Happy punting ground

Oxford and Cambridge
July 14, 2006

Peter Sager lives in Hamburg. He has worked as an art critic and radio producer and is known in his native Germany as the author of a number of guidebooks to the British Isles. As the publisher's press release states, in this book (first published in German in 2003) he "draws on a range of facts, figures and anecdotes to provide a detailed map of Oxbridge".

That Oxford and Cambridge universities occupy a special place in the world is undeniable. They have existed for a very long time. Over many centuries they have created the professional, educated and literate elites of Britain and contributed massively to international scholarship. Far from being disconnected from British society, Oxford and Cambridge have exercised great influence on it. They provide ladders of mobility for the academically talented young from diverse social backgrounds. That they are peculiar places again goes without saying: they uphold the established social order while changing it; they transmit knowledge while undermining it; they are custodians of culture while being critical of it. The ethos of the two universities combines extreme conservatism with unchecked radicalism; they are the haunt of the old in communities dominated by the young; they display unparalleled diversity within each place, and are remarkably quarrelsome. As organisations they are ungovernable, and they nest within towns with which they have ambivalent relationships. They are both places of great beauty: the architecture and the collections of art, objects and, above all, books and manuscripts, have an aesthetic value far beyond their functional purposes.

No wonder, therefore, that Oxford and Cambridge are objects of desire for the tourist, nor that they should be the subject of books written to give the outsider a glimpse of the life within them. I have one such on my shelves, dating back to 1721, which covers the "history and antiquities of the University of Cambridge" and contains a "description of the present Colleges; with an account of their Founders and Benefactors, their Halls and Inns. As also the Heads of those Foundations; and of the Bishops who had their Education there." As the genre developed, there was demand for accounts of ceremonies observed on public occasions, and some account of how the universities worked - who the professors were, how they were elected and what they did. In the 19th century, there was an explosion of biographies and memoirs, all devoting space to student life, and some by foreign authors, such as the American William Everett's On the Cam: Lectures on the University of Cambridge in England, tries to describe not just the buildings and the life, but the educational importance of the university and the philosophies underlying it.

So Sager's book sits in a great tradition. He brings to his subject a sceptical foreign eye; but he is also an enthusiast, carried along by the richness of his material. The implicit claim in the title - that this will be an "uncommon" history - is not wholly borne out since he follows a tried and tested pattern. He has divided his pages into two more or less equal parts. Each begins with a short overview of what he believes to be the essence of the two universities and their place in British learning and culture. He then provides a series of Aubrey-like "Brief Lives" in which he lists a number of worthies, historical and contemporary, who have attended each institution. This then leads to much longer sections in which he goes on tour of the colleges and of notable university sites, with occasional reference to the urban context in which they sit.

Sager is good at telling people where to go and what to see - including some of the less well-known collections of art and artefacts. He writes in a sparkling and jaunty manner, and anecdote after anecdote tumbles from his fertile pen. His research, in true journalistic fashion, is driven as much by conversation as by reading. Consequently, the tone and content of this book is much coloured by those who entertained and talked to him as he passed through the two university towns. This gives the book an engaging immediacy, although there is a whiff of the ephemeral about it. There is also an air of whimsy, in that the fictional Inspector Morse warrants an entry in the section of brief lives of "Oxford Stars".

The book follows conventional wisdom in its comparison of the two places.

Oxford is, of course, much the most famous and more glamorous: Henry James is wheeled out to say, "If Oxford were not the finest thing in England, the case would be clearer for Cambridge." But, interestingly, Sager in his general piece about Oxford gives some reason why this should be so: from Geoffrey Chaucer onwards, Oxford has always had the edge in literary promotion. Sager reinforces this by stressing Oxford's long connection with London and with politics. By contrast, of course, Cambridge is a sleepy market town where the scholars got on with science, as symbolised by his chapter heading "Microsoft meets Cambridge". The perception that Oxford is for the humanities and Cambridge for the sciences goes back more than a hundred years: there was but one great university in the country, someone said in 1905: Oxford, "with a scientific suburb, specifically designated Cambridge".

This, then, is an amusing book. It will give cheer and innocent fun to those who love Oxford and Cambridge and, equally satisfying, it will cause wailing and gnashing of teeth to those who, enviously, do not.

Gordon Johnson is president of Wolfson College, Cambridge, and the author of University Politics: F. M. Cornford's Cambridge and His Advice to the Young Academic Politician.

Oxford and Cambridge: An Uncommon History

Author - Peter Sager
Publisher - Thames and Hudson
Pages - 438
Price - £19.95
ISBN - 0 500 51249 3

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