Thursday, 11 February 2010

The Oxford Union

The Oxford Union is one the multitude of societies available for Oxford students to join. In an earlier post I talked a little bit about it. It is a Union distinct from the University, and was founded in the mid nineteenth century when Oxford students were censored. Today, it is still a place open to opinions and student inquiries. Weekly, it holds a debate with international speakers. The Union also invites international guests to enlighten student audiences.

Last week the debate was titled "This House* would rather be unwell in Britain than in America". It was a fascinating heath care debate. I came to the conclusion that the two sides (those who prefer the British system and those who prefer the American system) were really comparing apples and oranges. Yes there is more technological innovation in a private system, but is heath care a universal right? It doesn't really work as a compound sentence. I came to the conclusion that I would rather have a chronic illness in Britain, but if I had a progressive disease that needed experimental treatment I would rather be in the U.S. I think my generation will be able to take the positives from both systems and combine them into real health care reform; that's my hope anyway.

Last Friday I saw the speaker of the House of Commons, John Barcrow, at the Union. It was cool to see him in person, and the question and answer portion was fabulous. He was very funny off the cuff. Also, the quality of audience questions was excellent. That's the best part about Union functions. One is surrounded by twenty-somethings who, as I do, care about current political and social issues; not just care but informed young people. Oxford is just a different kind of place; in a good way.

*"This House" refers to those present in the Union debating.

Monday, 8 February 2010

Walking Tour of Oxford

Saturday was wet, foggy and cold. Naturally the perfect day for a Walking Tour of Oxford. Despite the weather, it was nice, but it was mostly information I already knew. We started in front of Balliol and Trinity Colleges. Balliol and Merton Colleges vie for the title of oldest college in Oxford. There isn't an exact date for either founding, but both started around the same time in the mid-13th century. Trinity College claims to be the college with the oldest buildings because the College was built around the remains of one of the old monastic communities from the 8th century.

From Broad St. we moved down Turl Street, viewing Exeter and Lincoln Colleges. Across from Exeter College is Jesus College. We went into Jesus College. In the Hall there is a large portrait of Queen Elizabeth I; the college was founded during her reign. Here we talked about living in College and various aspects of the University system in Oxford. Forty-eight prime ministers of England graduated from Oxford University; most of them were president of the Oxford Union during their schooling.

From Jesus College we moved to the Bodleian Library, Divinity School, and the Sheldonian Theater. I've already toured the Bodleian, but I did learn what the inscription is over the door of the Divinity School. It's a New Testament verse in Greek. From here we returned to Broad Street, passed the History Faculty Library and continued down Hollywell Street. We turned down Turf Street and made our way down the ally to Turf Tavern. A portion of the original city wall is still preserved right next to Turf Tavern. It's the wall the Saxons constructed in the 8th century around the time of the city's founding.

Then we wiggled through St. Helen's Passage and ended up under the Bridge of Sighs. We stopped here and talked a bit about Hertford, not only my College but also renowned for being the friendliest college in Oxford. We walked towards St. Mary the Virgin University Church and the Radcliffe Camera. Opposite All Souls College is Brasenose College (the Camera sits in between the two). George Washington's great-great grandfather attended Brasenose. He had an outstanding debt for school books for decades until a group of New York lawyers paid the fee in the 1800s.

We crossed High Street and maneuvered past Oriel College. This is the area of the city where the Rhodes Scholar housing is. Our guide pointed out Bill Clinton's room during his first term as a Rhodes scholar; she also reminded us scholars are chosen not just for their academic abilities but also their outstanding character traits such as trustworthiness and truthfulness. Everyone on the tour seemed to take a piss* at that. From there we moved in to the Christ Church College Meadows. These meadows were preserved in the 1950s when a road was proposed right through the middle of the wonderful open space in the center of the city. Christ Church bought the land and saved it. Since we were overlooking Christ Church our guide of course talked about "Alice in Wonderland" and Lewis Carol, graduate of Christ Church. Alice was the daughter of the Dean of the College when Carol attended. The guide also noted Christ Church Cathedral. The Cathedral, originally a monastic worship center from the 8th century, was proposed by Cardinal Wolsey, the founder of Christ Church. He actually wanted to demolish the structure and build a grander worship space. He fell from power though, and when Henry VIII endowed the College and finished what Wolsey began he did not construct a new chapel. Thankfully it was saved, because it is the site of St. Frideswide's nunnery.

Then we went into Merton College, probably the oldest college in Oxford. The first Warden was recorded in 1267. The Merton College Chapel windows are made from pre-reformation stained glass. Most of the windows were destroyed during the reformation, but the Merton College Chapel was able to save its windows. It also has the oldest library in England, some of the books are still chained to the shelf, and the oldest quad in England. At the memorial on the campus dedicated to Merton students who fought in WWII our guide explained the conspiracy theory that Churchill and Hitler had an agreement. Churchill wouldn't bomb Hindenburg if Hitler didn't bomb Oxford. Neither city was bombed during the war, even though Oxford would be very easy to bomb since it is right along the Thames and Cherwell Rivers.

The tour ended at the Covered Market. It was about lunch time, so I went to Pie Minister in the market and got a Mushroom pie. It was magnificent! I was leary of the mushy peas at first, but they too were delicious with just a hint of mint.

Yay for rainy Saturday walking tours!

*Note: 'take a piss' - one of my favorite British expressions. It's not derogatory, it means to 'make fun of' or 'laugh at'.