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The corruptability of ‘bright, young things’

Oxford’s problem with excess as encapsulated by books and films.

Sebastian Flyte stumbling through a quad, vomiting through a window, and then taking exquisite care with his teddy bear’s hair; the fictional Riot Club of the film of the same name, a thinly disguised Bullingdon, trashing a pub with entitled glee; Oscar Wilde claiming he spent his days at Oxford occupied with “extravagance, trivial talk, utter vacancy of employment.”

Oxford in the artistic imagination is often less a university than a conveniently beautiful backdrop for the debauchery of rich young men. Of course, it bears little resemblance to the way most students experience the university today. Oxford is built on these myths – Shelley, sent down from University College for atheism, now lounges there in marble, the college reclaiming their prodigal son – but they are also disturbing. In portrayals such as Brideshead Revisited, we can voyeuristically enjoy wild behaviour without thinking too much about its social implications. That world is now too long ago, too removed, and too strange. However, when we see that behaviour in the present day, it becomes disquieting.

Posh, the play by Laura Wade the film The Riot Club is based off of, shows the horror at the heart of that excess, when debauchery slips into murder. We remember, a little uncomfortably, that bright young things are rich and carefree because other people are working and fulfilling their responsibilities. When they finally push excess too far, it becomes an excruciating watch. This myth of youthful wildness at Oxford isn’t always just a bit of fun. There is the argument that this sort of portrayal puts off possible applicants, and, certainly, it ought not to be the only way the university is seen by the public.

Given, however, that most of us aren’t in the Bullingdon, or repressed Catholics with run-down country piles and family fortunes, we may as well have fun with the idea – may as well camp it up. If camp is to do with artificiality and performance, then an Oxford student constantly saying, “God, isn’t this so Oxford”, but continuing to perform that activity anyway, is nothing but camp. There can surely be few people for whom dressing in fiddly black and white outfits for exams, or eating in vast vaulted halls and navigating arrays of wine glasses and cutlery, can come naturally. This is a place which has been so thoroughly documented and mythologized in art and literature that we’re all engaged in the ridiculous performance of being an Oxford student every time we walk drunk through Radcliffe Square, or spend obscene amounts on ball tickets.

Maybe we’re all frauds, or maybe there is no line between playing at excess and real obscenity; but you have to admit, the pretence of it is lovely. – Alice Wilson

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