mr. zilla goes to town

Sunday, December 12, 2004

town vs gown

While there's still some odd malarkey going on around town here these days, its easy to get the idea that the local newspaper at times comes up a little short of fiesty copy that leaps off the pages.

However as you walk around the town here, its hard to ignore the high outer walls of many of the old colleges and ponder the origins of such architecture. And with a minimum of factual ferreting you can learn that student life in Oxford used to be quite a riot, literally.

The best known tussle in the lore of the local derby occured on the feast-day of St Scholastica in 1354, an event that this pious virgin sister of St Benedict would hardly have approved:

Walter de Springheuse, Roger de Chesterfield, and other clerks, swaggered into the Swyndlestock tavern in Carfax, began to speak ill of John de Croydon's wine, and ended by pitching the tankard at the head of that vintner. In ten minutes the town bell at St. Martin's was rung, and the most terrible of all Town-and-Gown rows began. The Chancellor could do no less than bid St. Mary's bell reply to St. Martin's, and shooting commenced.



Note to self, if ordering a bottle of wine when out, just smile and enjoy it even if balsamic vinegar comes to the table by mistake. The resultant brawling, looting, and setting fire to property went on unabated for two days and nights. On the third day, two thousand or so country people joined in on the side of the townsmen, crying "Havoc! Havoc! Smyt fast, give gode knocks!", and things really began to get nasty. By the time the riot had died down, 63 scholars had been killed, as well as nearly half that number of townspeople.

Now the King interceded to settle the matter - decisively in the favour of the University and its bevy of lawyers, incidentally - and the St Scholastica riot's hatchet was once and for all officially buried back the 1950s, a mere 600 years after the quarrel began over a cup of wine. Nonetheless some folks still admirably strive to uphold the old traditions. The town vs gown ice hockey match we saw last weekend didn't quite live up to the linked match report from Febuary's game, but it wasn't far off it in the third period either. And it's not like the root causes of the disturbance have ever really gone away. Radiohead's Thom Yorke, an Oxford local, on the town and gown:

...I was embarrassed to be a student [in Oxford] because of the what the little fuckers got up to. Walking down the street to be confronted by puke and shopping trolleys and police bollards. Fucking hell. I used to think, no wonder they hate us. If I was going to throw up I did it in the privacy of my own room. It was the same in Oxford seeing these fuckers walking around in their ball gowns, throwing up on the streets, being obnoxious to the population. The little guys in the bowler hats [would] clear up their puke and make their beds for them every night. They don't know they're born and they're going to run the country. It's scary. Of all the towns in the country it's one of the most obvious examples of a class divide.


There's certainly no shortage of loud and drunk eighteen year olds out on the street - the same as around any university really. I think what makes the distinction so sharp that Thom mentions is that the college buildings are completely integrated into the tight space of the inner town. Compounding that you have barely legal teenagers doing exactly what they do when they're away from home and family for the first time, although in tune with the storied traditions in this town it's often in ballgowns and dinner jackets, which amplifies the disparity of their impulses and the expectations upon them. Aye, there's the rub.

Indeed it reminds me of the second night I was here there were some marvellous hijinks, what, as some youngsters nipped out an upper floor window of the pub, across a rooftop and over a wall into a nearby college and returned with a rather large wicker basket. Capital, capital, that Yorke fellow needs a dose of salts!

It all takes me back to my younger days in the Punjab, he says downing another whiskey in the overstuffed armchair by the fireplace, but this time around there was a fortunate escape for the gel in question. You see
the wicketkeeper from the second XI, marvellous chap, remembered both the tiger balm and Hodgkin's old trick of knowing exactly where to apply it to the monstrous creature to make its eyes water and have it turn tail. Remarkable really, considering we were, of course, very, very drunk).

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