Readers, I’ve a secret. Quite an embarrassing one. Not, like, a funny-shaped birthmark, or a long-lost love child. Well, at least I hope not. No, my secret is something far more…well, pretentious. Through Christ Church’s long and illustrious history, pock-marked by plagues, civil wars and endless dunking of toffs in Mercury, I must be the only public school boy to go there who didn’t want to.
What a tragedy: posh boy condemned to the living hell of enacting his wildest Brideshead Revisited fantasies. The purgatory of formal dinners, en suite bathrooms and enough subsidies to prop a medium-sized banana republic: how will diddums cope?
You see why I’m embarrassed. It’s rather like a dung beetle complaining about being dropped down a manhole. Stretching the insect analogies past breaking point, I was surely a moth drawn to a particularly ostentatious lightbulb. I must have been yanked by my old school tie away from where I applied over to the spiritual House of Oxford’s toffocracy.
But that’s just what’s so embarrassing. I’m not posh, and neither is Christ Church.
Now, some disclaimers. Yes, I went to a public school. Yes, I’ve got two middle names and do my shopping at Marks and Spencers. And yes, I am terribly sorry, but I do vote Conservative. With that all out of the way, I still protest that I’m not posh. I was at that school on a scholarship from a state primary. I was called a pleb for my troubles. I have two middle names because my parents couldn’t make up their minds (that’s really been a blessing for filling in forms – thanks, Mum) and I shop at M&S because it’s around the corner. As memory serves, I’m not the only person voting Tory at the moment. Plus, I do speak Latin and my idea of a good time is a few pints down Spoons, rather than larks with the Buller bois. I know I’m no Oliver Twist, but I’m no toff, capische?
That might all save my reputation (or somewhat balm my personality defects) but it doesn’t help Christ Church’s. Is it not a truth, universally acknowledged, that the House is the Oxford college with its head firmly thrust furthest up its own arse? In layman’s terms, isn’t it the snobby one? Trinity might have fewer state school students than cocktails offered at the college bar. Magdalen might have a sodding deer park in the middle of it. But it’s Christ Church that gets the unedifying reputation.
It’s the college that you have to apologise for going to when asked. “It’s not my fault! I was pooled!” I usually blurt this out just as the face of my unlucky questioner starts dropping like they’ve just been caught giving their sainted grandad a wedgie. As I find there’s no sort of acceptable excuse in these sorts of situations (saying you go to Ch Ch, that is: no canonised OAP’s pants was harmed in the writing of this article) I usually shamble off to the nearest bar.
When standing at that bar, gazing forlornly into my pint, I’ll reflect that this is the sort of reaction a House member just has to get used to. Christ Church is still condemned by a pungent aroma of disdainful elitism than can’t even be shifted by the judicious application of some Febreze.
Admittedly, it’s not a reputation that can be dispensed with easily. For one thing, Christ Church is as much a master of showing off as the Vice-Chancellor is at sending well-meaning but deeply unhelpful e-mails. Once you’ve paid your extortionate entrance fee (for tourists) or been harassed by the over-zealous porters (non ChCh students) or been told to put that traffic cone back where you got it from, you drunk tit (me), you enter into what can only be described as Liberace in architectural form: ostentatious, expensive and deeply, deeply pleased with itself.
Christ Church has an almost pornographic obsession with size. Tom Quad is the largest quad in Oxford. It’s often rumoured that the whole of Corpus Christi could fit into it, which would be a serious blow for both colleges. Like the rest of the College, Tom Quad was started by Cardinal Wolsey and only finished once the small matters of the Reformation and Civil War had been got out the way. On one side is Tom Tower, Sir Christopher Wren’s phallic contribution to the ongoing pornographic theme. On another, is the Great Hall. Yes, it’s just like the one from Harry Potter. But rather than sorting hats and endless points for sodding Gryffindor, this one has some austere photos of former Prime Ministers and obscure Georgian judges to put you off your Rice Krispies. Those ex-PMs and former fat arses of the judicial system were largely accommodated around the corner in Peckwater Quad. Just for a change, it’s chuffing huge. It includes the largest single piece of student accommodation in Europe equipped with double en suites and a couple of chandeliers. Hooray for egalitarianism! This isn’t really helping me prove Christ Church isn’t posh, is it?
