Oxford Diary

By Sasha Polakow-Suransky ’01 / March / April 2004
June 15th, 2007

Late September. “Sailing Weekend,” Washington, D.C.

In the wee hours of last september 28, the right Honourable Lord Waldegrave of North Hill, chairman of the Rhodes Trust, was roused from his slumber in a posh Dupont Circle hotel in Washington, D.C., by a group of rowdy youth cavorting in the hallway—some of the thirty-two U.S. Rhodes Scholars whose term was about to begin. The Rhodes Scholarships were created in the will of Cecil John Rhodes, who is politely described in Rhodes Trust publicity materials as a “British philanthropist and colonial pioneer,” but who is more accurately characterized as a British diamond magnate and imperialist who was chairman of the De Beers Consolidated Mines in South Africa. Thanks to Rhodes—after whom Rhodesia was named—my fellow scholars and I were about to spend two or three years studying at Oxford. Although according to the Rhodes Trust press release, we were chosen on the basis of “high academic achievement, integrity of character, a spirit of unselfishness, respect for others, potential for leadership, and physical vigor,” it was Rhodes’s intention that we above all be disposed to public service, or at least to making some kind of positive contribution to our fellow humans.

Lord Waldegrave was in Washington for our orientation, which over the next several days would include visits to the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Supreme Court, and the CIA, as well as an evening of hobnobbing at the British Embassy. This elaborate send-off—which still retains the name “sailing weekend” from the days when the newly elected scholars crossed the Atlantic by ship—turned out to be a pleasant surprise. As Rhodes Scholars, we were afforded the kind of access that I, for one, had never experienced, even after two years as a Washington journalist. We attended a Senate luncheon with Senators Paul Sarbanes and Richard Lugar, of Maryland and Indiana respectively, an hourlong Q&A with Supreme Court Justice David Souter, a panel discussion with World Bank officials, and a breakfast with Washington Post editors.

Most of these visits, while interesting, contained few surprises, but a few were feisty and entertaining. I wonder, for example, whether the CIA will be inviting any more Rhodes Scholars back to its Langley, Virginia, headquarters anytime soon, at least not for a question-and-answer session. After undergoing background checks and passing through X-ray machines, our group was shepherded by agency handlers through that oh-so-famous lobby that appears in movies such as Spy Game and The Recruit to a conference room adjacent to the cafeteria. There we were greeted by low-level officials—the Associate Deputy Director for Intelligence for Strategic Planning and Programs comes to mind—who presented us with an impressively dull overview of the agency’s work. Then, as eyes began to glaze over, some of us started to question the presenters in ways that the average tour group member probably does not. Recalling the CIA-supported coup against Chilean president Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973, Yale Rhodes Scholar Chesa Boudin asked whether the agency considered “the destruction of Chilean democracy a success story.”

“I’m not qualified to answer that question,” was the curt reply.

Touching on a more immediately raw CIA nerve, another scholar asked, “Is the CIA really relevant anymore?” before going on to say, “Everyone in this building knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and to your credit, you probably told the president that. But he didn’t listen to you. He just went cherry-picking elsewhere for the intelligence he needed to make the case for war.” This did not go over well. Clearing his throat, the associate deputy director said that he disagreed with the premise of the question and then called on the next raised hand. And so began an hour of pointed questions and equally sharp evasive maneuvers which put on display some of the most impressive spin-doctoring and finest nonanswers seen outside a televised presidential debate.

The week was punctuated with a lavish luncheon at Washington’s Cosmos Club, which convinced me once and for all how important those pre-interview Rhodes cocktail parties had been to our selection. After all, scholars are not judged solely on academic merit. Mr. Rhodes wanted his beneficiaries to show “moral force of character,” “instincts to lead,” “sympathy for the protection of the weak,” and “fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports.” That latter qualification is a bit of a problem, though, since, thanks to nothing less than an act of parliament, women are now allowed to compete for the Rhodes scholarships and, thus, I suppose, to show their prowess in manly sports. Though not explicitly stated in Rhodes’s will, a high premium seems also to be placed on a scholar’s ability to schmooze comfortably with political, business, and intellectual elites. It pays off: the crowning achievement of all this cocktail-party diplomacy was an agreement from a high-ranking British Airways executive—a former Rhodes Scholar himself—to exempt us from onerous excess-baggage fees.

October 4. In Oxford and Settling In.

