Cross-cultural Observations: Dear Oxbridge

I spent my entire Sunday morning in bed reading the book Dear Oxbridge: Love Letter to England by Nele Pollatscheck that a friend of mine sent me from Germany. I was actually going to be smug about ‘pre-reading’ for #GermanLitMonth for once, but in fact I’ll review it right away, because it says much more about the English than the Germans (yes, mainly the English rather than the British in general).

Photo by Sidharth Bhatia on Unsplash
Instead of filling it with post-it notes while reading, like I usually do, I’ve quote-tweeted extensive passages from the book, because I found it so amusing. I viewed it of course with a wary anthropologist’s eye, so I found it equally revealing about the author and the Germans, as well as often quite spot-on about privilege at Oxbridge, a certain class of Englishman (and it is most often the men she mentions). Bad housing standards and drains, tiny rooms, unmixed taps all make their appearance here, as do private schools, the red trouser brigade of toffs, the stiff upper lip and the constant obsession with the war.¬†¬†
 
 
Of course, it’s fair to say that during her five years of studying first in Cambridge and then in Oxford, the author was living in a bit of a bubble, so it would be difficult to extrapolate her observations to all of Britain or even all of England.
For example, she says at some point that the upper classes tend to be more direct in their speech: they call a spade a spade and a toilet a toilet, while the working classes try to avoid sounding vulgar by calling it a cloakroom. Which may be somewhat true, but then she goes on to say that it’s mainly gentlemen who swear and cuss, and I thought to myself that she clearly can’t have been exposed very much to a pub in an average English town on a Friday night, where everyone is at it hammer and tongs.
 
I’m also rather unsure about her observation that the NHS oversubscribes anti-depressives because they are the cheapest form of therapy and that so many people use them almost routinely. I found that, on the contrary, the GP tends to push you into the direction of CBT rather than pills, even when there are long waiting lists to see anyone and you get only a small number of appointments on prescription anyway. But perhaps this has changed since she was living in the UK before 2016. (Also, it tends to be a bit of a postcode lottery as to how mental health is viewed and treated.)
 
These are minor issues, however, and on the whole I think she feels a lot of affection for the British, but is still capable of casting cold, clear eyes upon them. Unlike me after my year in Cambridge, when I returned to Romania for a year, saw everything British through rose-tinted glasses and couldn’t wait to plot, plan and arrange to get back to my studies in England.¬†
 
What struck me most about the book was how much your own cultural background influences what you seek (and find) in another culture. In the final chapter, the author muses about how she discovered she was more German than she had expected (in terms of punctuality, being quite direct and wanting to complain about things), and that what she admired most about the English was ‘kindness’, an almost untranslatable term in German. The Germans, she speculates, are disciplined and correct, they are even kind, but it tends to be more within the inner circle of family and friends. Perhaps the fact that there is no distinction between ‘Sie’ and ‘Du’ when the English say ‘you’, that most people address each other by their first names, makes it easier to add people to your inner circle.
 
To me, coming from a Latin and Balkanic culture, kindness and generosity were not the traits that most struck me about the English. On the contrary, I struggled with the coldness, with what I perceived as lack of hospitality, neighbourliness and genuine willingness to help (I have lived mainly in the South-East, I should say in my defence, and have generally met with much more kindness in other parts of the country.) However, what I did admire was the calm, the wit, the ability to laugh at oneself, the politeness, the non-escalation of conflict – all of the things which I felt were lacking in my own culture.
 
Dear Oxbridge¬†is a farewell letter to Britain and an attempt to explain Brexit to the Germans. Given how critical the author is about Etonians, politicians, the privileged elite and how the British put up with far too much from their ruling classes, I don’t think it will be translated here any time soon.
 
 
 

Academia or Life? Joanna Cannan’s High Table

Joanna Cannan, Persephone Books

I’d never heard of Joanna Cannan until I saw her in the Persephone catalogue, but she was the mother of the Pullein-Thompson sisters and almost single-handedly invented the pony books genre which I devoured as a youngster. She is also a typical example of what has been called the ‘furrowed middle-brow’ type of literature which was so popular (and so well written) back in the 1920s and 30s.

My librarian thought I meant Joanna Cannon, whose books were readily available, but we finally managed to find one of her books in the deepest recesses of the cellar. The book is High Table, which is predictably about the Warden of a fictional Oxford college. Joanna Cannan herself was the daughter of an Oxford warden, so she knows her stuff.

Theodore Fletcher is the (anti?)hero of this book. A wimpy, self-conscious, anxious little boy of the late Victorian age – clever but not exactly brilliant at school, not any trouble either.

…his accuracy, his copperplate memory and lack of intellectual imagination were admirably suited to the precise demands of schoolwork. He was popular with his masters, for he gave them no trouble and looked like doing them credit, and the worship of the athlete had not then reached the later disproportionate stage.

He is of course the perfect target for bullies – not so much at school, but with the landed gentry in the village where his father is the rector. He is constantly reminded that of his inferiority in social status, social and physical skills, even looks. Luckily, he has the world of books as his refuge and I’m sure many of us earnest and bookish children labelled as ‘swots’ in our youth can relate to that:

All around the room in the shelves stood the books, waiting for you, not criticising you, you needn’t wonder or worry over what they were thinking, they didn’t care if you lost races or cheated at games, they didn’t whisper that you were short for your age or snigger at your spectacles; quiet and brown and learned… they waited for you, and you only had to open them and they’d each a world to give you, not a hot, hurrying, jeering world full of races you couldn’t win and balls you couldn’t catch and trees you couldn’t bear to climb, but the cool, slow, smooth world of the mind…

He goes to study at Oxford, but a holiday fling with a girl socially his inferior (but whose mind he would like to improve) results in a pregnancy. Horrified by what he has done, he shirks responsibility. The girl gets married to a farmer and moves away from the home village, while Theodore continues his academic pursuits in Oxford. On the eve of the First World War, he becomes the Warden of his college. The great pride he feels in his appointment is considerably diminished when he realises that he was in fact the compromise candidate, despised by his fellows but designed to keep other, more controversial although brilliant candidates out:

And now there’s nothing to come, nothing to hope for. I’ve got years and years before me… of being Warden and keeping Haughton out, and all of it to be spent with these men who’ve used me, who put me in this place when they had to find someone for it, because they thought, we’ll be able to manage Fletcher; he’s as weak as water’ he’ll be wax in our hands.

Bitterly disappointed, he then faces another challenge: seeing his beloved college and Oxford itself decimated by the war – or rather its young men disappearing. Gradually, he starts questioning the superiority of intellectual life, which has become meaningless in a world at war:

We’re not waiting. We’re left behind. Oxford’s no use in this, any more than scholarship or literature; a heap of earth out there that a man can take cover behind is of more use than the loveliest of our buildings… this ghastly feeling that your world had been nothing all along but an illusion, that everything you had lived for had been useless, impotent all this time?

Just about at this stage in his disillusionment, fate brings Lennie into his life, the eldest son of his former love, the result of his only amorous adventure. Suddenly, he feels he has been given a second chance to reconnect with life, real life.

I won’t spoil the rest of the story for you, but it is charmingly written, with many astute observations which keep it just this side of sentimentality. And, for all its Oxford setting, it is not strictly speaking a campus novel, although it shows quite clearly the disconnect between Oxbridge and real life. You cannot help but feel sorry for poor Theodore, infuriating though he undoubtedly is – the very illustration of ‘old fogey’. Overall, an enjoyable read but one which also raises questions about ivory towers and just how much we can bear to engage with the mess of the real world.