On October 6, soon after French writer Annie Ernaux’s Nobel Prize was announced, a group of women friends and I walked down to King’s Arms to celebrate. More than 400 years old, King’s Arms is Oxford’s oldest pub. Like many good things in this university town, it is owned by one of the colleges. Graham Greene met Kim Philby and others for drinks here in 1944. An apocryphal story suggests that radical suffragettes had set fire to the pub’s back room over a 100 years ago, protesting against the university’s reluctance to admit women students. Another story says that the fire was more recent, sparked off by the pub’s refusal to admit women to the back room—known as the Don’s Room—until 1973. The truth is perhaps more mundane, such as an electrical fault.
October 6 has a special significance in Oxford’s history. It was the day on which, 102 years ago, the university finally started admitting women. The 900-year-old university had certainly taken its time.
Afterwards, we walked across to Blackwell’s bookshop on Broad Street to buy Ernaux’s books. The bookshop staffer went to check where the books were: he wasn’t sure whether they were in the fiction or non-fiction shelves. This is a feature of her deeply autobiographical narratives, which are hard to classify in conventional terms. Another staffer came to talk to us about her work: “Fiction, non-fiction?” he smiled. “If you ask me, there is no such thing as non-fiction.”
Tea with books
And that makes for just one more great story about Blackwell’s, which is a part of both Oxford history and literary history. I can imagine J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Iris Murdoch and others browsing here as students. The story goes that in the 1930s, when Basil Blackwell hosted a tea party for publishers in his garden, Allen Lane got the idea for Penguin Books.
A short walk away is that other great Oxford institution—the “Bod”, or the Bodleian Library. This is actually a network of 28 libraries containing 13 million items, most of which are stored underground. The Bodleian is also a library of legal deposit, which means that one copy of every book ever published in England is available here. The most beautiful of the library buildings, some of which have been functioning as working libraries since centuries, is the landmark Radcliffe Camera. This is a circular domed building designed by James Gibbs in the mid-18th century.
As one resident remarked, “Age trumps everything in Oxford.” No wonder then that the town also hosts the oldest public museum in Britain. Founded in 1683, the Ashmolean is Oxford’s great museum of art and archaeology. It was opened with a collection donated by Elias Ashmole, after whom it is named. Today it has among the world’s most enviable collections of Raphael drawings, Egyptian sculpture, modern Chinese painting, and more. It also houses the extraordinary “Pierre Rode” Stradivarius violin made in 1722.
One of the current exhibitions on at the Ashmolean is ‘Postcards from Home’, by the New Delhi-based artist Manisha Gera Baswani. The show presents memories of 47 artists from India and Pakistan about their “lost” home. The introduction to the exhibition notes that Cyril Radcliffe, who drew the boundary lines that partitioned the two nations, was a Fellow of Oxford’s All Souls College.
Monuments and shops
Oxford at the beginning of Michaelmas term is lovely. The trees are red, gold and green. Occasionally, a tourist will want to know where the University is. The answer is that the University is all around. Colleges and monuments are scattered around the beautiful city centre, cheek by jowl with shops selling university hoodies and fridge magnets.
On October 5 we were listening to a talk in the Old Library of University Church. A plaque on a wall informed us that it was in the same room, on October 5, 1942, that the Oxford Committee on Famine Relief had held its first meeting.
History is everywhere in Oxford. It is there in the tall, beautiful buildings and what Matthew Arnold called the “dreaming spires”. It is there in the centuries-old covered market. It is at the corner of Holywell Street where, in the 16th century, a group of Catholics were executed for their faith. It is in the statue of Cecil Rhodes outside Oriel College. And it is in the boss of Mahatma Gandhi on the ceiling of University Church, marking his visit to Oxford in 1931.
Walking tours take you to these landmark sites. There is also one walking tour with a difference: Uncomfortable Oxford, a social enterprise started by two doctoral students, which raises awareness about problematic aspects of the university’s past, involving its trysts with colonialism and gender, class and racial inequality.
Uma Mahadevan-Dasgupta is in the IAS. She is currently on a Chevening Fellowship at the University of Oxford. These are her personal views.