Harold Nicolson used to say that his pulse quickened whenever he saw the name Oxford -- even on a jar of marmalade -- and his experience may not have been as peculiar as it sounds. For a variety of reasons both Oxford and Cambridge exert an intense and sometimes continuous pull on their graduates. Much of that magnetism has to do with the sheer beauty of both places. More probably has to do with the time in life -- that curious cleft between adolescence and adulthood -- when most students arrive there. It's a time when life is lived with a special intensity. To live intensely, along with a lot of other people who are also living intensely, in the heady atmosphere of an Oxbridge college is an experience not easily forgotten, as the 24 memoirs included in "My Oxford, My Cambridge" demonstrate.
Editors Ann Thwaite and Ronald Hayman have chosen their contributors -- 12 "distinguished graduates" from each university -- with an emphasis on the artistic and academic worlds. Only one economist, John Vaizey, and one scientist, the physicist Sir Neville Mott, and three politicians, are included in a group that is otherwise weighted heavily toward writers. The result is a highly readable book, but one which sees Oxford and Cambridge through a special lens. One wonders what university life was like for the mathematicians, logicians and archeologists. Never mind. What these graduates remember about themselves as collegians is often thought-provoking and nearly always amusing.
"I see it all in terms of clothes," remembers Antonia Fraser of her Oxford days in the '50s. "The famous spires were way above our heads. Oxford in my day was a city of dreaming wardrobes." While Fraser whirled through her terms in a succession of cyclamen pink and midnight blue, Eleanor Bron was discovering one advantage of her minuscule rooms at Cambridgbe. The rooftop just outside her window "provided an exit to the World" after the college gates were shut. "Climbing out made me feel I had got through some kind of test. Climbing in, to King's for a party, was even better."
This matter of climbing in and out of colleges after they've been locked for the night (an ancient custom originally established to keep the town out rather than the gown in), gives to Oxford life an element of adolescent adventure, one which many of these contributors apparently relished. And it provides some of the best examples of what is most charming in this book, i.e., anecdote. "My Oxford, My Cambridge" is brimming with tales of merry adventures, colorful undergraduates and delightfully eccentric dons.
Nigel Nicolson remembers the Oxford don who, gazing over the mixed company assembled for his lecture on Edward ii, declared, "I do not lecture to undergraduates." His audience, 44 men and 6 women, rose and walked out. Piers Paul Read, who went to Cambridge to read moral sciences because it sounded so appealing, recalls his first lecture with a philosophy don named John Wisdom. "He asked me . . . for . . . a metaphysical question. 'Does God exist?' I suggested. He blushed at my naivete. 'The kind of question I had in mind,' he said, 'was "does this desk exist?"'" Read subsequently switched to history.
Not all dons, of course, are formidable. Nina Bawden recalls how Helen Darbishire, the great Wordsworthian and principal of Somerville, caught her climbing into college one night. "Do get down at once, child," said Darbishire. "And have a hot bath before going to bed. You'll get a chill sitting on that stone wall."
Generally speaking, with the exception of F. R. Leavis, who exerted a tremendous influence on his undergraduates, Cambridge dons come across as being a much more remote lot than their Oxford counterparts, signifying perhaps a crucial difference between the two universities. Again and again the Cantabridgians refer to the "emotional coldness" and "Cromwellian ethos" of Cambridge vs. the intimacy and worldliness of royalist Oxford.
Regardless of their differences, both universities offer an education whose excellence is generally regarded as not easily matched elsewhere. So how do these "distinguished graduates" feel about what they found in university life? Generally, Oxford and Cambridge come away with mixed reviews.
"Oxford's greatest gift is friendship, for which there is all the time in the world," says John Mortimer. "What Cambridge seemed to be offering in the early '50s was time, space and freedom," writes editor Hayman. Yet, to this day, Donald Davie maintains that he feels unhappy at Cambridge. It reminds him of how inevitably disappointed he was in it 36 years ago. "I expected too much of that town and its university," he writes. "Its complacency seems as impregnable now as it was all those years ago."
Jo Grimmond, who took his degree at Balliol in the '30s and later became the Liberal party leader, chastises Oxford for turning "the thoughts of its students away from industry and commerce." Therein, says Grimmond, has lain a problem for Britain. For many, Oxford and Cambridge degrees have been unmistakable admission tickets to success. But there is danger lying there too: As the late Max Beerbohn put it in his own inimitable way, "I was a modest, good-humored boy. It is Oxford that has made me insufferable." w