Jan Morris

Oxford University Press 1987 [1965]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2011 https://dannyreviews.com/
Covering the city and the university, Jan Morris approaches Oxford thematically, with chapters on learning, religion, pleasures, flora and fauna, the divisions of class and wealth and gender, the college spirit, the relationship between town and country, the "town and gown" divide, art, architecture, japes and practical jokes and hauntings, famous eccentrics, foreigners at Oxford, Oxford's role in Empire and war, and so forth.

Into these chapters she fits a mass of details — historical summaries, short anecdotes, stray facts, occasional statistics, visual descriptions, biographical fragments, personal experiences — working them into a narrative flow that rarely lets up. At its most frenetic this comes in one sentence grabs.

"Nobody knows where the sword came from that hangs in the dining-hall at Oriel. When they completed the University Museum, in 1868, they forgot where they had laid the foundation stone, and it was not found again until 1906, when a Latin inscription was put on it. On the splendid seventeenth-century tomb of the Walter family, in Wolvercote parish church, eight children are recorded in the inscription, but only six are portrayed above, one of them headless. Among all the men pictured in Christ Church hall, the only one in armour is William Penn the pacifist. ..."

But mostly it is more sedate. Morris' discussion of housing, for example, runs to two and a half pages.

"Outside the college gates a wider hierarchy exists, and you may see paraded for your analysis all the social grades of an old and prosperous city of the English Midlands. One way to start is to look at the houses, for here almost the whole gamut of English domestic design may be inspected in a morning, providing a key to the kind of people who have inhabited the place."

There follow paragraphs on medieval houses, country houses, Victorian houses, now-demolished Victorian slums, the inter-war sprawl, and post-war estates.

"So, if you have a keen enough interest and a car, you can see the way the English have lived, from cottage to council home, gazebo to Elsan, in a few short hours of Oxford contrast — with a detour, if you have a moment, to some of the caravan sites and houseboats which, distributed in odd patches of the city limits, in creeks off the river or fields beside the ring roads, provide some flimsy shelter for those many of the English who still cannot get a home at all. Nothing is far from anything else. This is not a socially segregated city. There is hardly such a thing as a bad address. Retired diplomats and celebrated novelists live in semi-detached villas in boring suburban roads, and it is only a step from the railway brick of Jericho to Beaumont Street's urbanity of dentists.

Which rather understates the differences between, say, Summertown and Blackbird Leys — and these days one might need a dentist's income to afford a Jericho terrace. (Oxford does show its age in places, though the original 1965 work was revised by Jan's son Mark in 1987.)

Morris provides space for some of the negative perspectives on Oxford as well as the encomiums, with a whole chapter "No Good Aire" on how bad the climate is and on failed aspirations and unfinished or unimplemented plans. There's not much of the mundane as opposed to the elevated or striking, however, and while the sustained tone of excitement works well for readability it doesn't necessarily convey a feel for everyday life or the more prosaic side of the city. There's nothing about Oxford's cycling culture, for example.

Information about locations is scattered through the various chapters, so though Oxford does have an index it is not particularly useful as an "on the street" guidebook. Nor, lacking any chronological structure, does it give a feel for the city's historical development. So it may be better reading for those already familiar with Oxford than for first-time visitors.

That aside, Oxford is good entertainment, packs in a lot of information, and should have something for anyone curious about the town or university.

October 2011

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%T Oxford
%A Morris, Jan
%I Oxford University Press
%D 1987 [1965]
%O paperback, b&w photographs, index
%G ISBN 0192801368
%P 282pp