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Sunday, July 3, 2022

Faces of Oxford: a morning with Hertford Porter Nikki Benton

In those nervy interview days, the first person you met at Oxford was a porter. They handed over the keys to your new abode for the next few nights. We see porters every day, yet few understand or fully appreciate what they get up to.

It was when I locked myself out of my room in freshers that I first met Nikki.i. I had never seen a female porter before, which both surprised and interested me. Whilst Nikki is not the only female porter in the university, nor the first female porter that Hertford has had, she is one of a small minority of women in the profession.

The gender disparity that really jumped out to me. However, Nikki highlighted that being a woman in the role ‘hasn’t affected me at all’. Describing some of her main roles as a fire warden, first aider, email responder and student conversationalist she said that ‘all those jobs a woman can do’. You just need confidence, courtesy and professionalism. 

In recent years there has been much attention dedicated to narrowing the gender equality gap in the workplace. However, there are still many sectors that seem traditionally gendered. Nikki pointed out how strange and nonsensical it is, noting that one of her sons works as the only nurse practitioner in a nursery. It is just a societal norm that certain jobs are considered to be more feminine or masculine, but that doesn’t mean that it is right or impossible to change. Films such as Meet the Fockers emphasise the gendered stereotypes further by constantly promoting that Ben Stiller’s character is a male nurse. But, just as Nikki and her son prove, there is no reason why careers need to be gendered in this way. 

As a student, Nikki dreamed of being a chef, another sector which is heavily male-dominated. After missing out on the course she applied for, she went down the route of baking. However, that was not all she hoped it would be as she said that icing 400 donuts in the morning was not quite the career she had imagined. It was the hotel industry where Nikki felt she grew and developed the skills that she now implements in her day to day tasks as a porter. 

Perhaps one of the most fundamental parts of the job is looking after the college cat, Simpkin, and it turns out that liking cats is part of the job description. Interviewing for the job as a porter at Hertford, Nikki was asked if she was allergic to cats. This just goes to show how central the little black cat is to the college. Simpkin IV is part of the team as he joins the porters on their daily patrols around the grounds. Nikki describes him as a cantankerous character who can be stroked twice but never more. A tip that is good to know as a Hertford student. He is, as a result, a bit of a divisive figure and students, as well as Walter the Exeter cat, have faced the consequences of his third stroke. Although Nikki did note that in the notorious cat feud with Walter that Simpkin ‘always comes off worse’. 

However, Simpkin is not the only source of excitement. As gate-keepers of the college, porters are the first point of call for not only students but also celebrity guests. It was hard to miss the Hollywood buzz around Hertford last term as the set of Wonka landed onto the streets of Oxford. Students camped out in the Hertford marquee, eagerly waiting for a glimpse of Mathew Baynton, Jim Carter or Hugh Grant. However, always maintaining professionalism, the porters were tied to their office, (when they weren’t checking the Bridge of Sighs to ensure students weren’t hanging out the window). Although it must be noted the porters were on the student’s side, often having to remind the filming crew that the college is the student’s home not just a film set. 

Throughout filming, the porters were constantly answering questions about updates on Hugh Grant’s plans to go to his green room in college. But, unlike the rest of us, the porters stayed quite cool and calm in their office. It was, therefore, Hugh Grant himself that approached Nikki, confused that unlike the rest of the student population, she wasn’t falling at his feet. Their conversation was friendly, with Grant curious about her role too. However, what puzzled him the most was the fact that Nikki wasn’t wearing a bowler hat. To his question she answered that it’s because Hertford porters are ‘more relaxed and chilled out’, but quickly added this did not make them any less professional. 

Whilst Nikki didn’t manage to see the much sought after Timothee Chalamet, she could certainly hear the screams and gasps from outside the window. 

Of course, the job of a porter is not all glitz and glamour as the celebrity chats may suggest. There are jobs that no porter wants to do. It’s not hard to guess what comes bottom of the list: cleaning toilets and vomit. All Nikki had to say on the matter is ‘that kettle works hard’ pointing at the little metal appliance in the porter kitchen where we had our discussion.  

The timings of a shift porter allows for flexibility which enables Nikki to pursue other interests. Whilst of course she loves cats, it is her dogs Coco and Prince that happily await her return at home. 

It is clear that Nikki quite clearly loves being a porter. Every day is different, forcing her to think on her feet. Working as a shift porter moving from night to day especially brings a kaleidoscope of experiences. From cake to cats, Nikki proves that it is possible to break through stereotypes and that professionalism means much more than gender barriers.

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