This is the second part of my post on Harry Potter and university – the previous part can be read here. Before I carry on, a quick recap of where the last post ended. “Previously on Quite Irregular…”
So dressing up as a wizard from a fictional magic school in the common room of an Oxbridge college seemed ironic at best and deeply myopic at worst. Surrounded by the towers and libraries where some of history’s most famous (alleged) magicians lived and worked, why play at being in a magic story? Do the detectives of the Metropolitan Police read Sherlock Holmes to each other in the pub? Do the airmen in the Officers’ Mess at RAF Cranwell dress up as Biggles? It was a little irksome having tourists wandering around on tours which promised to show them the Harry Potter locations: few of us enjoyed having our beloved university, with its eight centuries of history, treated as a minor competitor to Disneyland. But to those of who get didn’t get the lure of Potter, to whom they were fun and fluently-written children’s books and nothing more, fellow students taking that attitude verged on a betrayal. We were all the inheritors of this place and our gowns were not costumes, they were the thing itself. Oxford was not magical because it looked a bit like Hogwarts, Hogwarts was magical because it was built from bits of our colleges and legends from our history. “Stop!” we wanted to cry, rising like a furious Partridge from a crucible of ashes, “Stop getting Oxford wrong!”
Of course, we squawked no such thing. We grumbled a bit under our breath and wandered off to the pub or to the river. Strangely enough, we rarely followed these grumbles by disappearing off to the library, and following the example of Doctor Mirabilis or the learned Grosseteste by long hours of study.
When we got to the river, a funny thing happened. If it was sunny enough, we hired the college punt, jumped in, and poled our way down the river in more or less successful style. Sometimes we became hungry or thirsty from the exercise, but this was not a problem as we found we had provided ourselves with strawberries, biscuits and cheap sparkling wine before setting off. Odd, since none of us had ever been punting before university, to our knowledge. It’s almost as if we’d seen it done before, in a film or a book. I’m not sure Brideshead Revisited can take all of the blame, but its subliminal influence certainly would explain the inter-war way we held our cocktails. And before I came across that book I’d certainly never told anyone “You’re a h-horrid boy, and I shan’t love you a b-b-bit.”
Nor was the effect just confined to our spare time. I’d been carrying around a copy of Robert Harris’ Enigma for about a fortnight during a particularly stressful time before I realized that maybe there was a reason I found that story consoling. Brilliant young mind, with mixed-up love life, spends his days staring at a jumble of incomprehensible codes on a page, whilst the history of the world depends on his understanding them? Sheer coincidence. The same goes for John Le Carré’s Smiley novels: we appreciated them as masterly accounts of Britain’s post-war decline and moral compromise. In no sense did we sense a parallel between our own colleges and the dusty labyrinths of Le Carré’s “Circus”, nor did that give us any kind of thrill as we made our own treks through old books and papers. I must stress that at no point did we give nicknames to other students based on the suspects in Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
It’s not just that we all arrived at university with some preconceptions about what life there would be like. (Of course we did, though I’m unsure what sort of an institution I might have expected from Lucky Jim, David Lodge’s campus novels and repeatedly rereading the first section of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. I’m fairly certain it’s one I should have wanted to avoid.) More than that, we constructed our lives through books. We used them to make sense of a baffling rush of experiences and possibilities which university presented us with. First term (and many of the subsequent ones) gave some of us the odd sensation of wanting fewer options rather than more: the opportunities were exhilarating but also daunting. These books and films provided a set of templates to fit around the world, to see which made most sense or to assure us there was some meaning to it all. It was just a bit more obvious when the Harry Potter crowd were doing it, because no-one had thought of making their own Smiley glasses.
In one sense this is what we use fiction for all our lives – to console us, to make sense of things and “re-plot” our own experiences. It’s particularly the case at university, where a lot of people, many of them young, have moved across the country to an institution which continually tells them that they get to choose whatever happens next. Not to mention that those of us in the humanities probably read a very large number of books in order to get to this point, so we have the raw material easily to hand. It also points to the way universities are themselves constructed by imagination. Of course they’re made out of buildings and budgets, and those of us who don’t work on the administrative side could probably use a reminder of that occasionally. But they’re also places called into being by the intentions, hopes, contracts, agreements and snobberies of the people around them.
We can see this in the arguments happening over the purpose of universities on both sides of the Atlantic. Are they economic innovation centres? A permanent political opposition? A safe space to try out the wildest ideas? A way of handing down the culture of the past? A system to train and accredit professionals? A nostalgia factory to provide business and financial leaders with sepia-tinted memories which can then be leveraged to keep a trickle of money flowing to the arts and humanities? The last refuge of discredited ideas and unfunctional egomaniacs? A lot of the time we talk about them as if they’re a natural phenomenon we’ve just come across, whose structure and origins can be investigated in order to determine its real nature. But so much of what universities are stems from how they’re regarded.
The worries which have been raised by some commentators in the US over the super-selectivity of some colleges, which feeds itself since potential students are attracted to the idea of selectivity as an almost tangible virtue, are familiar to a lot of people in British higher education. We didn’t just find these institutions and subject them to tests to determine which were the best. The attitudes of everyone inside them – and particularly those outside them – help shape the way they function. Having said that, the mystique of Oxbridge may be partly an optical illusion, partly slow mass hysteria and partly good storytelling, but it has a real effect on people’s careers. The aspiring lawyer who doesn’t get a place because their university isn’t perceived as elite enough can’t just explain that the firm in question has misunderstood the nature of higher education, and recommend a few books for them to read.
The Harry Potter fans are simply doing, more colourfully and with a larger ratio of broomsticks to persons, what everyone does to our universities. Especially those attending them. Come to think of it, in five or ten years’ time there may be a generation at Oxford whose major point of reference for understanding and enjoying the place is J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard and the films which borrowed bits of it. Never mind Oxford’s effect on Harry Potter, the interesting question will be Harry Potter’s effect on Oxford. So it seems the wizard-impersonators weren’t getting Oxford wrong, they were just getting it rather more Quidditchily than a lot of us felt comfortable with. I hereby undertake to smile upon the next procession of stern Hogwartists I see marching through the streets, on their way to a midnight marathon at the local arthouse cinema. In fact, I may well join them. Taking my inspiration of Roger “Doctor Mirabilis” Bacon, I have already come up with my wizard name, derived from the Latin “fabula”(“tale”, “story” or “invention”.) I shall procure a suitably impressive hat, mingle with the throng, and insist that everyone address me as “Doctor Fabulous”.
 I am aware, though, that these are not the worst or most ill-advised things Oxford students dress up as during festivities. I read the lefty papers too.
 I vaguely remember a friend asking me how I kept going during extended essays, and replying “Think of monks in cold scriptoria. Think of Pangur Ban.” I’m lucky she didn’t think of punching me in the face.