May Day morning. Oxford. A long-standing tradition to be experienced, steeped in history and local culture. Up at 4.30am, still dark, but as the sun began to rise it was within a clear blue sky. Perfect for the welcoming of spring and all things fresh, reviving and British.
Ah. But to get there I had to walk through a cloud of alcohol and sweat and be shoved and dismissed by waves, dregs and lollops of Oxford University students. And therein lay the rub.
The night before a choir sings madrigals atop Magdalen Tower to mark the first of May, as has been done for something like 500 years, Oxford University holds its May Day ball. Many revellers make it an all-nighter and see the morning in with their fellow Oxford residents and the aforementioned tradition. So far, so acceptable.
But have you ever been in the presence of Oxford University students en masse? (Let alone drunk ones). It was a very new, and as it turns out, unpleasant experience for me.
Having now been in Oxford for nearly six months, it has been impossible to escape the striking presence of class in the city. Until May Day, however, it had been in pockets, at moments and usually quite whimsical:
I couldn't believe it. They passed the Port from the wrong side, and they were like 'does it matter?' And I was like oh my God! It was horrific!
May Day, however, brought out the upper-crust youth in droves. The air of self-importance, of not so much looking down on anyone else, but more the total disregard of everyone else's existence. Loud, rude and sick-makingly over privileged, with a sprinkling attitude, of 'Oh my God, being a student is like, sooooo hard." It physically made my skin crawl, but I couldn't quite justifiably explain why.
The last time I had felt that uncomfortable was in America, where the total blindness to the poverty and extreme struggle of a surprisingly large and often (where I encountered it) black population was utterly confounding. Sometimes it was as though a line existed between two streets - one side was ok, the other, you didn't want to walk along at night (or, in a lot of cases, in the day for that matter). Most people just seemed to exist in a pure state of denial about that other side of the street. I couldn't but see it, and I couldn't understand why it was not acknowledged and addressed out loud.
On May Day morning I felt the same again. There was an entirely alien, self-contained and largely put-to-one-side class and community that I could not help but see, hear and feel. And once again, I could not understand, once it had been seen, how anyone could then not be affected, outspoken and searching for an explanation.
There is something uncomfortable about a group of people who are living alongside others and yet utterly distinct from them. Literally bumping into them, but oblivious to their existence or experience. In Oxford, when it is a mere few, who most likely one day will end up in positions of power, it starts to become plain offensive. Why is it so quietly accepted? Tutted at but shrugged off?
No one is outside of class. But there seem to be some classes utterly divorced from everyone else's perceptions. In America, it's a lot of people with very little power. Here in England, it's just the reverse. Both are equally perverse.
I do not have an answer, or as you can probably tell, even a fully formed question. But the photo atop this post, taken on May Day in Oxford, opened my eyes in way that made me want to open my mouth and say 'look'.