Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Cambridge By Bus, or: "Why Does Spock Have a Beard?"

Last week I went from Oxford to Cambridge, where I was a guest of John Naughton, who runs the Wolfson Press Fellowship at Wolfson College. You would think that these two important centers of learning would be connected by turbocharged airship service or a subterranean mag-lev train hewn from the living rock, but in fact transportation planners in England discourage traversing the 80-odd miles that separate the two university towns.

My choices were a rather expensive trip by train south into London and then north to Cambridge or a 3 1/2-hour cross-country bus journey. Being a cheapskate I opted for the bus. I'm sure the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder will lift soon.

How bad can a bus journey be? First of all, banish from your mind the picture of a modern motor coach of the sort that ferries package holidaygoers around Britain--hell, that ferries eighth-grade band students to Hershey Park. No plush reclining seats or in-flight movie for the brave Oxbridge pilgrims. No, we were on a double-decker bus outfitted with seats designed to be comfortable for no longer than 10 minutes, not that we could stay in one place for that long. The bus would enter roundabouts like a great jibing sailboat. The driver would whip the steering wheel to the left as he merged, then to the right as we moved counterclockwise through the roundabout. Then he'd saw to the left again to exit. Between roundabouts he'd floor the accelerator like a man convinced he'd left the iron on at home.

It starts getting dark around 4:30 p.m. in England these days so I didn't see much of Cambridge but what I did see left me disturbed. Cambridge was like Planet X, that Earthlike planet eternally on the far side of the sun, invisible to us here. It was so like Oxford, and yet so different.

Both of course take their names from their roles in getting over pesky rivers. Both owe their international fame to the ancient (Cambridge's slightly less ancient) universities that are there. Both have Wolfson Colleges, as a matter of fact. But there are slight, vertigo-inducing differences. The Latin grace before dinner in Cambridge was very short (just two words, "Benedictae, benedictum" if I'm not mistaken [and I may be]) while the last formal meal I had at an Oxford college was preceded by a long, sung blessing. The Cambridge press fellowship, similar to the Reuters program at Oxford, brings journalists from around the world. But while they have a journalist from Brazil, we have one from Argentina. They have a journalist from Pakistan. We have one from India. (We both have one from the BBC, not surprising given that you can't take out the trash in England without tripping over a BBC producer.) It was like that episode of "Seinfeld" where Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine encounter their TV doppelgangers. I kept looking for an American in a shiny suit, their me.

Wolfson College Cambridge, like Green College Oxford, has a bar for students. Green's bar is like a tatty basement rec room. Wolfson's is like something from a cruise ship: bright and flashy. To get the key for the room I was staying in for the night I had to check in with the porter. I've only ever seen male porters at Oxford. The Wolfson porter was a woman. Maybe all the porters in Cambridge are women.

I think I know why it's so hard to travel between the two cities. You're not just heading from Oxfordshire to Cambridgesire. You're traveling through a rip in the time-space continuum.

Freedom From Speech
Oxford has been abuzz with fallout from the Oxford Union's decision to invite a Holocaust-denier and the leader of a quasi-fascist political party to speak at an event addressing the issue of freedom of speech. Some members of the Oxford Union complained that the president of the famed debating group was just looking for publicity. But the membership voted to allow David Irving and Nick Griffin to speak last night.

It didn't go off as planned. Demonstrators stormed the gates and occupied the stage, forcing the two men to deliver their remarks in separate rooms. Repugnant the mens' views are but stifling those views just gives them a perverse appeal.


Richard said...

I fear with the current round of cuts at the BBC, there may be many more former BBC producers coming round to collect the trash. And some more picking bones from the trash. And some more lying in the trash. I forsee the whole country awash with unemployable BBC producers, former arts graduates every one, equipped only to work in large public sector organisations immune from the harsh winds of the free market, shivering through the winter with no hope of anyone willing to employ them. They'll sell copies of the big issue, wipe your windscreens at traffic lights, and bustle up to you as you stroll along the road, smelling slightly, haggard-looking, and holding out grasping hands with fingerless gloves, begging for change.

