Virginia Barton

On the Sunday side of the (Oxford) street

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Catholic Herald, 11 November 1988


There are not many principles for which one is prepared to lay down one’s life. It may sound extreme, but I swear I would measure my length in front of a delivery van if it would prevent Sunday trading. Not altogether for religious reasons, but on aesthetic grounds.

Like the vast majority of us, I live in a town – well, a city actually – and Sunday is the only day one can bank on a bit of peace. The country and the suburbs are much the same any old day of the week. A city on a Sunday wears a fairer face and though I am not prepared to kill to defend it, I would do almost anything else.

Oxford is my patch. Sited for the convenience of tour operators between London and Stratford, Oxford must be one of the top half-dozen most trampled-over tourist attractions in the land. How can one possibly appreciate the curve of a street, or the facade of a fine church, if it is cluttered up to the hocks with people and traffic? If one’s vision is restricted to a few yards, form and proportion remain invisible. Even modest sightseeing becomes hazardous if one’s person is in danger of being mown down by a shopping trolley or two-ton truck. To say nothing about the assault on ear-drum and nostril.


To stand and stare requires peace and space, be it a cathedral or carbuncle. There is a Keep Sunday Special petition to sign in our church. I was tempted to put in a lot of fictitious names to add weight. If it comes your way, do sign it on behalf of the hapless town dweller. One doesn’t expect Anyone Who Matters to take notice of one’s puny objections, but one can always contribute to the cumulative effect. Never underestimate the power of many individuals when it comes to bureaucracy!


Whacky Oxford

Devotees of my city will be delighted with a new Encyclopedia of Oxford just published by Macmillan. Copiously illustrated; it costs – until the end of December – £25. In 1989 the price will be bumped up to £30: a puzzling increase the publishers I daresay can justify.

But it is good value even though neither The Dangerous Sports nor Jump Pussy Jump clubs are included. Those are the sort of whacky enterprises that either madden or endear.


Shades of past

One of the clubs that does receive a lengthy entry is the Oxford Union Society, of which more in a moment. Before I hone in on that “playground of power”, a word or two about ghosts. Are you susceptible to them I wonder?

“Shades” is a more appropriate term for what I experience almost everywhere. Nothing so crude as a clattering skeleton hung about with white drapes of doubtful couture. More of a benign and friendly gathering, silently, obliviously going about its business. Ronnie Knox still does his half-turn with a breviary in the shadow of St. Frideswide. Sebastian continues to misbehave at Hertford College and Oscar stares, entranced by his “blue and white”, at Magdalen.

Generations of undergraduates echo at every staircase, corridor and streetcorner. And Newman sweeps into the pulpit of St. Mary the Virgin to astound and astonish. It would take more than the robotised, re-vamped Rover Group, a model of twentieth century progress, to stifle the sixteenth century flames in Broad Street. A cross set in the road marks the place where Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley were burned as heretics.


Power playground

The Oxford Union Society is anything but spectral. Gladstone, one of the first of a long line of prominent members, is altogether too substantial to qualify for ghosthood. The Union (nothing to do with Trades) is an independent debating society founded in 1823.

The “playground of power” I referred to was the subtitle of David Walter’s mainly twentieth century history of this curious place. (The Oxford Union, 1984, Macdonald). Housed in Victorian buildings of questionable beauty but telling grandeur, the Union attracts about a third of the student population who join as members for life. The facilities (horrid word, but descriptive of the only full-sized billiards tables in Oxford, a bar, jazz cellar, restaurant, TV room) are overshadowed by the debating chamber, the raison d’etre.

The original chamber is now a magnificent library. Here, murals on an Arthurian theme were painted on the walls and ceiling by the young Burne-Jones, Rossetti, Morris et al. These exuberant paintings have been restored recently. 10 pence in the slot magically illuminates these early examples of the pre-Raphaelite work.

