Quad talk: ‘Fleeting nostalgia for the age of Oxford eccentrics'
2:10pm Thursday 28th February 2013 in News
Robert Douglas-Fairhurst is happy all his colleagues are now extremely dull.
Are dons becoming boring? Not boring in a listening-to-your-lecturer-drone-on kind of way, but the sort of people who seem determined to make the world seem flatter and greyer?
It isn’t hard to find examples. Go along to the average college or departmental meeting, and it’s a bit like being stuck in a lift full of accountants. (Yes, I know there are lots of funny and sexy accountants out there.) Sensible expressions. Sensible views. Sensible shoes.
It’s all a far cry from the period when Oxford’s dons appeared to treat eccentricity as a competitive sport.
In the 19th-century there was W. A. Spooner, whose accidental word-twisting produced what are still known as ‘spoonerisms’, reportedly telling one student “you have tasted your worm, you have hissed my mystery lectures, and you must leave by the first town drain”.
Then there was the geologist and cleric William Buckland, who was determined to eat every known animal, and whose culinary experiments included earwigs, moles, and mice baked in batter. Compared to such roaring oddballs, even the characters in Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland start to look a little dull.
Recent history does not supply equally entertaining examples, although students still talk about the legendarily shy don who used to give tutorials through an open door while he remained in the room next door.
Some tell these stories with a degree of regret. The Oxford they long for is a place of crazy geniuses, where brilliant but unstable scholars will expand your mind, if you can overlook their moth-eaten jumpers and reckless attitude towards personal hygiene.
Most, however, are smart enough to view such individuals with relief, having realised that mad professors are a lot more fun to talk about than they are to be taught by.
Not that an Oxford don has to be especially unusual to gain a reputation as an eccentric. Something as ordinary as a tattoo or a pair of red trousers will do the trick.
Perhaps students are so desperate for excitement that they magnify small quirks into mighty oddities of personality. Or perhaps it is just that colleges are little worlds that make even the tiniest things look potentially monstrous, like a drop of water placed under a microscope. Either way, it might explain why modern dons usually think twice before saying or doing anything outrageous. We tread carefully. We speak cautiously.
We acknowledge that the people sitting next to us are our colleagues, a word that comes from the Latin ‘colligare’, meaning ‘to bind together’. We’re all in this together. So we chat. We gossip. Sometimes we scheme, recalling that the historic meanings of ‘colleague’ also include ‘to join in alliance’ and ‘to conspire’. Most are friendly. Some are friends.
Just occasionally, it’s true, during an especially tedious meeting, it’s possible to feel a pang of nostalgia for the old days, and hope that someone will leap up on the table to dance a can-can, or start feeding the pet chihuahua hidden in their pocket.
It soon passes...