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.