (final week of term!)
Saw a student production of Laura Wade's controversial 2010 play Posh, which grimly mocks and exposes 'gentleman's dining societies' such as the Bullingdon club, to which David Cameron and Boris Johnson belonged. Many people in the audience looked uncomfortable. The production team apparently invited the Prime Minister to come along, but he declined.
Pembroke's 'Oxmas' meal and bop, an early celebration because we break up so early. Fantastic, a Christmas dinner dressed in a strange combination of black-tie and tinsel. Later in the week, the final Pembroke celebration of the year: three third-years dress up as the wise men and we parade, as a college, through the streets of Oxford singing carols. I feel at home here now, but am looking forward to a rest.
It's interesting looking over this diary after two more terms at Oxford. There is still a touch of the excited sixth-former about my writing style, not to mention a few too many adverbs. That's a habit my tutors were keen to iron out. Since writing this diary I've spent another 16 weeks in Oxford. I've been to two more balls, performed in a garden play, taken up rowing, read countless books, written countless essays, and sat my end of year exams.
Oxford retains its surreal aspects. For example, the captain of my college rowing club is a Miss Redgrave, daughter of Sir Steve. Watching the Olympics I was able to think back fondly to the time I ordered a burger within earshot of him at the rowing barbecue.
However, after a full year, most of it becomes part of daily life. You walk right past the medieval buildings while tourists pause to take them in. Every essay is just another essay rather than a stressful ordeal. Friends continue to support you, make you smile, cry, laugh.
Things do progress, though Oxford seems set in stone. The 'sub-fusc' costume I mentioned has seen radical reform after calls for gender equality. As a woman, I am no longer limited to a skirt and dodgy neck-ribbon. I can now sport a suit and bow-tie in exams if I so choose. The 'scouts' at Pembroke will soon receive a living wage after ceaseless student campaigning. And I will go through two more years of academic ups and downs, emotional highs and lows, and finally; finals. But I think I will be a stronger, certainly more knowledgeable person than I am now.
State school students applying to Oxford; this path isn't the easiest one, but it's well worth it. There will always be wonderful people to befriend, and wonderful experiences to be had. If there's one thing I've learned, it's not to be afraid of Oxford. It doesn't bite.