I sat there on my first morning in class, heart pounding, as I realized there was no way I could keep up with the work. I would fail here. I would have to leave Oxford almost as soon as I had arrived …
That was day one at Oxford and I’ll finish that story during this episode because, of course, I did find a way to stay on.
I studied Theology at Mansfield College, University of Oxford, 1994-1997 and those years had a huge effect on the rest of my life. In this episode, I’ll talk about some of my experiences of the city, my lessons learned, and give some recommendations for where to visit if you travel to the city of dreaming spires as well as some books to read along the way.
- The dream and the myth of Oxford
- Don’t play by the rules. Play your own game.
- Discovering the reality of class and hierarchy within a hierarchy
- What do you really want?
- Losing my religion but not my spirituality
- Always be learning
- Decadence and discipline
- Recommended books featuring Oxford
The dream and the myth of Oxford
The dream of Oxford was conjured for me early on when I read Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. He writes of Christminster, a fictionalized city of learning based on Oxford, “a city of light … the tree of knowledge grows there.” Of course, the split in society between ‘town and gown’ is portrayed as well and the book is actually a tragedy, but Jude equates Christminster to the New Jerusalem, a place to aspire to, and that’s what caught my attention.
I read Jude during my GCSEs (aged 14-16 in the UK), and I was pretty obsessed with Jerusalem, having traveled there in my teens for the first time to work for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. I also went back several times in my gap year before Uni. In my head, the magic of Jerusalem and the magic of Oxford melded together into a possible future.
So, did my dream turn into a reality?
“I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.” W.B.Yeats
(1) Don’t play by the rules. Play your own game.
Getting into the University is a challenge in itself, and my experience shaped my future, so let’s wind back the clock even further to when I applied.
There are different routes into Oxford. You can take the entrance exam. You can be offered a conditional place based on exam results. You can get a scholarship e.g. for sports, or the Rhodes scholarship, which is how Bill Clinton came to Oxford.
I was never going to get in by any of those routes. I was achieving academically at school but not at the genius level you needed for the exam. I was at a technical college for my A-levels because I wanted to study psychology and the only place I could do it was at Filton Tech in Bristol. I left my private girls school in order to do that, and studied Psychology alongside English Literature, Classical Civilisation and also took an Outdoor Education certificate.
I was at a private girls school, Redland High in Bristol, because of an academic scholarship I had won, but I didn’t feel like I fitted in there. My Mum did an amazing job of bringing me and my brother up but we didn’t have a lot of money and I didn’t grow up in privilege. I remember when I left Redland, the headmistress said to me, “You won’t get into Oxford if you leave this school.”
That comment stuck in my mind and made me want to achieve that goal even more. Perhaps her words were actually the thing that drove me to achieve it. I’m a Type A personality and achieving goals is what I love to do. I write something down and then I try and achieve it. So, I think I made the decision quite early on that I wanted to go there.
But the reality was that the technical college did not have a path into Oxford or Cambridge, compared to private schools that tutor young people on how to navigate the process. But I had other advantages. I had a psychology A level and a brilliant teacher, Antony, who inspired me to use my knowledge. My Mum was also fantastically supportive about my ambition and sent me on an Actors course for public speaking for my 18th birthday. Both of these things helped me get into Oxford.
I arrived for my interview at the School of Middle Eastern Studies where I had applied to do Arabic. I went into the interview room and there were three professors sitting in front of me, my chair was in the middle, and behind me was another professor. He sat so far behind me that I couldn’t even see him.
I remember turning around and saying “I’m sorry but would you mind moving in front of me. It’s very important for body language that I can see you and make eye contact.”
He was the professor who offered me a place at Oxford so clearly, I made an impression that went beyond my academic performance. I was certainly not outstanding compared to those who were tutored specifically for Oxford, but by playing a different game, I was able to get in by another route.
(2) Discovering the reality of class and hierarchy within a hierarchy
When I went for interview at Oxford, I stayed at Pembroke College. The University is made up of different colleges and you apply for specific colleges and courses within those colleges. One thing that becomes clear immediately is that there is a hierarchy and certain types of people go to certain colleges.
