Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Oxford Blues

Matriculation 1987 - the world at our feet!

Nowhere can I see the ghosts of my former self more vividly than in Oxford. The in-print left on each corner and in each doorway of those hallowed spires is just as strong now as it was in person nearly 25 years ago when I first arrived as a fresh faced and wide eyed student.

A couple of weeks ago, Tris had a conference in Oxford and I took the opportunity to go with him to re-visit old haunts and indulge in a bit of reminiscing.

I wasn’t meant to go to Oxford University, it just kind of happened. I hadn’t applied to go there – I wanted to go to Bristol to train to be a vet. But my predicted A-level grades weren’t good enough and I wasn’t offered a place. I worked extra hard in the hope of getting 3 A grades and a place to study vet science through the university clearing system. But again I was thwarted with 3 B’s. No matter how many times people told me that was still really good, I was heart-broken. I thought that I was just a ‘B’ person.

While I was busy going to pieces, my dad was busy sitting at his type writer, writing individual letters to every university he could think of to try and get me a place. I think he wrote over 100 letters. Without him I would never have been offered an interview to study Zoology at St Peter’s College, Oxford. I will be eternally grateful to him.

Being offered a place there was the best feeling in the world. After of months of rejection and nobody wanting me, finally somebody did – and that somebody was Oxford. It was brilliant and despite spending the first six months there in total awe of the place, waiting for someone to decide that they had made a mistake because I was too thick and taking my place away from me, I fully embraced the whole Oxford student experience and emerged from the other end with a very respectable and hard earned 2:1 degree.

I begged Tris to let us stay at ‘The Head of The River’ pub, where you can sit outside in the sun shine and idly watch the punts go by on the Thames (or Isis if you are a local). However, my reason for wanting to stay there went a bit deeper. The Head of the River brings back incredible memories of cycling down the river towpath at 6am in the morning on my second-hand pink and green bicycle called ‘Nelly Dean’ to cox the St Peter’s gentleman’s third eight boat in the summer of 1988 (my backside was a lot smaller then). The mist rising from the water in the early morning sun, preparing myself to spend an hour sitting about an inch above the still, clear water, shouting at a bunch of strapping boys and trying not to steer them into the bank! I can almost still smell it.

By the time the hour was up, my boys would be all sweaty, I’d be hoarse and the sun would be streaming through the branches of the massive oak trees which lined Christchurch Meadow.

That all sounds very idyllic doesn’t it. However, ‘The Head of The River’ also holds memories of a different kind, of the 18 year old Alison who didn’t know her limits!

In December 1987 a group of us decided to arrange a Christmas dinner at ‘The Head of The River’. Wearing a borrowed coat dress from Wallis with massive shoulder pads and with my hair back combed and lacquered to within an inch of its life, I drank far too much Bacardi and red wine and spent the evening with my head in my dinner.

I have never dared to show my face in there again until a few weeks ago.

On arrival, I scanned the wall for my face / name on a ‘banned from this premises list. Phew – nothing. None of the staff seemed to recognise me either. I figured that I was safe – most of them probably weren’t even born in 1987!

The layout of the bar had changed so I located the position of the table and my 18 year old self at that table, in relation to the toilets which I remembered vividly. I think I spent quite some time in there that night. How very ‘Rah’ and ‘Rock n Roll’ I’d been in my youth, I smiled as I went upstairs to our room where Tris had made me a hot chocolate!

The next morning Tris left for The PhySoc annual conference while I went for a bit of a wander. I walked along the bottom of Christchurch Meadow by the river. I could see in my memory the damage caused by the great storms of 1987. Great oaks ripped from the ground, their roots exposed to the air. We had great fun seeing if we could hurdle them. I looked at the trees today – ‘So that’s what a 25 year old oak tree looks like’ I thought. They were pretty big and made me feel pretty ancient.