After all of us scholars had reached London and then arrived in Oxford itself, we settled into university housing and eventually convened for a formal dinner at Rhodes House, followed by a slew of informational meetings. We also viewed a video biography of Rhodes’s life in South Africa. Narrated by an amateur historian, the video was more homage than history. Rhodes’s ghost, in fact, still towers over the city of Cape Town, South Africa, gazing down from high atop a mountain, where he sits enthroned in a Lincolnesque memorial surrounded by eight bronze lions. His staying power in post-apartheid South Africa is impressive for a man who plundered much of the region while amassing his fortune. He worked tenaciously as a politician to disenfranchise blacks, and dreamed of conquering Africa from the Cape to Cairo. Yet he remains immortalized in countless statues, highways, buildings, and even in a posh Cape Town nightclub.

Although for many of us, the video’s airbrushing of Rhodes’s legacy was too much to stomach, the Rhodes Trust is currently involved in a sweeping effort to give something back to southern Africa. “Rhodes represents the vision of imperialism, and Mandela on the other hand represents the vision of a free South Africa,” says John Samuel, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which, together with the Rhodes Trust, established the new joint Mandela Rhodes Foundation. “The challenge in fact is how do you take this historical irony and use it to create a better world?”

After our Washington pampering, settling in on campus was slightly disorienting. Since we were new to Oxford, we Rhodes Scholars had to attend an obligatory and somewhat medieval matriculation ceremony, during which I, like the other men in the group, was required to wear a cap and gown over a suit and a white bowtie—all to listen to a lengthy speech in Latin by the vice chancellor.

Then there were the libraries. Because Oxford retains a feudal structure in which the central university is secondary to the far more important individual colleges, scholars must repeat the same library orientation over and over again. This barrage of introductions took its toll, as did the realization that there are more than forty libraries on campus, most of which do not allow students to borrow books. Of those that do, each has its own classification system, so that the same book has different call numbers at different libraries.

Though Oxford’s Bodleian Library (established in 1602) is one of the most beautiful works of architecture I’ve ever seen, I missed the accessibility of the Rock back in Providence, where I could actually browse the shelves, not to mention check out books. At the Bodleian, most of the books are kept out of reach. Oxford offers more incentive to go to a pub than to study on weekends, given that most libraries are closed and those that are open Saturdays admit visitors starting at 9 a.m. and tend to close by 1 p.m. This often means a four-hour window in which to work.

The libraries are where I, as a graduate student, am expected to spend the bulk of my time. Aside from biweekly meetings with a supervisor, I am free to explore the smaller lending libraries, attend a few seminars, and fill my time with whatever other pursuits I find rewarding. The whole thing is disconcerting even for a Brown alumnus, well-versed though I am in unstructured curricula. The situation actually left me craving some sort of order. Not to mention good food. Though St. Antony’s College ostensibly has one of the best cafeterias on campus, the food tends to be virtually the same every day—even if it is creatively renamed for a different region of the world. The ubiquitous chicken breast, for example, is occasionally red in hue, and on those days it bears the name “hoisin chicken.” When orange, it is either “chicken tikka masala” or “Afghan chicken”; when breaded, “Mexican spicy chicken.” Likewise, the meat stew with carrots often takes on the name “rogan josh,” with few variations in seasoning to justify the nomenclature.

Another institutional shock is the near absence of minority students on campus. Put simply, diversity at Oxford is a joke. Eight percent of England’s population is made up of ethnic minorities; in the city of Oxford that number is 11 percent and rising rapidly. Yet most of the diversity at the university seems to come from Rhodes and Marshall scholars. Though this year’s U.S. Rhodes class is not particularly diverse, the presence of scholars from India, Pakistan, Kenya, and southern Africa make it substantially more diverse than the campus as a whole. Even my own college, St. Antony’s, which is known as Oxford’s most international, is visibly lacking when it comes to racial diversity. By contrast, ethnic minorities constitute a majority of the student body at newer urban campuses such as London Metropolitan and South Bank. While Oxford is moving slowly to address the issue, there is a discernible lack of interest in it among students. At a recent Oxford Student Union conference addressing race, ethnicity, and nationality—the kind of event that would likely draw hundreds on an Ivy League campus—fewer than twenty people showed up, and several of them were American Rhodes scholars.

As charming and picturesque as Oxford may be to me and other newcomers, the town has recently made the news in a less-than-flattering light. A new book called Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places to Live in the UK has ranked Oxford thirty-first. The book has been pulled from the shelves of Britain’s bookstores, pending legal action by the nearby town of Didcot. Oxford’s poor ranking has left some of the town’s well-to-do literati somewhat incredulous. The book explains that Oxford’s international status as a tourist attraction and world-class university “unfortunately comes at the expense of dumping most of the poorer sections of the community in large desperate estates,” the British term for public housing projects. These neighborhoods are rarely seen by tourists or students, though a majority of the people who keep the university running on a day-to-day basis come from them. According to the local resident who cleans my house, there is an increasing drug trade and gang violence on the margins of Oxford, a fact to which the student body seems happily oblivious.

