As promised, my correspondent A kindly passes along this description of last Saturday’s doings at Oxford:
In rather a rush, here are some notes about Saturday’s excursion. It was a beautiful day. Hawthorn foamed along the hedgerows, its sweet stink invading the car as we drove along.
Oxford was looking its honeyed best in the May sunshine. The Divinity School is on the Bodleian site, normally open to the public, but the wrought iron gates at the Clarendon Building on Broad Street were locked. The wrought iron gates separating Schools quad from the Sheldonian were locked. The wooden gate on Catte Street was locked. Attendants were on duty at the Radcliffe Square entrance to admit only readers showing a pass card, and voters were directed to the other Catte Street entrance (the wrought iron gateway you can see framing the picture of the Clarendon Building), where we were asked for identification before being admitted through knots of resentful tourists into the quad.
We walked across past the Sheldonian Theatre to the Divinity School, where a gowned attendant was at the door. He ushered us to a desk, where more gowned officials handed us ballot papers and instructed us to fill in both sides. On the reverse was a form requiring name, former name, college, and year of matriculation. There were no booths, just high oak tables in the middle of the room, where we stood to make our marks, worrying that there was nothing to protect the polished wood from the impression of the pen. And what a room! Hard not to be a tourist, gawping up at the glorious mediaeval carving, the windows, the whole archaic institution.
We folded our ballot papers as instructed, so that our votes were concealed from the Proctors when we presented ourselves at their desk for the next stage. The Proctors are academics, hooded and gowned. They are the executive, and in days gone by, rather feared on account of the sanctions they could impose on errant undergraduates. Now they were perfectly affable, and all they wanted was to see proof that we were who we said we were.
And the ballot paper was posted into the ballot box — the same sort of shiny black box that we see at general elections.
As the results weren’t due to be announced until after 5 pm, we went off to enjoy ourselves, renewing our Bodleian library tickets at the Clarendon Building, dropping into the History of Science Museum to look at the exhibition about the transit of Venus, watching a colourful and noisy animal rights march, where police appeared to outnumber marchers. Plus ca change. Then went to the Ashmolean…
The results were announced in Convocation Hall. Charles I briefly held parliament here — dark oak panelling with broken pediment fields, and rather plain pews laid either side of the aisle. At the top end were the dark blue padded armchairs for the Council members, and the throne. There weren’t many of us there waiting for the results ï¿½ no-one we recognised. We guessed they were mostly curious backwoodsmen and women like ourselves. Eventually a small procession entered, and we all stood up. A tipstaff led; everyone was hooded and gowned and wore mortarboards, which they raised to people they recognised.
I guess it must have been one of the Pro-Vice-Chancellors who announced the opening of business of Convocation — the sole item was the announcement of the poll. Everyone remained standing, as he himself didn’t sit down. The Senior Proctor announced that it was a first past the post election, that the votes cast were as follows… and I hereby declare that Christopher Ricks is elected…
And the Pro-Vice-Chancellor declared the meeting closed and they filed out again, lifting their mortar boards. It had taken no more than a couple of minutes. We followed into the sunshine, where the announcement was repeated in the gothic frame of the doorway arch, for the benefit of waiting pressmen.
It will be at least 5 years before the next election. In the meantime, I would expect there to be a move towards electronic voting. Many alumni outside Oxford take an interest, but it isn’t practicable for most of them to vote in person. The argument that if you can’t get to the lectures, you shouldn’t be voting for the lecturer wears a bit thin these days, when the lectures reach a far wider audience on publication. And the choice of who sits in the chair says something about the university.
It seems surprising that, apart from the flyers that went out three days before the election, and the informal lobbying that must have gone on in one or two senior common rooms, there was no evidence of any other campaigning. The whole business seems shrouded in gentlemanly secrecy. I wonder why Carson’s candidacy wasn’t announced till after Ricks’s and Porter’s. It seems a pity to split the pro-poet vote. Having said that, I didn’t get the impression that passions were running high on this occasion, as I think all three of the serious candidates are held in high regard. I’d be surprised if anyone is desperately dismayed that Ricks was elected. The person I feel most sorry for is McMillan, who must have been hoping for a few more votes.