Britain: Oxford landing in the Seventies

Inhaling deeply, Linda Cookson goes back to her university city
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The Independent Travel
I can't claim to have mingled much among the glitterati during my three years reading English at Oxford in the early Seventies. True, I did once rub shoulders with Martin Amis at the bar of the Eastgate Hotel. But that was only on account of the bar being rather over-crowded and our respective heights being rather similar. We didn't speak. And, to the best of my knowledge, he didn't sigh afterwards: "Who was that entrancing creature in the duffel coat, drinking Cherry B and cider?"

All in all, there were quite a lot of things I didn't do at Oxford. I didn't go to any Summer Balls - far too expensive, and my grant had always run out by the end of term anyway. The closest my then-boyfriend and I got to one of these fabled thrashes was when he suffered the ignominy of being turfed out of his college room so that the lead singer of Mungo Jerry could take up residence. Nor did I go to any of those mysterious parties that today's politicians all seem to have gone to, where nobody inhaled the marijuana. (The parties I went to were much more fun than that.)

Undistinguished social life apart, I also wasn't much of a front-runner in the cultural stakes. It was, after all, the Seventies and no self-respecting Pink Fairies fan would have allowed him- or herself to be seen wearing a college scarf, let alone doing any work. Hence, I didn't set foot in a single museum in the city during my undergraduate days - not even to marvel at the Alfred jewel in the Ashmolean or to gape at the shrunken heads in the Pitt Rivers Museum of Ethnology. These delights had to lie in wait for me until after I'd graduated - along with other treasures as diverse as Guy Fawkes's lantern, Oliver Cromwell's death mask and (in the Pitt Rivers) a ballerina made from flies.

Yet I wasn't a total heathen during my time in Oxford. I honoured a solemn oath not to torch the Bodleian library, for example - a ritual that formed one of the weirder highlights of my first week. It came hard on the heels of Matriculation, an induction for new students carried out - in Latin - within the pillared grandeur of Wren's Sheldonian Theatre. For that ceremony I had to kit myself out in "subfusc", the university's black- and-white uniform for formal occasions. In the photos I look like Fifi the maid.

Other memorable moments from Week One include tumbling down the stairs after my first tutorial, drunk on the novel taste of sherry - and, indeed, the first sight of my tutor, a marvellously grand lady of literature, who smoked menthol cigarettes from a holder while a Siamese cat twined itself around her legs. More creditably, I remember gasping with astonishment when I first went into the underground Norrington Room at Blackwells, the city's most famous book-shop. Built out under Trinity College in 1966, the extension houses more than three miles of shelving.

The bookshops in Broad Street remain very much the same now, although a large Dillons has appeared on the corner with Cornmarket. Other habitual ports of call for students have changed a bit. In the cafe world, for instance, the old Kardomah has vanished from Cornmarket, and the Wimpy - which used to have pictures of college dining halls on its walls in deference to the location - has turned into a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet. Happily, though, the greasy spoon on St Giles lives on - and so does Browns in the Covered Market. Here, tea comes thick as treacle and you can watch the shoppers of the world go by carrying everything from unplucked pheasants to jars of fancy pasta.

The other Browns - Oxford's first brasserie, on Woodstock Road - is also still very much on the go. It's larger now than when it opened in 1976, but still distinctive in its ambience of bustle and chat among pianos, plants and overhead fans. I went back to Oxford the other week and had lunch there. My old favourite, peasant's pot, had slipped from the menu. But the hot chicken salad was terrific. New places include Freud's on Walton Street, housed in a former church, and Cafe Coco on the Cowley Road - the latter being "where it's at", according to the newsletter regularly sent to me by the University in the vain hope that I might one day endow a building.

The pubs, unsurprisingly, are still much the same, apart from the increase in Space Invader-type machines and a riot of trendy Italian breads on the sandwich menus. The old-fashioned pubs are still the favourites - snug and cosy (if inevitably crowded and noisy) with their open fires and wood-panelling. There's the Eagle and Child on St Giles, where Tolkein, CS Lewis and others gathered daily to share their latest writing. There's the Turf, in Bath Place off Holywell Street, with its famous beer gardens and barbecues, and the Bear on Alfred Street, which boasts a collection of 7,000 ties. Nearest to the bookshops on Broad Street are the King's Arms (on the corner of Holywell Street) and - on Broad Street itself - the White Horse, where Inspector Morse is usually filmed taking his midday pint.

My trip back to Oxford was before term started. The city was as beautiful as ever, with flakes of snow swirling round golden buildings. But I missed seeing the throng of students. There'll be many more women among them, I hope. (When I began at Oxford, only five undergraduate colleges admitted women. Now all of them do.) Some students will belong to colleges that didn't even exist in my day, such as Kellogg College (no prizes for guessing the nickname). All of these changes, I'm sure, are positive. But I also know that this generation of students - even at Oxford - will be labouring now under the sort of student poverty that didn't exist as we Pink Fairies fans wafted down the Cherwell on our punts. Higher education is now seriously underfunded. I was lucky and privileged to go to Oxford. I was even more lucky and privileged to be there during the Seventies.

Linda Cookson's latest book, a study of the poet Brian Patten, is published in February (Northcote House, pounds 7.99).

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