St Aldate's to Old Trafford

January 18, 2002

Are the worlds of Oxbridge and Manchester really so different? Terry Eagleton on swapping the dreaming spires for the ship canal.

Last year, I moved to a post at Manchester University after almost 40 years at Oxbridge, a stretch rather longer than Myra Hindley has served so far. Like many long-term Oxbridge inmates, it occurred to me on being released that I should spend some time in a halfway house, some discreetly anonymous hostel for recovering dons from where I could venture out each day a little further into the world, a bluffly cheerful carer hovering supportively at each elbow. Perhaps, after four decades of college breakfast, they would teach me how to fry an egg, or lay on the driving lessons I had never needed in my ritual progress from college and the King's Arms to Blackwell's bookshop and the Bodleian Library.

Drying-out facilities might also come in useful, along with a language lab for mugging up the non-Oxbridge lexicon of "campus", "office hours", "Nescafé" and the like. Rather as Samuel Beckett's play Breath has no plot, dialogue, characters or action, so the Oxbridge I entered in 1961 had no campus, offices or courses and hardly any classes or departments. There were faculties, of course, but one was only dimly aware of them, as one is of the intelligence services or the threat of eternal perdition. It is only when I have taught abroad that I have occupied a room - sorry, office - on a corridor where everyone else knows who Jane Eyre was too.

This is not an unmixed blessing. Not understanding a word being said around you is an excellent way to defuse conflict. And though Oxbridge's collegiate structure can be a sorely isolating one, it also allows you an enviable degree of autonomy, with no boss breathing down your neck. It is just that being free to do your own thing also traditionally meant being free to do nothing but chair the wine committee.

Nowadays, from St Aldate's to Old Trafford is not such an arduous trek, largely because the former has moved closer to the latter. Oxbridge now has its classes, office hours, managerial jargon and centralised bureaucracy too. The so-called ancient universities are being turned inside out, as the centrifugal flips over into the centripetal. The typical don is less the old boy who regards a firm grounding in Greats as perfectly adequate training for brain surgery than the young scientist who spends more time in the department than in college and who has hardly clapped eyes on High Table.

So moving from here to Manchester is hardly a world-historical event. Indeed, Oxbridge was always a hard-nosed, aggressive place beneath its veneer of unworldly charm, ready to kick you in the crotch as it passed you the port. Its suave bitchery and cultivated eccentricity were always in part a mask for the kind of mind that could play the stock market quite as astutely as it could play croquet. It was never an ivory tower. There are spires, but it is of planning permission and investment portfolios that they are dreaming. And the place always scattered its intellectual progeny to the provinces, lessening the distance between Renaissance and red brick in this way too.

Manchester has been the birthplace of two mighty transformative forces, anarchic impulses that ripped through countless human lives, enriching and destroying as they went. I mean industrial capitalism and Oasis. Now that I have landed in the home of Liam Gallagher and the Hacienda Club, the Beckhams and the Gay Village, I have at least won the respect of my children. (Though as far as the Gay Village goes, Mancunian men have been calling each other "luv" for as long as I can remember.) The city is my own birthplace, too, or at least next door to it, so that this migrating is also a kind of homecoming. The other day I took a tram from Manchester city centre to the Lowry Centre in my home town of Salford, failing to recognise a single street or building en route. My mother remembers seeing Lowry pause to sketch by the roadside as he strolled around Salford (he was a debt collector), and now he is enshrined in this great multiplex postmodern monument a stone's throw from where my old slummy school used to fester. From the centre you can see the Manchester Ship Canal swing bridge, across which my father used to travel to his spirit-stifling work, which is now pickled, aestheticised, preserved as a lovely, useless slab of industrial inventiveness in this gentrified post-industrial desert.

But there is also the exquisite Cumbrian sandstone of the John Rylands Library on Deansgate, of which I have the honour to be a fellow, and a dignified Victorian university that evolved from a college for underprivileged adults. Nothing new here, either: Oxford and Cambridge also began life as crammers for poor scholars, before they turned to the more profitable business of manufacturing the ruling class. The postgraduates I teach now are in one important sense no different from those I taught at Oxford. For both groups, an MA or PhD is a handy way of deferring as long as possible their bleak baptism into a social order that sees as little point in critical and humane learning as it does in wrapping Scotland Yard in sponge rubber.

So there is not much reason to regret an Oxford that in some respects is beginning to look more like Manchester or Imperial College in any case. Literally so, in some ways: back in the 1960s, Oxbridge undergraduates looked and sounded different from other students, whereas now, with their carefully distressed jeans and accents, they look and sound much the same. Oxford still has more clout and aura than Manchester, of course, but that's not something to be nostalgic about.

I miss the Bodleian, and those breakfasts, and so many superbly gifted students. But I do not feel nostalgic for the sweated labour of tutorials, or colleagues who regard having ideas as mildly outre, or the many non-superb students, or the arrogance of an institution in which not long ago the surest way to lose a case for reform was to insist: "But they do it everywhere else!" Anyway, for someone like myself involved in Irish studies, Manchester is a far more appropriate place to be. It is not that I have finally entered the real world. Oxbridge was always, regrettably, that. But I have jumped ship at an age when not many do, from a vessel where most people stay put, and that feels mildly agreeable.

Terry Eagleton is professor of cultural theory and John Rylands fellow at Manchester University. His book The Gatekeeper : A Memoir is published this week by Allen Lane, price £9.99.

Eagleton's glittering career

  • 1943: born in Salford
  • 1954-60: educated at De La Salle College, Salford
  • 1964: graduated from Trinity College, Cambridge
  • 1964: elected to a research fellowship in English at Jesus College, the youngest fellow since the 18th century
  • 1969-89: tutorial fellow, Wadham College, Oxford
  • 1989-92: lecturer in critical theory and fellow, Linacre College
  • 1992-2001: chair of English literature and fellowship, St Catherine's College, Oxford
  • 2001-now: professor of cultural theory and John Rylands fellow, University of Manchester
  • Eagleton, who is dubbed Britain's leading Marxist literary critic, is author of more than 25 books, mainly on literary theory and criticism, but also on ideology and Irish culture. The most well known is Literary Theory : An Introduction , first published in 1983.
    He is working on a book on tragedy and its representation in various European cultures.

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