Or failing that, we'll all move to France where everyone's employed in the public sector.


Henry said...

Richard's right. Only this morning I was accosted by a shabby, unshaven man shaking a tin cup at me and pleading "spare half a million quid for richly-costumed adaptation of a 18th Century novel please guv?". I dropped in my last hundred grand but I don't think it'll even cover Judi Dench's fee.

mark from alexandria said...

The Beeb may have its problems but what struck fear into my heart was the news that Murdoch plans to turn Skynews into a doppleganger of FoxNews, the institution which historians will look back on as the primary cause of the downfall of America. [OK, the Post's recent veer rightward will be footnoted..e.g.,their religion writer who left progressive Catholics (perhaps an oxymoron)speechless after a double-header of articles this weekend, focusing on rightwing fringe movements as if they were the mainstream]

Sally said...

Your recitation of the bus trip from Oxford-Cambridge was funny and well written. Thanks for the smiles and chuckles. Had lunch with an American living in Oxford and asked her if she was reading your blog and she smiled and said "yes, daily".

John Kelly you are the best and reason for many smiles.

Now when are you taking me to lunch? hah S

cktirumalai said...

Oxford and Cambridge are a bit like Harvard and Yale (many early Harvard faculty came from Cambridge), and it is somehow appropriate that the route between them is roundabout. Still, Oxford graduates are on the faculty at Cambridge, and the other way around. In the collective consciousness they emerge as Oxbridge. The annual boat-race between them has its place in the national calendar.
In recent decades, Oxford has produced a series of Prime Ministers, among them Wilson, Heath, Thatcher, Blair (some active in the Union in student days). Cambridge has Newton and Darwin, as well as being the place where the structure of DNA was deciphered more than half a century ago.
John Kennedy dealt with the rivalry betwen the American universities graciously when on receiving an honorary degree in New Haven he said, " I now have the best of both worlds, a Harvard education and a Yale degree."

KT&JT said...

[[The driver would whip the steering wheel to the left as he merged, then to the right as we moved counterclockwise through the roundabout.]]

That's anticlockwise in British, John. I point it out only because it makes me laugh.

I have made the journey to Oxford several times -- from DC. Haven't tried since moving to Cambridge, though -- precisely for the roundabout reason. I'd rather take the train, thank you. My John has found someone's web page that documents how to bicycle between the two cities -- at least that way you get lots of fresh air!

Ruth said...

That's CLOCKWISE through the roundabout, sweetheart -- they drive on the left here. So the "counter-" vs. "anti-" clockwise discussion is moot. A bit like where the rooster lays his eggs.

Ken said...

No right-thinking BBC producer would take up a fellowship from Cambridge. People there have funny shaped heads, among other oddities.

I spent three years on that bus (they let me off at intervals), and sometimes Milton Keynes appears to me in scary dreams.

John Kelly said...

Whoops. I DO know which way people drive in a British roundabout. I just don't know which way hands go around a clock. That might make a good subject for a BBC documentary: "The AntiClockwise Man."

Glenda Cooper said...

Re Richard's comment maybe it's time to update the old joke of what do you say to an English graduate
"Big Mac and fries please"

And i say that as an English graduate and former BBC employee - feel my pain

mary said...

I thought the same thing, when I was on the Grand Bahama Island a few decades ago. In riding our rented scooters around the Island, my husband, who is dyslexic, and I decided that if you drive on the left, then you must go clockwise around the round about. WRONG. It was counter-clockwise around the round about there, just as it is here in the States, but keeping to your left, as you do. I didn't know what they were yelling at my husband, but when he planted his feet firmly on the ground in confusion, but forgot to release the gas gear, causing the scooter to fly out from beneath him, I had to howl. Good thing I did, because the Bahamian citizens began to laugh along with me at such a ridiculous sight.

John Kelly said...

Soon we will start seeing heartbreaking ads in the paper, right next to those showing Third World kids with cleft palates in need of plastic surgery. There will be the photo of a sensibly, but fashionably, dressed man and woman (funky glasses, smart haircuts) and the headline: "Every minute, one more BBC producer loses his or her job. You can help. Or you can turn the page."

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