October 20. Buckingham Palace.

Today crowds of Rhodes Scholars clad in suits were bused to a somewhat tense Buckingham Palace, which was nervously awaiting the impending release of former Butler Paul Burrell’s book, A Royal Duty. There, we were treated to a self-guided tour of the Royal Family’s private art collection (which includes Rembrandts and Caravaggios that have never left the palace) as well as fine finger foods and prodigious amounts of gin and tonic. Mingling with the scholars were various palace officials, including Ladies in Waiting and the Keeper of the Privy Purse. All scholars were greeted personally by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh while others chatted with the palace’s guest of honor, Nelson Mandela. The event once more moved our schmoozing skills to the forefront.

Most of us passed down the receiving line with little more than a handshake and a bow. Still, a few Rhodes Scholars managed to establish a rapport with the royal couple. Permitted to wear “national dress” at the reception, one scholar from Bermuda arrived at the palace in red Bermuda shorts and told the Duke of Edinburgh that “any well-dressed man shouldn’t be afraid to show his knees,” which seemed to amuse the Queen and the Duke quite a bit. Others managed to gain Her Majesty’s rapt attention by discussing her Sandringham Estate stud farm and her beloved Welsh Corgi puppies—one of which has since been mauled to death by a larger royal canine.

When my turn came, the announcer of guests garbled my name, prompting a series of royal inquiries about the national origins of my most peculiar surname. I replied that I was American, but the Queen was unconvinced. I explained that my grandparents had been Russian, and she nodded, “Yes, yes, I thought so.”

I fared a little better with Nelson Mandela, who was sitting, seemingly forgotten, in the next room. I’d met him thirteen years ago, when I’d managed to sneak on stage, talk to him about basket-ball, and get my picture taken with him. I brought that photograph with me to Buckingham Palace and showed it to Mandela. “When was that?” he asked, laughing at the picture of me in my Detroit Pistons T-shirt. A few months after you were released from prison, I answered—in Durban. He vaguely remembered giving a speech there. And that was it.

November. Burning Effigies.

By the end of October, fireworks were lighting up the night skies over Oxford and exploding outside my window well into the night. Though I initially thought the city of dreaming spires might be under attack, I soon learned that this was but a drawn-out celebration of Guy Fawkes night, which is celebrated on November 5. American-style Halloween has emerged as a lucrative commercial venture in Britain in the last ten years, but at Oxford, Guy Fawkes remains the season’s celebration of choice. Quite simply, all the fireworks are to celebrate the torture and execution of Mr. Fawkes, who, along with several other Catholics, conspired to blow up Parliament in 1605 in what is known as the “gunpowder plot” in protest of King James’s unfulfilled promises of greater religious toleration. Fawkes and the other conspirators were arrested and eventually drawn, hanged, and quartered. London celebrated by lighting fires and burning Fawkes in effigy, a tradition that has since evolved into lighting fireworks at all hours of the night and much of the day.

The theme of burning effigies persisted throughout November, though Guy Fawkes was quickly replaced by George W. Bush—whose effigy was toppled in London, à la Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, in front of a cheering crowd of 100,000 anti-Bush protesters. President Bush’s state visit to London received a great deal of attention in the British press. Walls and telephone booths were plastered with stickers announcing London protests against Bush. Animosity toward Tony Blair was evident as well, with stickers reading “Bliar” (as in liar) on a background of blood droplets gracing many a lamppost. Anger at the government for what is increasingly perceived as a fabricated rationale for war is much stronger here than in the United States. A Labour MP submitted a motion to prevent Bush’s state visit, arguing that the 4,000 police officers working overtime to protect Bush would place an unacceptable burden on taxpayers (£5 million). More daring protesters flocked to the Web encouraging readers to ruin Bush photo-ops: “If you hear of a visit to your part of town or happen to see George W. Bush, bare your arse in his general direction.”

January. Back for More.

After a holiday in the warm and sunny Southern Hemisphere, I returned to discouragingly gray and dreary Oxford in January. But now, with royal receptions and my first school term behind me, I am finally settling in. I am becoming accustomed to the various medieval customs that still hold sway at the university. As I wander anonymously and alone through the labyrinthine bureaucracy of the various fiefdoms of this ever-so-decentralized institution, it dawns on me that the princely status conferred upon us after last winter’s gauntlet of combative interviews and competitive cocktail parties means little in this town of illustrious academics, impatient librarians, and curmudgeonly porters. And that’s as it should be: if truth be told, it’s a relief simply to be in school again in a place where no one really seems to care that you are a Rhodes Scholar.

Sasha Polakow-Suransky is using his Rhodes Scholarship to study South African history. He hopes to pursue a career in international journalism.
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March / April 2004