Epilogue: Of grey walls, Oxford Blues and black ankles

Epilogue: Of grey walls, Oxford Blues and black ankles McGill University

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Home > McGill News > 2000 > Summer 2000 > Epilogue: Of grey walls, Oxford Blues and black ankles

I stood, bags in hand, at the door of the sixteenth-century space that was to be mine for the year. It may have been a momentous occasion for me but, with time out for wars, purges, and the odd plague, the room had seen 461 years of service. Accordingly, it had not made any special fuss.

I couldn't believe my eyes. Floor, black; walls, grey; ceiling, with the benefit of the doubt, white. The furnishings: a sway-backed bed, desk, and three overstuffed, moth-eaten chairs huddled in the middle of 1,000 cubic feet of air that was a good ten degrees colder than outside. The room's concessions to luxurious living consisted of a water heater and a 12-inch electric affair on the wall, the sole source of heat. Both were metered; neither worked. One 20-watt light bulb, two hangers, and three-quarters of a bookshelf completed the scene. The loo, an exhibitionist's delight, commanded an excellent view of the quadrangle.

And bienvenue... it had started to rain!

Out in the city again, I met a dozen of my shipmates wandering the streets in a state not unlike my own -- awe-struck and shell-shocked at once. So we poured ourselves into the nearest pub before 10:30 closing time to drink -- first, to our incredible good luck to be where we were; second, to the winter of sweating plaster and soggy sheets to come.

"Time, gentlemen, please," came all too quickly but we left the warmth of the pub in a considerably better frame, if not state, of mind.

Unfortunately, when I awoke nine hours later the room was still there. But outside was a different Oxford. The sun was just getting the edge on the slime moulds, the sky was a cloudless blue, the air fresh. As I stepped outside, the sensation of walking into a storybook was overpowering. The rain-soaked beauty of the previous day had been transformed into sunlit magnificence. That eye-rubbing, arm-pinching excitement must come to every new resident as a matter of course. For me, that morning's walk left a glow that not even baked beans for breakfast could cool.

Tuition paid, bags unpacked, it was distraction time at the Freshers' Fair. Two hundred booths offered thousands of milling students a variety of extracurricular activities. Posters, films and slide shows promoted a kaleidoscope of people and purposes: Aristotle, black magic, Robbie Burns, the cheese society, Paul Henderson, mushrooms ...

"Wait a minute!" I thought. "Paul Henderson? Those guys must be Canadians." But they had spotted me first. "North American, aren't you?" came a voice from behind the desk. The glint in my interlocutor's eye became an excited twitch as he heard "Canadian" and then, hallelujah, "Montreal." I was, apparently, a hot prospect for the Oxford ice hockey club. Little did he know he was talking to a man who had peaked at peewee and been judged incompetent to play for McGill's McConnell Hall residence team five years running. Little did I know that 23 years of armchair exposure to the NHL was sufficient recommendation for a tryout.

"You'll know the rules better than half the referees," he exclaimed in delight. And before I knew it, I was on the Oxford Blues. There is nothing quite like English ice hockey. Two-inch gill nets protect the fans, and the lines and face-off circles are handpainted before each game. Three thousand screaming fans (who had paid admission!), programs, press coverage -- peewee was never like this.

To embrace the real Oxford is to enjoy a wealth of experience. How to describe it? Corpus Christi College with its weather-pocked yellow stone, heavy oak doors, and pelican sundial; the grace of the slow motion stretch and sink between drifting punt and mud-paralyzed pole; frosty February mornings cut by coxswains' razor-sharp tongues; evening walks through tranquil cloisters and magical gardens; anticipatory gastrointestinal distress when faced with English delicacies like faggots, spotted dick, and toad-in-the-hole.

And I've not even mentioned academic Oxford. For North Americans with intellectual milk teeth cut on multiple-choice exams and weaned on academic anonymity, Oxford is a shock -- and a delight. The system is based on accessibility: lawyers, researchers, novelists and Nobel laureates expect to teach and are available to anyone interested enough to seek them out.

This academic archipelago boasts fauna of bewildering variety. Numerous attempts to describe Oxford's zoology have been made over the years; outlandish as the images may seem, they are probably quite accurate, or even understated. The professor emeritus who surreptitiously fires mashed potato balls during special dinners; the distinguished don who receives equally distinguished guests with his feet in a plastic tub of Epsom salts; the collected academic giants who frolic in the nude at Parson's Pleasure, a public and well-punted part of the river -- all are for real.

And so are the infuriating yet hilarious regulations of the last century which govern the students of this one. Supper is denied in some colleges for lack of an academic gown and students wearing anything but regulation dark socks are barred from examination rooms. (When refused entrance, one inappropriately socked but enterprising individual bought a can of black spray paint. He was admitted moments later with dark, if sticky, hose.)

Oxford generates anecdotes by the thousands -- the bad times make great stories, the good times marvellous memories. Every student lucky enough to have shared the Oxford experience leaves with an ample supply of both.

Dr. Brian Ward, MDCM'80, is Associate Professor in Medicine and Microbiology at McGill.

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