I blinked again and saw ‘Young Ali’ and her friend Nicky jogging round the meadow in our final year as students - a combination of stress and weight management. Finals, where three years of study were distilled into one week of exams were extremely stressful. Running around a meadow in leggings on warm summer mornings, listening to Del Amitri on my cheap Boots ‘Walkman’ was a good tonic. Yes, you heard me right, once upon a time even I went jogging. But then it was the 1980’s - everyone went jogging in the 1980’s. The second motivation was to be able to squeeze myself into a Laura Ashley ball gown which I’d optimistically bought a size too small. Even though we weren’t, like most girls of that age we thought we were too fat, and so we jogged and juiced carrots. How ridiculous – I look at myself now in the mirror at 42 years old and think back ‘Fat my arse!’ Youth really is wasted on the young.

I carried on down the river to sit on the pontoon opposite the St. Peter’s College boat house. It’s not the one I remember. That one burned down. But it’s almost the same. I looked across the river and could see ‘Young Ali’ in her beer festival t-shirt, bright multi-coloured culottes and deck shoes being held by four strapping rowers, one on each arm and one on each leg. I watched as they dangled her in a puddle before throwing her unceremoniously into the river. It was the end of a regatta and I had pond weed wrapped round my ankle when they finally managed to haul me out onto dry land.

I filed that memory away before getting back up and retracing my steps to where the river Cherwell meets the Thames. My boyfriend at the time, my absolute first love held the college position of ‘Warden of the JCR and Admiral of the Punts’. This meant he could play unlimited pool and had the ‘master punt card’. As a result I was punted quite a lot that summer.

When my parents came to visit, we decided to take them for a spin. With me, my mum and my dad sitting in the boat, my boyfriend steered us nicely towards and then along the river Cherwell. It was all going very well, until we reached the bit where the little ferry boat went across the river. The idea was that you could pull yourself across to the other bank holding onto the cables which went across the river at chest height. This meant that if you were standing at the back, doing the actual punting, you had to duck! The ‘Admiral of the Punts’ remembered this too late and was caught out. While he was left dangling, stranded in the middle of the river doubled up over the cable, my parents and I drifted on majestically down river. Luckily punts are also supplied with a paddle so my dad managed to get us back to collect him before he fell in. Canon Staples then spend the rest of the day making jokes about being ‘up the creek with a paddle!’

To be young and in love in Oxford in the summer is a very special and happy memory.

I carried on walking up onto the High Street, a quick glance to the right to Magdalen College Tower where the chapel choir sing every May morning at 6am. In my day drunk ‘Sloans’ in ball gowns and ‘Hoorays’ would then hurl themselves off Magdalen bridge into the river below. I think they may have banned that practice now.

Heading on I walked up to the Zoology Department which, amongst all those ancient dreaming spires, won a concrete design award in the 1970’s. It’s beautiful! It was here I attended lectures by the eminent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins on ‘The Selfish Gene’ and other similarly spectacular academics. It’s also where I spent a summer getting naked hermit crabs to fight over different coloured shells. It was science at its most primitive.

On past the Chemistry department with memories of late night sorties with a crazy chemist who had a key to the ‘dangerous chemicals cupboard’ and would try and impress me by making things explode, before arriving at the University Museum, a beautiful building stuffed full of natural history specimens. Not much had changed over the past quarter of a century - if you love fossils then you’ve come to the right place.

