on 22 January 2001
This book is a marvellous combination of evocative description and encyclopaedic knowledge. I inherited my copy from my mother's belongings, but did not look at it till a visiting Cambridge friend dipped into it and told me how wonderful it was. I could hardly put it down. I had been an undergraduate at Oxford, and it brought back those heady days. I remember walking through narrow attic rooms beating the bounds of St Mary's; listening to the ethereal sounds of the choir singing from Magdalen Tower at 6.0 a.m. on May Morning; and the more earthly sound of the dawn chorus in Wytham Woods. And yet, this book made me feel guilty for walking through the fields in gloves, missing so much and so much. We led confined and routine lives as female students, seeing only a fraction of Oxford. We were not allowed inside the men's colleges, except for the occasional lecture, or an afternoon visit to a male friend. We never explored further than our bicycles would take us, and the crammed eight week terms allowed little time for the extramural interests that so absorbed Jan Morris. Her book compensates for what I missed. The author is superb on the past, but her sure touch begins to falter in the later chapters when she comes to the present and the future. For her, Oxford was the heart of England, and England was the heart of the world. Yet by 1987 (the third edition), this was no longer true. She laments the decline, but seems unaware of the extent of it. Despite her Welsh background, she regards England as synonymous with Britain. She suggests that moving the seat of government 56 miles from Westminster to Oxford might have prevented the dominance of the south-east of England over the whole country. Newcastle would have been a more sensible suggestion, to placate the Scots who had voted marginally in favour of devolution in the 1979 referendum. But times have moved on: The Queen speaks Estuary English; an Oxford accent and an Oxford degree are no longer a passport to privileged jobs; Scotland has its own Parliament; and England's influence, both within the UK and abroad, has declined. It will be interesting to see whether Morris faces up to these issues in her forthcoming edition of 2001.
on 17 September 2001
If you are looking for a detailed guide to Oxford, don't bother with this book. It is the author's personal - rather idiosyncratic - view of the city. And although it may be crammed with interesting facts you have to read the entire thing to find anything of relevance to your own interests.
Morris loves to present her personal experiences as typical and to dress it all up in a writing style that is just dying to impress. If you know the city you'll be hard pressed to match her stereotypes to reality, and if you don't you'll be disappointed that the city isn't as other-worldly as the one she portrays.
Chapter headings are not just unhelpful but baffling. There is no obvious structure to the book and any interesting snippets are scattered throughout. To cap it all there is also no bibliography, so her word is final.
As a work of fiction it is dense and satisfying. But if you want your questions about the real Oxford answered you'll be disappointed.