Oxford lite

OXFORD, England -- Cue the college choir. Roll the “Brideshead Revisited” footage. Lay out the strawberries and clotted cream.

And let me begin by saying, ahem, that it’s a rich experience, reflecting upon one’s days at Oxford. The morning sun through the high stained-glass windows of the dining hall. The undistinguished food on the table. The expertise and eccentricity of one’s classmates. The time-honored squalor of the dormitories. The history underfoot and overhead. Even now, one can close one’s eyes and see the severe geometry of the Christ Church quadrangle cloaked in the shadows of dusk.

Those Oxford days were great days. All seven of them.

OK, mute the choir. The truth is that my wife, Mary Frances, and I came here last summer, stayed a week and then scooted, unburdened by diplomas or aristocratic connections. But we were not mere tourists. We were part of an Oxford University program short on academic rigor, long on atmosphere, erratic in food and lodging, and full of good company. The program, called the Oxford Experience, is run every summer by the university’s Department for Continuing Education.

Our classmates were about 60 half-serious students from North America, Europe and Asia. Thirty-eight were Americans; 14 were retired and the rest were librarians, lawyers, economists, teachers and such. Most were older than 50.

Beginning with lunch on Sunday and concluding with breakfast the following Saturday, we studied and slept at Christ Church, the largest of the more than 40 colleges and halls that make up Oxford University, about 50 miles northwest of London.

We ate in its dining hall, which was built in the 16th century and is grand enough to shame most cathedrals in the Americas. We walked to class through that stately quad trodden by Henry VIII and Cardinal Wolsey in the 15th and 16th centuries, in the 19th by a math professor named Charles L. Dodgson, who wrote children’s books under the name Lewis Carroll, and in the 20th by a chap named Albert Einstein.

Across the lawn at the main gate stood the college’s porters. Bowler-hatted and hawk-eyed, they shooed away common tourists from our private preserve and served to remind us how comfortable a class system can be if you’re in the right class.

The catalog gave me six course choices for that week: the Rise and Fall of the British Empire; the English Country House; the Tudor Age; the Architecture and History of Oxford; the History of British Gardens; and English Cathedrals. (The English Pub Through the Centuries, regrettably, was offered the week before my arrival. Other courses examined the works of Jane Austen or Iris Murdoch, or the plethora of murder mysteries set in Oxford.) Class sizes are capped at 15. The only admission requirement was a ready credit card.

I cast my lot with the empire. Like the others, the course entailed about three hours of classroom instruction each weekday morning, along with various field trips, garden parties and campus tours in the afternoons and evenings.

I liked the idea of studying the empire in the same town that has been training its leaders since the 12th century. I liked the program’s choice of tutor--Chandrika Kaul, born and raised in India, who arrived in Oxford as an 18-year-old freshman and had just completed a dissertation on British propaganda in India.

The course’s greatest attraction, however, was the simple absurdity of digesting four centuries of global expansion, and then contraction, in 15 class hours.

I wasn’t the only one amused by the idea. Arriving at Heathrow on the first day of my trip, I was confronted by an immigration agent, who asked my reason for visiting. Short course at Oxford, I said. Rise and fall of empire. Smiling broadly, he suggested that this was premature.

“It’s still falling,” he said, then turned back to inspecting passports.

The town around the campus, which Mary Frances explored at length while I was in class, wasn’t bad either. Oxford, which enjoys easy train and bus connections to London, teems with more museums, bookstores and pubs than a city of 115,000 deserves, and is surrounded by classic rolling English countryside. (The Cotswold Hills begin just west of here.) Then there are the university buildings.

Volumes have been written about those alone. But it’s a sort of education just to wander untutored from the semicircular Sheldonian Theatre (architect Christopher Wren, completed in 1669) to the domed Radcliffe Camera (architect James Gibbs, completed in the late 1740s); to climb the tower of the gargoyle-dotted University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (which dates to 1315); to navigate by the landmark Magdalen Tower and bridge; to rent a boat and pole and join the punters on the River Cherwell.

One night we caught a string trio’s candlelight chamber-music concert in the chapel of Exeter College. Another night we joined my tutor and classmates for a round at the Head of the River pub, just up the block from Christ Church. Still another night we joined Oxonian friends Doug, Claire and Joe for dinner at a country pub called the Boot. And of course I had to take Mary Frances’ picture in front of the restaurant called the Nosebag.

Poet John Keats called this “the finest city in the world.” Henry James, the American author and chronic Anglophile, called Oxford “the finest thing in England.” Poet and dramatist Oscar Wilde called Oxford “the most beautiful thing in England.” And Samuel Pepys, the 17th century diarist, called it a “mighty fine place.”

That last sounds suspiciously inelegant. But you can look it up, as I did, in “The Oxford Book of Oxford,” a compendium of quotes and Oxfordiana compiled by another celebrated graduate, Welsh historian and travel writer Jan Morris.

Listening to the language, of course, is always an entertainment for an American in England. Sometimes it’s the pronunciation, such as the Oxonian habit of voicing Magdalen College as “maudlin.” Other times, it’s merely the way they choose their words. Failing students are not merely expelled from their colleges; they are “rusticated.” When program director David Beard discouraged us, in his opening remarks, from using cell phones, his principal complaint was “their ghastly warble.”

Hewing to local linguistic custom, I learned never to say Christ Church College, even though it is a college. As Christ Church Fellow John Harris told us on a campus tour, the proper name is just Christ Church. However, “it’s not at all pretentious,” he noted, “for members [alumni] around town to refer to the ‘House’ when they mean Christ Church.”

