Tucked away on a corner shelf at the far end of Duke Humfrey’s Library in Oxford is Mallet’s masterful multi-volume history of the University of Oxford. It is a trilogy which maps the origins of the university and its constituent colleges, their histories and their achievements. Mallet’s account is, by and large, about men — most of them very clever, many of them very vain and some of them very eccentric. In Mallet’s view, some of them were very misguided. The Tractarians, who convulsed Oxford (and the wider Anglican Church) in the mid 19th century, were regarded by Mallett as revealing “the errors that accompany the courage, the enthusiasm and the self-confidence of youth.”
Change, still less revolution, does not come easily to Oxford. The last volume of Mallet’s history is called Modern Oxford. “The battle for reform [at the university] is long delayed, the advance of science stubbornly resisted,” wrote Mallet in 1927. What would Mallet make of Oxford today with its impressive array of science and engineering labs and world-class research facilities? Yet, for all the change of the past halfcentury and more, there remains something remarkable about Oxford. The very fact that today’s users of the Bodleian Library can still take a seat in a dark bay of Duke Humfrey’s Library is something wondrous — and some might argue all the more pleasing because, apparently at the request of readers themselves, the most ancient section of the library (dating from the late 15th century) was earlier this year designated as computer-free territory. Gone are the laptops and tablets, gone too are the clutter of cables and the clatter of keyboards. The printed word once again holds hegemonic sway in this small fragment of Oxford’s vast network of scholarly libraries.
Some things in Oxford never change. There are always deer in the Deer Park by the Cherwell which is part of Magdalen’s grand estate, just as there are never deer in the diminutive grassy corner by the chapel at Brasenose which is also jocularly referred to as Deer Park — presumably so called by Brasenose in a sly jibe at Magdalen’s pretensions.
Around St Giles
Oxford, however, is not just ivory towers and dreaming spires — even though the university has been a dominant force in the city for centuries. Indeed there is much more to Oxford than its university. On the morning after the night before, a lazy Sunday with summer slipping into autumn, the road sweepers are out in St Giles clearing up after the revellers — barely aware, perhaps, that sweeping the streets is an Oxford tradition. John Ruskin insisted his students sweep St Giles in January 1872, a prelude to taking them to build a road at Hinksey two years later.