Part of that is how old the college is and how prestigious as well as how well-endowed it is, and part is about academic performance as ranked on the Norrington Table. So you might think that you have achieved a higher place in the hierarchy by even getting to Oxford, but then you get there, and there is another hierarchy, and then layers within that based on who your family are, what school you went to, how much money you have.
I had never been a part of that world, so it was fascinating to be amongst it. But unlike Jude the Obscure, I did not let it get in my way. I didn’t rage against it, I just learned from it.
Mansfield is definitely one of the colleges that is more open to people from diverse backgrounds, probably because it is a ‘newer’ college and more open to change. I loved it there, but I still remember feeling like, “Oh, I’m not the right type of person for Pembroke College,” after they didn’t offer me a place. My room-mate for interview had a double-barrelled name and went on to do very well in the Oxford Union, with its famous debating hall. I was just not in that league.
If you look at some of the alumni of the different colleges you will see that different aristocratic families or different wealthy families will go to specific colleges. For example, Christchurch College boasts 13 UK Prime Ministers among its alumni as well as royals like King Edward VII, Albert Einstein did a research scholarship there, and of course, Charles Dodgson was there who wrote as Lewis Carroll, artist John Ruskin, and poet W H Auden. Mansfield College alumni are not quite as famous — yet!
I also discovered that hierarchy is not just about money or what school you went to. It was also about experience and knowing how to behave in certain situations. I had to learn about eating at formal hall where you would wear your gown and you’d have the different courses with different cutlery and different wine. I had never been in those situations before Oxford. There was even a hierarchy in the types of gowns you wore depending on scholarships and exam results.
I didn’t know about wine. My Mum wasn’t a drinker and although I had tasted wine before, I had never tasted a St Emilion Grand Cru. I had never chosen wine from a wine cellar. I didn’t know which wine to drink with which course. Those things might sound petty but when you’re in an environment where people do that type of thing naturally, you have to learn quickly or you look like an idiot. It was pleasurable learning!
I had my first gin and tonic at Oxford. I had my first oysters and smoked salmon. I remember those things because in my world, they were unusual, whereas in the world I had gone into they were normal. Later in life, I can still choose a good bottle of wine and I still enjoy a good gin and tonic and some oysters!
The people I met were not superior in their attitude, they were just superior in the way that they understood the world that I was now in. So I had to learn a whole different game to fit in there.
If you’re visiting Oxford out of term time, then you can visit some of the colleges. Some are free and some require an entrance fee of varying prices. You can also join a walking tour. You can’t really appreciate the colleges from the outside as they are built around quadrangles — square, grass places for croquet and events, not for walking on! Many of the treasures also lie within the walls, so definitely go take a look at a few.
My recommendations would include Christchurch for the dining hall used in the Harry Potter movies and its cathedral, Exeter for the chapel, Trinity for the gardens, Univ for the gorgeous Shelley memorial sculpture, and Magdalen for the walks (they even have deer).
For fantastic views on a good day, climb the tower of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. I recommend going as early as possible to avoid the tourist crowds who arrive by bus around 10.30am. There is only one very tight stairwell up the tower, so dash up as soon as it opens for views over the Rad Cam, All Souls and the city of dreaming spires in all its glory.
(3) What do you really want?
I went up to read Arabic at Oxford, but again, this was a pretty interesting choice because I had two offers I thought seriously about and my decision shaped my future.
Arabic at Oxford was focused on classical Arabic with a second year in Alexandria in Egypt. I had worked out in Israel in my gap year with a charity aimed at helping Palestinians and Israeli Arabs and Jewish Israelis to work together. My goal was to go into the Foreign Office and later potentially the United Nations. I always wanted to be Bhoutros Bhoutros-Ghali! I was passionate about peace in the Middle East and I wanted to be part of that. So I thought studying Arabic would position me for a future in politics.
My other offer was at the University of Leeds, and if you know anything about England and you compare the two cities of Oxford and Leeds, they are two very different places. Leeds is hugely multicultural and a modern city with a focus on integration and the future, whereas Oxford is ancient, with historic architecture and certainly not as multi-cultural. The Leeds course was entirely focused on modern Arabic and (I think) also had a year studying in an Arabic speaking country.
