Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Thursday, 6 August 2020

Those were the days...

I came across this photograph and the accompanying 2018 article from the Guardian the other week and as an Orielensis it naturally caught my interest. 

‘The whole event was slightly mad’ … Burning Boat, Oriel, Oxford, 1984.

The extract below is taken from the complete article, which I imagine captures the spirit of Oxford in the 1980s very well, and can be seen at Dafydd Jones's best photograph: Oxford rowers leap through a burning boat | Art and design | The Guardian. It is linked to Dafydd Jones’ book of photographs of such partying by students - Oxford:The Last Hurrah.

01_Burning boat, Oriel, Oxford, 1984

Image: © Dafydd Jones/anothermag.com

I took this shot at Oriel College, Oxford, in 1984. I had heard that whoever won the summer rowing competition would set fire to a boat in celebration. Oriel had won seven years in a row at that point, and I remember there were complaints that it was all getting out of hand.

The whole event was slightly mad. After a long, boozy dinner, groups of suited men would run arm-in-arm and jump through the blaze, or dash through the embers in their smart shoes. It was dangerous, but nobody seemed to care.

At the time, Oriel was an all-male college, and the sense of machismo was palpable. Later in the evening, a chant broke out in one of the quads: “No women.” The college had recently decided to admit women, and apparently some of the students weren’t too happy about it. I don’t know whether they were just hamming it up or whether they meant it.

Looking back on this photo, it feels like it perfectly symbolises the 80s: the recklessness and risk-taking of hopping over this immense bonfire in their black tie – it’s the big bang, the Thatcher years and the rise of the City.

By the time I got to Oriel the “Health and Safety” culture had resulted in an old boat, carried in triumph from the boat house through St Aldate’s and the High merely being jumped on in Front Quad by the successful crew ( and Oriel was usually successful ) but not being burned other than in a brazier for when the diners at the Bump Supper came out of Hall. Fragments of broken boat were kept as souvenirs.

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