Gownlessness

 

from Oxford , 1986

 

Deep down inside me is a nudist struggling to get out. Clothes have always been an enemy since I was a small boy, being forcibly squeezed into socks or leggings or somerting by an assortment of sisters, cousins, aunts, nannies, and female relatives generally. Since then I have always lived on the brink of sartorial disaster, in perpetual fear of turning up for a meeting of an electoral board in my shorts, at high table without a black tie, or as an examiner in an odd pair of socks. So I am very glad of my gown. With it I can show willing. If I put on my gown, I am visibly trying. The fact that my shirt is not fashionably striped, or that there is an unfortunate absence of buttons, or a slight deficiency of material on my writing sleeve, are not to signify my contempt for the occasion, or any desire on my part to flout the proprieties, but only a passing disconnexion with contemporary reality, such as is often the lot of homo academicus. By wearing my gown (or to be precise, my father's gown), and perhaps carrying a cap for extra protection, I cover up my sartorial nakedness, and make amends for having mislaid my suit, forgotten my cufflinks, failed to buy new shoelaces, or made an usuccessful experiment in using Copydex to mend my flannels.

But gowns have very much gone out. Junior members firmly stopped wearing them for lectures and tutorials, feeling it inappropriate that the vanguard of the proletariat should wear the badge of an effete feudal order propped up by the Pentagon and the Capitalists. For a time senior members made a counter point of wearing them to the 5 o'clock lectures they attended, but now convenience is eroding the convention. With the end of the student movement undergraduate sentiment is beginning to re-assert itself: some colleges are being requested to revive formal Hall; I have been asked by a pupil to make him or her wear a gown at tutorials. But, as with all conventions, it is not so much a matter of individual inclination as of corporate consciousness. And so I begin to wonder what the point of gowns was, and whether we should seek to discard them or restore them.

Originally gownsmen were targets of attack from the town, and needed to be easily identifiable so that other members of the university would go to their aid if they were attacked. Sadly the streets are once again dangerous, and we may be forced to some modern form of mutual protection, but it has never been part of my thinking that wearing a gown would ward off trouble with bovver boys. But I am quite glad, none the less, to identify myself with the University of Oxford. When I go to give, or listen to, a public lecture, when I attend a University Sermon, when I go to Congregation, I am not just me, J.R. Lucas, an elderly twentieth century male, venting his views on some topic or other: I am also carrying on a tradition, walking in the steps of the Schoolmen, of John Locke, of F.H. Bradley, Sir David Ross and Gilbert Ryle, in insructing the young, in exposing one's thoughts to criticism, in joining in argument and debate, and in playing one's part in making decisions on behalf of the University as whole. In putting on a gown, I am inviting a different description of my activity, one that both lays me open to a wider range of criticism and confers a further sort of significance. I am often called to account, particularly outside Oxfo4rd, for the decisions Oxford has made, especilly those I disagreed with, and I need to recognise, and make it evident to others, that I am accountable and that I cannot disclaim responsibility for what this, my Oxford, is doing. But, conversely, in carrying the can I am also carrying the torch. Quite independently of the number of those who turn up to listen to my lecture, the value of the lecture I listen to, the quality of debate in the Sheldonian, I am carrying on the existence of the university. My seventh-week pearls of wisdom may fall before the snouts of only three or four: but simply in making them available I was being a don, discharging my duty, witnessing to the idea of Oxford and keeping it going. Of course, I should like to do very much more; I should like to lecture to packed auditoria, listen to historic sermons and brilliant lectures, join in rational and responsible deliberations and debates. But in the real world these things are not given us, and it is well to make our own such further sources of significance for our actions as are available to us. And this is symbolized by the wearing of the gown.

There is also finally an acknowledgement of gratitude. I not only stand on other men's shoulders and live on other men's bounty, but enjoy the good will that other men have earned. Although of course I think I am wonderful and much to be admired simply for being me, and although I hope my own illuminations may add a little further lustre to the image of Oxford, I have to concede in my moments of sombre realism that I gain much more than I give in the matter of reputation. For every one man who thinks of Oxford as the place where the great and glorious J.R. Lucas hangs out there are a million who, if they thought of me at all, would do so primarily as an Oxford man, an Oxford don, a Fellow of their old college, a collegue of a valued friend. Again and again, doors are opened to me, helping hands extended, requests listened to, remarks heeded, not because of any charm or charisma I possess, but on account of my Oxfordness. It may be effete, but it has served me well: and to wear its badge is a servitude I ought to be glad to acknowledge in return.

 

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