But when I went up to Leeds to have a look around, I just didn’t feel at home whereas when I entered Oxford, I knew it was the right place for me. The Leeds course would have been definitely better for what I wanted to achieve in terms of my career — or the career I thought I wanted — but Oxford was where I wanted to be.
When I looked at what I really wanted, it was Oxford over and above the course in Arabic. And that decision came back to haunt me pretty quickly!
I sat in the Arabic class that first morning and the professor wrote words on the board and pointed at people in the class and you had to read it. He was assessing our initial ability and as the others spoke Arabic naturally, I realized there was no way I could keep up with the work. I would fail and fail quickly. I would have to leave Oxford almost as soon as I arrived …
There were a lot of people in the class who already spoke modern Arabic who’d come to study classical Arabic. It’s a bit like people who speak English studying Chaucer. I went back to my room that day, my brain working overtime on my options. My Mum had moved to the USA so I had no ‘home’ to go back to. I had already taken a gap year and I didn’t want to take another one. I could probably get into Leeds at that late stage, but I loved Oxford from the moment I arrived.
I went to the college faculty and said “I don’t think this is the course for me. What else do you have?” Mansfield used to be a theological college, and in fact, one of my distant ancestors, William Penn the Quaker, is on a stained glass window in the Mansfield Chapel.
I had done Greek GCSE (aged 14-16 in the UK) and one of the Theology papers was the New Testament in Greek. I was also an evangelical Christian at the time, and having worked for a charity in Israel, I had enough baseline knowledge that the tutor said, “Write this essay on the Gnostic Gospels by Friday and we’ll see.” I went away and wrote that essay and they allowed me to stay and do Theology, so basically, I transferred into doing Theology within a couple of weeks of starting Oxford.
This was a lesson learned because when I examined what I really wanted at a deeper level, it was not to do classical Arabic, it was to be in Oxford. The degree subject was less important to me than the place.
This might seem strange to those of you who have ‘useful’ degrees, but it’s quite common in the UK to have degrees that are more focused on the learning and experience aspect, rather than being topic specific. I guess it’s called a ‘liberal arts’ education in the USA.
Theology at Oxford hasn’t changed much over time. I studied the New Testament in Greek, Patristics, the history of the early church fathers, as well as topics like Israel before the exile and Israel after the exile. It was history and law and religion and languages and I also did some more modern papers, like psychology of religion which has shaped my fiction. If you read Stone of Fire, you’ll hear my thoughts about Oxford in the mind of Morgan Sierra. Crypt of Bone is actually based on my thesis which was on the psychology of obedience in fundamentalist religion — why do people do things in the name of God?
It was inspired by the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by a fundamentalist Jew in 1995. He said ‘God told him to do it’ because Yitzhak Rabin was working with Yasser Arafat to bring peace to the Middle East. There is a classic photo of them both on the White House lawn shaking hands in front of Bill Clinton. It was probably the high point in the last 25 years of the Middle East peace process and Rabin’s death set it back many years.
So, ultimately, it was a choice to stay at Oxford rather than to follow the path into Arabic, but my interest in the Middle East has remained and many of my ARKANE thrillers have aspects of Israel in them.
(4) Losing my religion but not my spirituality
I went up to Oxford as an evangelical Christian. I’d converted at school and been baptized at aged 15. I was involved in a brilliant youth group and super fun church with a band, but as I began to study Theology with the academic rigor of Oxford, I couldn’t reconcile much of evangelical thought with things I now knew had a different historical and cultural context.
So I lost my religion but I didn’t lose my spirituality and I still have the deepest respect for people of faith, some of whom were my teachers at Oxford.
I remember particularly Dr John Muddiman, Anglican priest, and Fellow in New Testament Theology at Mansfield, author of Bible commentaries, and Reverend Dr. Charles Brock. I also had tutorials with a nun and separately, with a monk at Blackfriars Hall — who became the inspiration for Father Ben in my ARKANE thrillers.
My fiction is full of my own search for belief, the line between science and faith, and some of my own spiritual experiences through the eyes of Morgan Sierra. My spiritual side definitely emerges in my writing, and Oxford helped me question the dogma of religion to find my own truth beneath.