Of course not.

The classroom itself was drab--the same jumble of desks, awkwardly shaped tables and overhead projectors found on campuses worldwide. But once occupied by flesh-and-blood students, it was far from dull.

“I’m painting with broad brush strokes here,” said tutor Kaul, who clearly couldn’t stand the idea of our leaving without a heaping helping of new knowledge. She explained, as the syllabus and list of recommended reading had suggested, that she would focus mainly on the empire in India. Then she asked the nine of us to introduce ourselves with a few words.

“I am an imperialist,” announced a 60ish Englishman who was employed in Asia as an educator. He wore an ascot and tweed.

The rest of us--five Americans, two Danes and one Japanese--sat and wondered. Was this merely the English way of saying that the empire was his chosen field of study? Or was Ascot Man going to defend old days and unegalitarian ways? The answer, it seemed, was both.

On that first day, Ascot Man asked the Americans whether we still thought of the British as red-coated oppressors. (“Um, no,” I said. “We’re just grateful there’s someone else who’s resented as widely around the world as we are.”)

Ascot Man also queried Kaul, a Hindu, on her position on the sanctity of cows. When a classmate questioned the motivations of the East India Company’s mercenaries, Ascot Man offered an answer that fairly dripped condescension:

“Has the young lady not heard of ‘Queen and Country?’ ”

Later, as Kaul outlined the events that led up to independence in 1947, Ascot Man piped up to say, “I would take exception to the definition of some of these assassins as heroes.”

Each time, the words would hang there for a moment. Then Kaul--a veteran of many an academic brawl in these precincts--would yank the reins to redirect us, and on we’d gallop. After all, we needed to cover 27 years per hour.

I don’t think Ascot Man meant to be rude. In fact, in his awkward, stilted way, he took pains to show gratitude and respect for his tutor and classmates as the week wound down. But sitting beside him was something like sitting beside one of Custer’s lieutenants in a course on America’s Indian wars. He seemed as much an artifact as the colonial curios on display across town in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

In the end, handled adroitly by Kaul, he became a sort of instructional aid, like chalk. We careened from Rudyard Kipling’s poems (“The White Man’s Burden”) to the 25,000 miles of railroad track laid under British direction. And then Gandhi was on the scene, and then it was 1947, and then the Muslims in today’s Pakistan and Bangladesh were resisting the new nation’s largely Hindu leadership and clamoring for their own states.

On the last day, we took a 20-question quiz. Ascot Man was high scorer. He demurred and passed the prize, a history book, to Tom Liggett, a Michigan attorney on holiday from an assignment in Brussels. (Your correspondent scored 50%, slightly above average.)

Unlike other Oxford courses past and present, this one had no writing assignments, no oral exams, no recruiting by Russian intelligence operatives. Also no transferable credits. (Too bad. I would have enjoyed appending this to my Cal State Fresno transcript.)

The cost for the 2001 Oxford Experience (room and board included) is about $1,115 per week per person. The tutors--not full-fledged Oxford dons, but instructors hired for the season--are clearly chosen largely for affability. Most students sign up for a single weeklong class or stay two weeks and take two classes back to back, selecting from seven or eight subjects each week.

Now about the dorms. The program literature noted that the Peckwater Quad, one of two halls housing Oxford Experience students, is one of Britain’s finest examples of Palladian architecture. But they’re still dorms. The buildings are drafty, dank, sporadically maintained, full of groaning floorboards and shuddering pipes.

In our wing, a dozen people shared one bath, one shower and two toilets. Our toilet was up a flight of stairs; our shower, down three flights.

The dorm rooms vary. When some classmates showed us their lodgings on the last day--I remember a balcony, a sweeping view of meadows, a private bath (which cost about $125 extra)--we nearly howled. Our own lodgings were two cell-sized bedrooms, each with sink and shelf, sharing a 20-foot-square sitting room with grimy couch and armchairs arrayed on dismal green carpet around a disabled fireplace.

In theory a housekeeper visited our room daily. But this was to little effect: On about the third day, I laid out three pebble-size crumbs on the sitting room carpet as an experiment. On the sixth day they remained undisturbed.

And while I’m complaining: It was an Oxford University research team that discovered penicillin in 1941, but six decades later in Peckwater Quad, there’s still no cure for mildew.

It’s unfair, I know, to hold a dormitory up against hotel standards. But remember, the tab was $185 per person per day.

And not much of it seemed to be going toward food. The meals served in that dining hall were as institutionally bad as any cafeteria concoction I’ve had in North America. (The family-style seating did encourage plenty of rewarding and wide-ranging conversation among students, however.) One evening’s main course, a greasy sort of casserole, was so murky and befuddling that betting ran even as to its nature: Some said lasagna; some said moussaka. The answer came days later, when a tour of the kitchen, built in the 16th century, revealed the chef’s cooking schedule. Moussaka.

Let me repeat, however, that I liked the Oxford Experience overall. Perhaps mine was not quite the Oxford experience that Bill Clinton had as a Rhodes Scholar here in the late ‘60s. But it took us more deeply into Oxford’s singular history and character than most civilian holidays would have done.

It also gave me a prime seat at the session’s farewell dinner, where at the appointed hour, program director Beard rose from his seat at the high table with goblet in hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, his voice echoing in the corners of the grand dining hall, “I offer a toast to the queen.”

We drank. And somewhere down the long table, I knew, Ascot Man was smiling.