An Earlier Year

from The Oxford Magazine, Noughth Week, Michaelmas Term, 1996, p.4.


The fellows of Barchester indignantly deny that they organized it in order that their colleagues standing for public office should be assured of the deferential votes of junior members. But the fact is that the university year has been brought forward, and the controlling date is no longer an ecclesiastical but a secular one.

It used to be the Sin of Pride. It has to be preached against, and the date of its execration used to be both the seventh Sunday of Michaelmas term and the last Sunday after Trinity, when the collect began `Stir up, O Lord, we beseech thee'. Granted that fixed point, it was a simple exercise of ecclesiastical chronology to work out the rest of the academic year, taking care to calculate the Golden Number, lest the Pascal full moon were so late as to stretch the Easter vac from its normal six weeks to an uncovenanted sabbatical seven.

But Pride has been felled, and now it is the qualifying date for the Register of electors that determines when term should start and junior members come into residence. certainly it has worked so far, and the voters in the central wards have an average age of under twenty one, and the Barchester voice has continued to be a force for good in local affairs.

It is a change in accordance with the spirit of the times. We like getting ahead with things. Christmas starts in the autumn, and is over by Christmas Eve, when the shops are preparing for the New Year Sales. Undergraduates are keen to come up before the beginning of term, but are already flown by tutorial time in Eighth Week. Noughth Week is fuller than Full Term, and now many university committees summon themselves in Minus Oneth Week, which, although a serious loss to scholarly activity, has at last enriched the English language with a rhyme for `month'. And there are other benefits too. If the Long Vac ends earlier, it also begins earlier, and the small boy within me reckons that what he loses on the blackberries, he more than gains on the raspberries. There is less of September Oxford, with one's senior shuffling out of the Bodleian at seven, making their way to dinner in college as the light goes, hoping to get the magnum opus completed before term ends, a correspondingly greater chance of Trinity Term being over before the leaves lose their freshness, the summer solstice is past, and the days begin to get shorter with half the year gone with nothing much to show for it. Tutors get more work out of undergraduates if Trinity Term starts earlier, and less of it is subject to the temptations of the world, the flesh and the river, but bursars in fifty years time may regret if there are fewer golden memories of Oxford Summer Terms to turn the thoughts of Old Members towards generous benefaction.

But still the Golden Numbers remain. Last time there was a seven-week Easter Vac, the Warden of Rhodes House expressed great pleasure publicly. If Michaelmas and Hilary Terms are shifted earlier, the occasions when Trinity Term has to start late will be increased, with a consequential increase in the happiness of at least one member of Congregation. Perhaps it was he, and not the Fellows of Barchester College, who organized the change.