Martin Parr’s new book reveals the secret life of Oxford University and the customs of a town that is notorious for its very British eccentricity. But is this what really happens behind closed doors?
I went to Oxford University. I know, well done me. I’ll always remember the reaction of one school friend, who already was at Jesus college, telling me, “I was really surprised they let you in, but when I got here I realised there are actually people like you here.” I’m still not sure what he meant.
I did spend three years at Oxford, studying (or ‘reading’ as they like to say there, they like having their own words) modern languages. I had a hawkish Italian tutor who only had one leg, and three pictures pinned to the wall of his room: a self-portrait photograph, a landscape scene, and a photo of Britney Spears in her ‘Baby One More Time’ era garb. No-one ever knew how he lost the leg. Or if he really liked Britney. He smoked profusely and spoke very little, being more fond of the eyebrow raise. Then there was my malevolent French tutor, an expert in Medieval literature, an erstwhile double-bass player, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Dustin Hoffman. He suffered from little man syndrome and liked to throw our work on the floor at our feet once he’d marked it so that we were left scrambling on our hands and knees to retrieve it. His typical feedback to me would be that my translation was “gobbledegook.” Another memorable accolade I received was a “NOT very good.”
I had a hawkish Italian tutor who only had one leg, and three pictures pinned to the wall of his room: a self-portrait photograph, a landscape scene, and a photo of Britney Spears in her ‘Baby One More Time’ era garb.
I couldn’t exactly call my Oxford days my halcyon days, and my friends at other universities seemed to have much more fun, although I did go to a few Piers Gaveston Society parties (no pig fucking by then). I mostly smoked weed (purchased from the Prince of a certain country) and tried to figure out Dante and Diderot. The weed probably didn’t help. Ten years on, I’ve realised a lot of the mythologised ideas about Oxford are in fact true—or they were when I was there—it is a patriarchal, white boys’ club, (there’s a reason Hitler wanted it as his capital for England) and it is the stomping ground of the rich elite. And sadly, I saw a few friends crumble under the mental and social pressure Oxford’s environment perpetuates.
But Oxford isn’t just the university. The ‘town versus gown’ rivalry—referring to the Harry Potter themed capes all Oxford undergraduates have to wear to exams—is notorious, and dates back to 1355, when 63 scholars died in a face-off outside the Swindlestock Tavern. Oxford also boasts the most published writers per square mile in the world, it has the oldest Botanic Garden in the world, it’s the home of the dictionary, and to a myriad of quaint traditions, many of which have been documented by Martin Parr is his new book, Oxford, published by OUP.
Who better to capture the most British of cities than Parr, with his wry and wistful wit? In his eyes, Oxford’s history is charming, its eccentricity is its lifeblood. Parr (like me) spent three years in Oxford, taking photographs of the people, pride, pomp and ceremonies, centuries-old traditions that punctuate life there, shooting portraits of the university’s tortoise keepers and the infamous May Day celebrations, dinners at halls and college balls. Coinciding with the release of the book, a selection of the pictures will also be on show at the Weston Library until 22nd September—as part of PHOTO OXFORD.
“I have long been fascinated by Oxbridge and when this opportunity arose to shoot a long-term project, looking behind the scenes at the secret life of Oxford University, I jumped at this challenge,” Parr says of the project.
The photographs present Oxford in motion, divided up by the university’s three terms—Michaelmas, Hilary, Trinity—in Parr’s unglamourous, documentary style, with a deep affection for local British culture. But I’m not sure how much of the secret side of Oxford Parr really reveals—I’m not sure that’s a picture OUP really wants to be caught on camera. There are no pot-smoking Princes or Dustin Hoffman tyrants. You have to look closely at the imperfect details in Parr’s images to see the bigger picture.
Oxford is published by Oxford University Press
Available from 7 September