The University Museum supplied the specimens for the practical exam I took as part of my finals. There were stations set up around the lab each with a mystery item and a question. You were allowed five minutes before a bell went and then you had to move on to the next one. I remember getting to this one exhibit and being totally stumped. It looked like something’s leg bone (like a cow), but it didn’t have any joints at the ends. I was left scratching my head. Just as the bell started to ring it came to me – hallelujah – it was a whale’s willy bone. It was sneaky, but they didn’t catch me out. I know a willy bone when I see one.
I was lucky enough to have summer jobs for two consecutive years in the Oxford University Museum so I got to go through the ‘No Entry’ signs into the bowels and attics of the building where the bulk of the collection was kept. My employer was a young, Dr George McGavin. Today on his web site he describes himself as Zoologist, Explorer, Lecturer & Television Presenter. Some of you may know him from his appearances on ‘The One Show’. Back then he was just Scottish George.
During the first summer I moved hundreds of dead moths mounted on pins (part of a famous 19th Century genetics study) from old cabinets into new cabinets. It was riveting. The second year I was paid to count the museum’s entomology collection. They only knew roughly how big they were and wanted a more accurate figure. It turned out that they were actually about half as big as they thought they were and therefore only half as important. They weren’t very pleased. And no – I didn’t forget to count any – I was very thorough!
Back out into the sunshine before heading down Broad Street where we gathered in 1989 to march to the Martyrs Memorial to show support for the students of Tiananmen Square.
Past the Nat West cash point where I used to take out £5 to last me the week. This time I took out £50 which I figured would probably last me the day.
And along New Inn Hall Street to my home for three years, the very lovely St Peter’s College, not one of the biggest or fanciest, or richest or oldest of Oxford colleges but definitely the friendliest. Even now, 25 years on I’m still welcomed like a long lost member of the family.
With the Oxford college system, you get to mix with people studying a whole range of subjects. There can only have been about 300 students across all the years at St Peter’s so everyone knew each other pretty well. If I knew then what I know now in terms of who has done what ... I’d love to go back and get them all in a room together.
You’d have: 

1. Celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall (don’t remember him much, he was a bit older than me). 

2. Andy Hornby, former Chief Exec of HBOS who resigned in the banking crisis . 

3. Olympic gold medal rower Jonny Searle (although he didn’t go to St Peter’s, I did do my biology / zoology course with him. I remember he was always in his rowing gear and had massive curly hair). 

4. Simon Beaufoy, writer of ‘The Full Monty’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (*I have a theory about him which I’ll tell you in a minute).
One of my favourite famous alumni stories concerns my college friends Mike, Dom and Dave who played in a blues band. One day, their drummer announced that he was leaving to concentrate on his comedy. They all laughed at him and said ‘But you’re not very funny’. However, he did have the last laugh – his name was Al Murray!
As I walked through the city that day I looked at the students still in Oxford over the summer and thought ‘I wonder who you will become?’
Back to Simon Beaufoy - I have a theory that I was actually the inspiration behind the most iconic part of the film ‘The Full Monty’!
Every year the students at St Peter’s would stage a review called ‘The Green & Gold Review’ after the college colours. In the spring of 1988 my friend Sarah and I decided to perform a dance routine. The film 9 ½ weeks with Kim Basinger and Mickey Rourke had just come out on VHS (and probably Betamax) and was all the rage. There is a famous scene where she strips for him to a sound track of Tom Jones’ ‘You can leave your hat on’. That was what Sarah and I performed.
We drank a bottle of Lambrusco between us beforehand to summon up the courage and in front of a common room full of baying young men we did our choreographed routine. It was all very tasteful we left considerably more than just our hat on, but I’ve often wondered if Simon Beaufoy was in the audience scribbling down ideas for future projects. I do hope so - it would be the coolest thing.
All the ‘Green & Gold Reviews’ were videoed so somewhere there is evidence. When I told the Development Team at St Peter’s this story, none of them had ever heard of the review or of an archive of recorded shows. However, if they managed to find the tapes I suspect that they would easily reach their fundraising target this year just by threatening to make the tapes public.
Surrounded by the memories of old college chums who have all grown up and achieved amazing things, I look at the imprint of ‘Young Ali’ standing there in the quad along side them, so full of hope and potential and ready to take on the world and I wonder how I’ve done in comparison. Its back to that same old question ‘Have done her justice?’ Well, I don’t think I’ve let her down, but similarly I do still feel like there is more to come and having been given a second chance at life like I have, I now need to find my ‘thing’ and bloody make sure I do it. I’ll let you know when I make it to the page of famous alumni!





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