I still appreciate the God of the desert who inspired Abraham and Moses, and the God of nature who inspired the Psalms, and the jealous God who smote the Philistines, or the God of judgment at Megiddo. I loved learning about the historical and political aspects of what I only previously knew through the lens of belief.
I find God in beautiful architecture as well as in nature and in people and I definitely found all of that at Oxford.
I was still part of the Christian Union when Archbishop Desmond Tutu came to speak at Mansfield. I was a server at his service and I still remember his smile as he signed my copy of The Rainbow People of God.
5) Always be learning
Oxford is based on the tutorial system which means there are lots of lectures available, but your main form of education is the tutorial.
Every week of term, you would be given an essay to write on a question or a topic. You were given a reading list that might have 20 to 30, perhaps more, books or articles that you needed to read and assess to put into your argument. You would go away and do the reading, prepare your essay, then meet with your tutor, one of the professors. You might also have a tutorial partner, or you might have a tutorial on your own.
You would read your essay and then discuss it with the professor who was obviously an expert on the area. So the focus was on reading a lot, assimilating information from various sources, producing an essay, and then defending your point of view in front of an expert. Every week.
I loved it! I used to work most days in the Radcliffe Camera at the Bodleian Library, which is the big round building you see in pictures. It was an absolutely amazing place to work, and for my ARKANE thrillers, I made it the model for my virtual reality library, a repository of the world’s secret knowledge.
Back in those days, we had to handwrite our essays. The second year I think we had a computer room so you could type up your essays. In the third year, I had my own computer — one of those massive ones — but I would still print in the computer room. There’s no computer room there any more. People have their own laptops, but it’s fascinating to think that was the time (1994-1997) when technology shifted. I certainly did not use computers very much until my second and third year at university and had my first email account then, too.
So I learned independence in terms of learning as well as responsibility for my own work. I also never felt looked down upon. I remember only respect and encouragement from the wonderful professors.
They were men and women of faith but they did not push their beliefs. There was respect for all paths, providing you could defend your position. I remember going to a wonderful debate on science vs. religion with Professor Richard Dawkins, famous atheist and author of The Selfish Gene, and I think it was Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, or another prominent Rabbi at the time.
My friends at college also came from different perspectives. My boyfriend was studying Physics, as was one of my second-year flat-mates. My friends were theologians, philosophers, mathematicians, physicists, historians, and lawyers. I was in this milieu of academic knowledge and I loved it!
Most of my recommendations for Oxford are based on being a biblioholic! You must must must visit the Bodleian Library. Take one of the official tours so you can see the 15th century Divinity School with its incredibly ornate carved ceiling, the Duke Humfrey’s medieval library which features in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, and the Radcliffe Camera, which still appears in my novels many years later.
There’s also the Weston Library, a new extension to the Bod over the road, which has exhibitions and a lovely cafe. It’s worth checking out what’s on while you’re visiting, and as with most things in Oxford, book in advance.
Next door to the Weston is Blackwell’s bookstore. Budget extra time and money for your visit and make sure to check out the Norrington room downstairs.
There are a lot of museums in Oxford, but I particularly recommend the Ashmolean Museum and the Pitt Rivers at the Museum of Natural History, again, both of which I weave into my novels.
The Ashmolean has an incredible permanent collection but also regular exhibitions and also has a rooftop restaurant. Like the British Museum in London, I always pick up story ideas when I am in there. It features particularly in End of Days — does one of the seven seals of the apocalypse reside in its collection?
The Pitt Rivers is different because it arranges objects by type, so its display cases are more like a journey into discovery. It features in Stone of Fire as the headquarters of the ARKANE Institute which lies beneath the official halls.
(6) Decadence and discipline
You can tell that I worked hard at Oxford, and I loved the discipline of learning on my own terms. That independence has served me well over the years and I am driven by my desire to learn as much as any externally set essay question.
But I also learned decadence at Oxford and the carnal pleasures of wonderful food, plentiful alcohol, love, and sex. I had my first serious relationship at Oxford, as well as my first lovers.
