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December 16th, 2003 · No Comments

After you’ve lived in Cambridge and Oxford for three years, you begin to appreciate two things. One, they’re really, really small. Two, nothing ever changes in those cities, and doubly so for anything related to the university. There’s a ‘joke’ that goes:

Q: How many college fellows does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: “Change? Are you crazy?!”

As the North American contingent of Cambridge and Oxford are so fond of pointing out, both universities are far older than their country, and have experienced far less change. The mere suggestion of adding a new building, or (for example) allowing people to play music in their rooms outside of certain proscribed hours, generates such head-shaking bewilderment and a wilful miscomprehension in the minds of university staff that is simply unparalleled in this region of the Milky Way galaxy.

Of course, it wouldn’t do to actually admit this, which would be more honest than saying something like, “No, you can’t have a TV room in your halls of residence because you’d create a fire hazard,” when the primary use for said room is for cleaners to smoke in. One day I believe that university staff will start suddenly going insane as the mental convolutions involved in creating such fantastical justifications for withholding change pass a certain point beyond which the human consciousness cannot handle. I look forward to that day.

In the meantime, students starved of change in their environment become highly excited when anything changes. It would be easy to assume that the atmosphere of changelessness only exists within colleges and university buildings and not outside them, but considering that the colleges invariably own all the land in Cambridge and Oxford between them, and hence prevent any ‘new’ or ‘disruptive’ companies from setting up shop in the middle of town (e.g. video-rental, fast food, anything useful), it should be apparent that I have in fact lived in a time bubble for the last three years.

On the way into Cambridge last weekend, I spotted a new restaurant on Regent Street and got as far as saying, “Did you know there’s a new res-” when my sentence was completed for me. When I returned to Oxford and saw another former Cambridge student, I immediately recounted this tale of magic. The fact that the most exciting thing to happen to Cambridge in months was the opening of a new restaurant and the threatened closure of a fast-food shop may consequently give you an insight into the stunted, twisted psyche of Oxbridge graduates.

The sad thing is that all of this is self perpetuating. I have no doubt that if I spent a few more years in Cambridge, I would have become so accustomed to my surroundings that any possibility of change would have sent me into cardiac shock, or at the very least, generated an aneurysm. In the last months of my time there, my friends and I spent a not insignificant amount of time bitterly lamenting the fact that the Woolworths in the centre of town was being replaced by a Next, of all shops!

Yet while moving from city to city might prevent this calcifaction of the mind from taking place, there’s something to be said for staying in the same city for decades. After a while, you begin to ignore the city’s faults (in the case of Cambridge, the primary fault being that it isn’t actually a city) and accept them, perhaps even becoming fond of them. If you take the traveller’s path though, you’ll constantly be railing against the stupidity of your new city; exactly how Oxford council can spend two years repaving the same road three times is, I feel, not something normal humans can understand.

There must be a happy medium though. I’ll post again in a few decades to let you know if I’ve found it.

Tags: cambridge · oxford

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