I remember the day that I decided I was going to go to Oxford University. It had rained for what seemed like weeks, my friend Kay had come to play and, on the way to drop her home, my dad had taken us to see the river Teign, swollen and brown, swirling under the bridge at Ashton. I expect he told us about the forces acting on the granite arches (the river, usually the sort that babbled over Dartmoor rocks was impressively high) but that’s not what I recall. I know the windows of his kingfisher blue MG Midget were steamed up, so much so that we couldn’t really see the torrent, raging or otherwise, but the conversation I remember was his answer to our questions about university. Goodness only knows why we were talking about it, we must have been about twelve or thirteen years old at the time, but we were and, at that time, I was determined to study English, so I asked him where the best place could possibly be. My dad, love him, not really knowing anything about English, literature or otherwise, seeing as he was, and is, a civil engineer (hence the lesson on the forces of floodwater on the arches of bridges) supposed that since they published a dictionary it must therefore be Oxford.
Years later, I had come to the conclusion that a degree in English Literature was not for me. By the time I was seventeen I had shifted a bit and begun to understand a little bit more about myself and what I was good at. My teacher made the suggestion, and I, thinking to myself that a single exam followed by an unconditional offer was a very good deal indeed, decided to go for it. I went to the extra lessons, applied to the only college I had ever heard of, sat the exam and was invited to interview. My mum sorted out my train ticket (I must have changed at Reading), bought me a rucsac (I still have it) and off I went.
For a long time, when I was really littleI thought that I had invented the town ‘Oxford’. Later, after I’d grown up a bit, I realised that the name must have entered my consciousness subconsciously, because my parents had a sort of metal etching picture that hung beneath the dining room cupboard that depicted the dreaming spires. I knew nothing about it apart from it being a university of world renown (because of the dictionary). I guess what I’m trying to say is that despite my ‘research’ I didn’t know what to expect. There was no Harry Potter, and despite Narnia and Middle Earth, I made it up myself out of a friendly combination of What Katy Did Next and Anne of Green Gables. I was wrong.
I walked from the station to the college and that was wrong. I missed my interview time (why didn’t I get a taxi? I hadn’t thought to, walking was normal, so that’s what I did), and somehow, making a cup of tea from a strange little kettle thing that sat on an open fire was a confusing part of the process (I still don’t drink tea and at seventeen I’d never made a cup, despite growing up in a house parented by tea drinkers and containing an open fire) and what making a cup of tea for a lecturer had to do with anything I couldn’t imagine. Why had I written what I’d written? (It seemed like a good idea at the time and I had enjoyed myself following a train of thought didn’t seem like a very good answer – admitting bullshit in an interview has never really stuck me as a terribly wise course of action.) Before I knew what had happened I was dismissed, and a bemusing, bewildering, belittling experience gave way to exploring, to meeting other hopefuls and attempting to make sense of it all.
I palled up with a girl called Monica (she and I swapped addresses and wrote to each other for a while – the late 20thcentury version of being Friends on Facebook, I guess). She was head girl or something, and was fresh out of house hockey matches; she wanted to study Spanish and, seeing that her mother came from Spain, the word amongst the rest of us was that she’d get a place, no problem. (She didn’t, she went to Bristol). We went to tea (or was it dinner?) together, we queued up along a dark corridor that stank of cabbage and reluctantly ate something tasteless I didn’t fancy followed by a pudding with custard, seated on a trestle bench. We looked around each others’ rooms; mine had a rope in the corner for a fire escape and a bar fire I was warned not to leave on all night, despite the cold, hers had a sitting room and a bedroom with an old, threadbare carpet. There was a boy I remember, but not his name, because he had driven to his interview in his dad’s red sports car. He was missing a party back at home and joined it via the car phone. I suppose we were supposed to be impressed.
We made our way through a number of junior common rooms, some of them incongruously Seventies in the middle of all that medieval splendour, and listened to the apocryphal tales that flourish there. So-and-so was escorted to his father’s old rooms by the Dean. One college only had girls in it for the entertainment of the boys. The proportion of public school kids compared to Public School kids was shockingly low. There were no showers. I wasn’t invited to another interview and so, satisfied with my experience, I went home. When I didn’t get a place I wasn’t surprised, and I wasn’t, not really, disappointed.
And what do I tell my daughter as we walk through the back streets of Oxford, who, in her innocence, thinks that the university is most convenient and rather pretty looking and who asks me why I didn’t go to university there. Was it a lack of cultural capital? Maybe. But not the sort that you can find between the pages of learned books or at the theatre or concert halls or down the dusty corridors of the museum. Was it some sort of other personal deficiency? Possibly. It wasn’t my world. I knew it and so did they. Years later I can see my face was not reflected there and I know that what needs to change was not me then and it isn’t her now, or all the other children from ordinary schools in ordinary places; it’s them.