By Caroline Jackson
Age brings both the encouraging experience of longevity and the uncomfortable paradox of expectation. Holding a mirror to its long history, Oxford's future seems to grow the more one becomes aware of its proliferating anniversaries. If only for this effect they’re worth marking — but by any reckoning 2014 yields an abundance of significant dates.
Unlike Cambridge University, which in 2009 celebrated 800 years from the date when Oxford scholars fled hostile townsmen for a quieter life in the Fens, Oxford—with the grace of age—can't quite put its finger on the date of its inception. (Though teaching in some form is recorded from 1096, making 2014 its rather uncatchy 918th anniversary). In 2014, however, Oxford not only celebrates 40 years of full co-education but several of its colleges are gearing up for some big birthdays, too.
Hot on the heels of Balliol's 750th anniversary in 2013, 2014 is the year in which Merton celebrates 750 years, Exeter 700 and Worcester 300. It's not the moment to recite that divisive old ditty about Balliol having the money, Exeter the land but Merton the statutes; Univ (founded in 1249 or, arguably, 872) might justifiably take issue, though its own hazy origin demonstrates that actual years are not really the point. Young, old, or so ancient as to be past the necessity of proof, the allegiance of a college's students, staff and friends very much is. St Catherine's turned 50 in 2012 and Brasenose 500 in 2009, each with as much pride, vigour, and hope for the future as the colleges in the limelight this year and those following.
Indeed, there's remarkable uniformity in the forthcoming festivities. As the candles cool elsewhere, very few associates of 2014's celebrants are in danger of being taken by surprise. All the best parties take planning, and on average 5 years of it according to the colleges questioned. All alumni are encouraged to participate, of course, and paying for the pleasure is part of the privilege — be it for a book, ball ticket, or augmentation of an endowment. Merton enters the final year of its 750th anniversarial Sustaining Excellence Campaign with only £3.4 million of its £30 million target left to raise. By contrast, Worcester's tercentenary campaign 'to re-endow the college' will be launched in February at The National Gallery but stresses that 2014 will be, primarily, 'a year of celebration'.
It seems entirely fitting to such seats of learning that Merton, Exeter and Worcester have all commissioned handsome, heavy tomes at commensurate price — on average £40, reduced for early subscription — well in advance of their respective anniversaries. They are, like those recently produced by St Catherine's and Brasenose, of the history-lite, coffee-table variety and indulge every honey-golden, rose-tinted memory in glorious technicolour. Exeter's The First 700 Years, ranging from Morris & Co's The Adoration of the Magi chapel tapestry to Inspector Morse, epitomises the something-for-everyone approach.
With an enthusiasm to make other publishers weep, one in five Mertonians pre-ordered Treasures of Merton College, a creative canter through the college's remarkable collections through the eye of history, confirming an appetite for nostalgia that has, in the first month of their availability, already devoured over 3,500 tickets for the college's forthcoming anniversary events. These, as elsewhere, include parties, concerts and a series of global 'Conversations' involving the college's international community of minds. Illustrious participants include non-alumni Stephen Fry and Shami Chakrabarti, alongside Mertonians The Rt Hon Brian Leveson and Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe.
Wolfson and Corpus Christi, turning 50 and 500 in 2016 and 2017 respectively, are, unsurprisingly, already planning and more glossy volumes will no doubt appear. If future generations are curious as to why the common feature of these early twenty-first century anniversaries are showstopping, anachronistic door stoppers then they may not yet have understood the insatiable curiosity about past, present and future bequeathed by an Oxford education — one which galvanises each of the University's many communities.