Really, it’s quite unfortunate. The grandeur gave me that same repulsed impression when I first came to Oxford to look at colleges. I was looking for a college that was small and down to Earth as I’d largely hated my years at a big posh school. Christ Church seemed to be the opposite of what I wanted and I dismissed it immediately. I applied to St Peter’s, and fell in love with it enough that getting pooled to Christ Church was something of a shock. I couldn’t complain; as a mate later put it, “Cheer up Will, you live in Harry Potter’s House!”. But it wasn’t the cosy little community I was looking for, and when I turned up for my first Michaelmas I was a little less enthusiastic than I should have been.
It’s awful admitting that. I was so lucky to be pooled to ChCh. There are so many who’d give their right arm to be where I am. Admittedly, a large number of them are smug pricks from Eton and where I am currently is at my desk in my bedroom. But the point still stands. I was lucky. Really, really lucky. It’s taken a lot of time to realise just how lucky, but I’m glad I have.
The perks are numerous. The fame, for one thing. Knowing I go to the same college frequented by Ruskin, Peel and the better one of the Lawson children brings me a daily thrill. Admittedly, they probably didn’t spend their time here downing BOP juices, eating kebabs by Mercury and nicking novelty condoms from the Welfare cupboard. But I wisely don’t mention those things to my Nan. When she came to visit and stepped into Tom Quad for the first time she looked the happiest I’d seen her since my Grandad died. That’s a feeling that no neuroses about my school days could ever take away. For that alone I’m willing to forgive the place all kinds of sins.
Fortunately, there’s less to forgive than you’d think. With conspicuous wealth comes conspicuous benefits. Accommodation for all three years (and all in the city centre). Endless subsidies and bursaries. Both formal and informal dinner every day in that big Hogwarts hall. We’ve even got a wine cellar and an art gallery, though they’re both slightly emptier now than when I left. I swear those stolen bottles and Old Masters are nothing to do with me; if I can’t nick a traffic cone successfully, how the hell am I going to get a Van Dyck?
It’s true that some of these perks do leave a little to be desired. Being tactful, there’s a reason why Christ Church provides the cheapest food in Oxford, and it’s not just because of that spare cash left over from the dissolution of the monasteries. Much more importantly, the college bar is appalling. The cocktails taste like melted Wine Gums and the beer selection is poor enough to make you want to go teetotal. Luckily, just around the corner from ChCh is The Royal Blenheim, for my money Oxford’s best pub. I should know: I’ve been to all of them.
Je regrette rien.
So, fame, wealth and all the mod cons – what’s there left for me to complain about? You know what. The elephant in the room is still lurking there, though knowing my college’s fondness for size that could probably be reworded as the Godzilla in Tom Quad.
You can run a hundred access initiatives. You can publish stats showing you’re far from being the college with the highest privately educated intake. You can even situate your own Boat House at the other end of an island you own, just to force the Aqua-toffs to walk a bit further in the mornings. But it’s all in vain. Despite all these squirts of metaphorical Febreze, that same snobby stench still hangs in there, like Duncan at the feast.
Old prejudices are the hardest to shift. I should know. It has taken me almost two long and painful years to like Christ Church. I’ve had some torrid times at university – largely, it must be said, my own fault – and being at a college I didn’t want to go to didn’t help. But I’m proud now to call the House my home. That’s not because of the 13 Prime Minsters, or the bursaries, or the criminally comfy double beds in Aldates 117. It’s for the people.
They’re wonderful. Long gone are the days of young aristocrats chumming up at croquet in the Master’s Garden: now we’re as eclectic as David Bowie’s back catalogue. Northerners, Southerners and, erm, people from the Midlands. We’ve got Pride flags in Peckwater and outreach events coming out of your egalitarian ears. Yes, there’s a few with plums in their mouths, but you find us in every college. So tear up your Evelyn Waugh. It might be nice having a college that can be the target of the unthinking prejudice of its peers, but it’s way out of date.
So that’s the House. Really, it’s most remarkable quality is just how unremarkable it is. Yes, the architecture is intimidating, some of the practices are a bit old-fashioned and we keep ending up in The Sunday Times. But don’t tar today’s students for Henry VIII’s sensibilities or the antics of our dons. Don’t look away the next time someone tells you they’re from ChCh. Follow them to the bar and buy them a drink. Just make sure it’s not ours.