FT Life and Arts: On why Oxford should never change

How dare they? Oxford is my hometown; I love it. No, I hate it. Most importantly, I know it. But I never gave permission for it to change.

All families, all towns are weird but Oxford, perhaps, is a little weirder. Sweaty freshers and Japanese tourists may admire the ancient sandstone and crumbling professors but, to those of us who grew up there on the fine line between Town and Gown, the children of scruffy academics and their irritated wives, our little city’s strangeness was invisible. We were too worried about combination skin to register the bonkers Victorian Gothic architecture, the Fair-Isle brickwork that surrounded us. Which college was which? Who cared, when one was engaged with perfectly normal childhood pursuits: wondering how to find a husband the equal of John Keats and translating Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” into Ancient Greek.

It was only when I moved away that I began to glimpse Oxford’s magnificent silliness. Others admired the filigree bridges; maybe I should too. But it’s hard not to hate the place one has escaped from: all those mumbling male geniuses too clever to reproduce, the squalid studies, the vomiting gargoyles, the misogyny and privileged angst. When I visited my family, they were still furious about parking. Everything remained the same. That was its job.

Then visiting Spanish writers said they fancied an afternoon in Oxford. What if they were robbed by punt-touts? “I know,” I said, with infinite graciousness. “I’ll take you myself.”

The route through the Chilterns is beautiful, in a mild-mannered way. “Look! Look!” I kept insisting, gesturing at the filthy train window. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It is . . . pretty,” they agreed, scrolling through Instagram. A fierce protectiveness took hold of me; I recalled that Oxford is the 52nd largest city in Britain, and felt a rush of native pride. Never mind; the dreaming spires would knock their spoilt Castilian socks off. I was craning my neck after Slough; where were the spires? I spotted the ice-rink, the shopping centre: wait, what’s that?

It was only the pointlessly ugly copper ziggurat of the Saïd Business School. Still, one can’t look a gift billionaire Saudi arms dealer in the mouth; it was a spire, wasn’t it? The Spaniards smiled politely.

I led them proudly along the spectacularly crumbly wall of Worcester College (“Oxfordshire limestone”) and up Beaumont Street. This, at least, I knew about.

“It’s, um, 18th-century,” I explained. “And this is the Ashmolean. It’s . . . much better than it used to be.”

“How old?”

“Oh, probably 18th century. And there’s the Martyrs’ memorial . . . ”

“Martyrs to what?”

“Catholic. To the Queen. Or no, that was . . . I think it was Cranmer. Hang on . . . ”

“Please,” they said, “can we see Bodleian’s Library?”

“Fine, although there’s so much else to see first.”

But Oxford had changed. Balliol College seemed to have moved; the cabbies’ shelter had turned into a falafel stand. A lifetime ago I knew the St John’s porters, played with their children at staff Christmas parties; their heirs, in their new glassy lodge, were unwilling to let us through. Oxford is a collection of tiny fiefdoms; every porter, or Chattels Fellow, or Middle Common Room Treasurer, has the final word on their small domain.

Having grown up here, I instinctively knew how to work it: big smile, rude comment about a rival college, air of rampant entitlement and you’re in. Even here, though, the landmarks I remembered so clearly — the mulberry tree we plundered every year, the perfect circular lawn — had shifted. They were building a new library. What was the point? Everything was perfect as it was.

Yet nothing was as it should be. Where exactly was the Bodleian, again? Did it actually exist, or was it more of a concept, like the university itself? We ventured into Magdalen for the spectacular Harry Potter staircase, before I remembered it was in Christ Church. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s not that impressive. Look, there’s the Deer Park. Maybe. Wow, a boat!”

“Is this the Thames?”

“I don’t . . . think so. Anyway. Listen to the birds. And church bells! So peaceful.”

They pretended to admire the chiming, over the perpetual rumble of building machinery. Everywhere was expanding or renovating. I couldn’t remember the names of half the colleges but could spot redevelopment a mile off: “a fudge shop on the Broad? Bloody hell!” There were still the long-legged posh girls and mulleted boy-nerds. Placards offering every conceivable classical-music combination still lined the walls: the Oxford equivalent of prostitutes’ phone-box cards. But Blackwell’s, my safe space, my emotional-support bookshop, now contained a coffee shop, and a range of amusing pencil cases. New College’s smart refurbished kitchens smelled as cabbagey as the old; white-bread ham sandwiches lay under clingfilm as before.

Meanwhile, the academics were revolting. Indeed. Personally, faced with the finest minds of their generation, in their mossy gowns and frightening sideburns, I’d give them whatever they demanded. By the middle of the week it seemed that their fury at proposed pension downgrades, expressed at a meeting of Congregation in the Sheldonian Theatre and probably in perfect Aramaic, would defeat the vice-chancellor. How exciting: the dons are flowing unquietly at last. Would that they succeed.

Back on the train to Paddington, I longed for the only possible cure for musty WASP privilege: Asian food. Oxford can manage Thai, even a bit of Japanese, but there is a limit; the dons aren’t ready for bibimbap. No, even Korean felt too familiar. I needed something still more gastronomically avant-garde: Taiwanese or Shaanxi Chinese. “New restaurants 2018”, I googled. No: “March 2018”; give me the edge of the cutting edge. I needed space-food; the shock of the new. There is definitely still overpriced honey for tea on St Aldgate’s but in London, apparently, it’s all about pandan leaves and tofurkey. Dear weird Oxford; don’t ever change. That’s what London was invented for.