There is a wonderful dichotomy between discipline and decadence at the University. People work seriously hard and the daylight hours during the eight weeks of term are certainly devoted to working. There is no place for slackers. There are exams at the end of the first year and if you didn’t pass the exams, you were ‘sent down,’ you had to leave the university.
But when the tutorials were over and the bar opened, or we went to a college bop, or on a booze cruise, or we had formal hall, or went to one of the college balls, or we lay in the meadow with Pimms and lemonade, or drank mulled wine at The Turf on a winters night, or spent money we didn’t have on battels for wine from the cellar, decadence became our focus. My memories are understandably hazy but certainly pleasurable!
Oxford has a system called battels, basically a credit system with the college that you put your meals and alcohol and bar tab to. You pay it off later, at the end of term or if the balance gets too big. You’re not allowed to graduate until you pay off your battels.
If you’d like some decadence in Oxford nowadays, I’d recommend staying at Malmaison in the old jail, its a luxury hotel but you can stay in the old cells or The Old Bank on the High Street. For eating well, try The Old Parsonage, or Gees, which is set inside a Victorian glasshouse.
For drinking in Oxford, try cocktails at Freuds bar in Jericho, a Pimms and lemonade if its summer out at the Trout Inn in Wolvercote, or a pint of local ale in The Turf or the KA (Kings Arms).
Remember that Pimms is often served with a variety of salad — so you might get cucumber, strawberries, mint, sometimes even celery! Just pretend it’s healthy!
For walks in the glorious sun in summer, wander down Christchurch Meadow to the Thames and watch out for the boat races or Eights in training runs.
If you walk along the towpath, watch out for the bikes. You can also wander back up the River Cherwell and head to Magdalen Bridge (pronounced Maudlin) where you can check out the Botanic Gardens or hire a punt to head further up towards Angel and Greyhound Meadow.
In my first year, I was stroke of our college Second Eight. I’d get up early and cycle down the river in the misty morning along the towpath to the boathouse. I remember one morning seeing two swans asleep on the water, just drifting down together in the mist. It stuck in my mind, and of course, we were never great at rowing, but it was fun and a lot of celebrations were had after bumps. Definitely discipline and decadence!
Oxford was my home … but now I just love to visit
I have considered moving back to Oxford several times because it is one of the only places that I can never get enough of. Like London, it has infinite variety, at least of the intellectual kind. Every time I go I wonder what it would be like to live there as an author rather than a student, and Morgan Sierra, my main character in the ARKANE books, has her home in Jericho near the University Press.
But Oxford is so bound up with memories and dreams and fantasies that perhaps it would only ever be less than what is in my mind.You can't live in memory. You need to forge new experiences.Click To Tweet
Plus, it’s pretty hectic and touristy in the summer!
But Oxford has definitely shaped my idea of home. I love beautiful architecture, a deep sense of history, and a walkable city with opportunities for learning as well as decadence. I also love to walk in nature and be near water, and Oxford has both a river and a canal and a lot of parks and green space around and even within the colleges.
Oxford is deeply layered with history and culture, and if you love knowledge, and you want some great Instagram shots, you will love the city of dreaming spires.
Recommended books set in Oxford
- Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh. Pleasure and privilege in this classic of the aristocracy.
- His Dark Materials trilogy – Philip Pullman. Lyra and her daemon, Pan, set off on an adventure into the frozen north …
- All Souls Trilogy – Deborah Harkness. Set in an Oxford populated by witches, vampires and demons as they search for an ancient book of power.
- An Instance of the Fingerpost – Iain Pears. Historical mystery set in 1663.
- Trick of the Dark – Val McDermid. A groom battered to death just hours after his wedding in the grounds of an old Oxford college.
- Stone of Fire – J.F.Penn. Morgan Sierra is a psychologist at Oxford when she becomes embroiled in a dangerous hunt across the globe for the Pentecost stones, relics of power that ARKANE will stop at nothing to find …
- The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon. A dreamer who can start a revolution.
- Inspector Morse books – Colin Dexter. Classic crime fiction series set in the town and gown of Oxford
- Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy. Jude Fawley is a rural stone mason with intellectual aspirations who heads to the university city of Christminster to pursue his dreams.