Oxford is said to be the home of lost causes. Now it is in danger of becoming one itselfby Peter Hitchens / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Published in August 1998 issue of Prospect Magazine
Gum-splattered, tourist-infested, traffic-swamped Oxford suffers through another summer night. Bouncers loom in bar doorways, amid the perfume of stale lager and the throb of drums in a street where a young man was recently kicked unconscious for letting a woman jump the queue for the kebab van. Monoglot “language students” mill around McDonald’s. The drug dealers sit in their flashy cars waiting for trade. No doubt it was as bad as this in the middle ages, although they managed without gum, burgers or rock music, but should we be returning to the 14th century quite so soon?
Daylight comes and the scene is if anything more woeful. Coaches draw up and dump their tourist occupants, who look about them with glazed bafflement. They see the beauty, but they have no inkling of what it was for or how it came about, or how to treat it. Some shamble along behind guides, or climb into open-top buses which grind round the tiny historic area, saving tourists the trouble of walking or thinking. They are not really enjoying themselves, only doing their duty; and if they were made to take an exam on why they had come, most would fail dismally. Like half the modern world, they seek something they have lost, but their very numbers drive away the peace they hope to find.
What they see is a Disney version of an ancient university city, shining and phoney. Of course the stonework of the colleges was dirty and diseased, and the ivy which once hung from the walls was probably damaging, but was it really necessary to scrub quite so clean? Most of Oxford university now looks as if it had been built yesterday. It has been preserved to death.
Perhaps to make up for the hysterical conservation of the historic core, the rest of Oxford has been handed over, bound and gagged, to the worst influences of the 20th century. If you seek an example of bad town planning or architecture, from multi-storey carparks to raw concrete brutalism, from inner-ring road to pedestrian precinct, it is here. North Oxford, once studious and bosky, has become seriously rich. A tiny terraced workman’s cottage costs ?220,000, and a proper family house a great deal more. It has lost much of its dark Victorian charm now that it is so inaccessible to the academics for whom it was built.
Even the ancient colleges have made their contribution, ruining their precincts with ill-mannered cuboids and obtrusive rooflines. But what is worse is the growing barriers between them and the outside world. True, they once locked their gates at night, and stopped anyone climbing in by means of broken bottles embedded in high walls, but during the day any peaceable person could stroll into quadrangles, gardens, chapels and dining halls. Now a surly porter will stop you, often demanding money for entry. (In the days when Jan Morris was still James Morris, he wrote that “Oxford prohibitions are meant to be ignored.” Don’t try to ignore them nowadays.) Yet the colleges can’t be blamed. The uncomprehending crowds, together with the collapse of good manners and honesty, have forced colleges into action to save some privacy.
Perhaps nothing can be done to rescue the city, a jewel now too bright for its setting. Once it sat naturally in its bowl of hills, its unlikely beauty fading gradually into a townscape of old, sagging houses, crumbling walls and castle towers, and picturesque industries such as brewing and cattle-dealing. Now the shiny modern world laps right up against it. Protesters are trying to halt the construction of a six-lane highway less than a mile from Tom Tower-part of a plan to “ease traffic,” as if motor traffic and Oxford could ever coexist. The cattle market closed long ago, the 200-year-old brewery may be next. The ancient, squalid prison which frowned beneath the castle keep has been closed, its inmates moved to modern squalid prisons where nobody can see them. Every patch of open ground not protected by unalterable law is being built on. For some reason Oxford is the only suitable site for a business school, an Islamic centre and dozens of those raw new houses and flats so much in demand in the land of the broken family. From almost every vantage point in the surrounding hills, the stone crown of Oxford can only be seen through a tangle of pylons and power cables, or spoiled by a frame of traffic signs and concrete overpasses.
Perhaps hideous modern England simply no longer has room for such a place and is bound to overwhelm it, just as our new People’s Government plainly has no time for the university’s independence and special character. They should step in and preserve this lovely place, but their hearts would not be in it.