Sadly, one of the experts in this field, Lady Mander of Wightwick Manor, died on November 2.

The most notorious event in the “modern” chamber (built 1878) must have been the King and Country debate. In 1933 the motion that ‘‘this house will in no , circumstances fight for it’s King and Country” was upheld. Fifty years on the same motion was hugely defeated – better late than never.

Everyone who is anyone has spoken at the Union and a host of household names learned their debating skills at its despatch boxes. Harold Macmillan wrote: “The Oxford Union is unique in that it has provided an unrivalled training ground for debates in the Parliamentary style which no other debating society in any democratic country can equal”. Members represent every political hue, and though some grumble at the expense of a life membership (currently £62) I haven’t noticed any shortage of beer money.


Alton’s reason

On October 14, the motion before the house was “That Britain’s current abortion laws are barbarous”. It was not the first time the subject has been debated. This hot-potato always guarantees a full house (some queued for three hours to be sure of a seat), and a demo. Police escorted the guest speakers through the placard and slogan brigade.

Inside the chamber the audience was attentive and well-behaved, in marked contrast to what one hears on the wireless from the H of P. Dr. Margaret White of SPUC, Enoch Powell and David Alton MP were the guest speakers proposing the motion. Dr. Wendy Savage, Diane Munday JP and Clare Short MP opposed.

As is usual, they were supported by student speakers and there were frequent interruptions from the floor. Lack of space prevents my reporting the arguments in full. What my cousin used to call a toothful must suffice.

In a speech of spirited wit, Dr. White spoke up for the rights of little people, regardless of size. She pointed out that before an abortion a human being is alive, after one – dead.

Enoch Powell asked if we have the right to play God.

Dr. Savage said she was on the side of women; they should be allowed to lead the sort of life they think is right for them. She maintained that obtaining an abortion is no easy process – which provoked hollow laughter on my part; where are the women who’ve been denied one?

Diane Munday opened with the admission that she had had an abortion and then went on the declare that women came first as far as she was concerned. As I write it occurs to me that half the aborted babies are female . . . I daresay Clare Short was equally dramatic but I left before she spoke.

Had I not been firmly in his camp already, David Alton would certainly have swayed me with his quiet style and reasoned approach. He upheld the right to life over the right to choose, and condemned the mood of utilitarianism and defeatism in what he referred to as our “disposable society”. He argued that when the 1967 Abortion Act was passed no-one could have foreseen that 600 abortions a day would now be performed. The 1967 law was intended to reduce the number of illegitimate births. The opposite has happened and they now stand at 15 per cent and are still rising.

David Alton insisted that the debate must never be allowed to die out, and that to be pro-life is more important than to be anti-abortion. He called for radical alternatives to combat what is now a highly profitable business.

It is extraordinary to me that a man like Alton should suffer considerable personal abuse, in public and in private, because he defends the defenceless. Predictably, the motion was defeated, but by only 77 votes, markedly fewer than last time the issue was debated. Could that be a sign of changing attitudes?


New tide

Support for a view that there is a swing against permissiveness is shown in British Social Attitudes, an annual survey carried out by Social and Community Planning Research. This was a sample of 1,800 people – rather more than the minute sample of opinions I canvassed as a guest of the Union for a few hours. The youngsters I met barely remember life “before Thatcher”. They are working, job-conscious and socially aware. The threat of AIDS has had a dramatic effect on their sexual habits, but lung and liver disease haven’t frightened them off the smokes judging by the crammed, cloudy bar. Nevertheless I felt confident in their presence, and confidence in their future.


Dolly mixture

To revert to ghosts, this time of the ghastly kind. Paul, Jason, and Tricia came for trick or treat on Hallowe’en. Luckily I’d remembered the dolly mixture.

My sister also came from rural Devon. She told a gruesome tale of a headless goat handed in to the local vet. Witchcraft is on the increase. Incredible – in this age of carbon–dating, optic fibres and 40 TV channels . . .


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