Austerity of austerities, all is austerity! I’ve been wondering: how are we going to pay our way in the world?

Sunday, and we were in Oxford, visiting the postgraduate college where my wife and I met. It’s doubled in size: there are two new large buildings, mostly residential, with another academic building planned (designed by Zaha Hadid, looks like a UFO).

The residential blocks are intended to be money-makers. My guess is that the conference market has disappointed, given the downturn. But what does seem to be thriving is the teaching of foreign students. Apparently, the college is doing a great trade in a new-fangled one-year MSc. At post-graduate, pre-doctoral level in the arts and social sciences Oxford used to focus on a two-year MPhil. – one-year degrees were relatively rare.

I can see the thinking behind this product innovation: a one-year degree is cheaper and less time-consuming than a two-year one and the ‘Phil.’ label is probably not perceived as any more valuable than a ‘Sc.’. This way you probably maximise the amount you can extract from students for each year of tuition. Fair enough.

But I fear Oxford’s fees from foreign students are still dwarfed by the revenues generated by Cowley’s BMW-owned Mini.

***

There’s plenty more development underway elsewhere in the university, most visibly the rebuilding of the New Bodleian behind its existing facade. When finished it will be known as the Weston Library; a judicious piece of sponsorship by the Westons being one of the best shots at immortality around.

Many of the colleges boast new buildings and, likewise, the funding appears to be via donations from fortunes made during the great boom, including lots of oil money. I can’t say I feel wholly grateful.

***

To Cirencester Christmas Market where we manage to resist those Cotswold delicacies the kudu burger and the ostrich burger at £3.80 a pop. Happily we’d already had some of local butcher Jessie Smith’s hotdogs, made with locally-raised pork and coming in at a more reasonable £2.50. The strange meat stall smelled weird too.

What was the council thinking? They’ve displaced the usual market traders, most of whom now sell local produce (when I were a kiddie, it used to be £7 for a pair of cheapo-branded jeans, now it’s the same for an artisanal Gloucester Old Spot pork pie), and replaced them with purveyors of the minced flesh of exotic creatures, ersatz mulled wine, extortionate knick-knacks, and tiny princess coats for tiny princesses. And at the most profitable period of the year! Food miles isn’t the half of it.

Admittedly, there are some decent stalls – the crepes were good – but none of them were from the area. Why host a speciality Cheshire cheese stall when the cheese stall that’s there 48 weeks a year sells the most fantastic Double Gloucester?

I suppose the thinking was to get something in that appeared new and shiny and never mind the incumbents. It surprises me that this sort of thing is still happening – I thought we’d finally learned to be appreciative of what’s on our doorstep. It seems particularly self-defeating when one takes into account the value of a Cotswolds provenance. One of those honey-coloured stone villages is no longer complete without its coachload of Japanese tourists.

***

Pubs – God, how I love the places. I’ve spent a great many hours in them and can’t say I regret a minute. The conviviality, character, comfort and, of course, beer are a continuing delight. There are crap ones but, as Brit recently noted in the case of restaurants, only the excellent can be sure of surviving in these competitive and economically constrained times.

Cirencester – one of the many places which legend says had more pubs per square mile than anywhere in the country – still has plenty. But they are now quite different from those of even a decade ago. Of course, the beer’s a lot better and there’s now more to eat than a pickled egg in a bag of ready salted. But most striking is their femininity. One formerly nicotine-stained and cramped old place down a backstreet is now light and airy with a lilac-painted wall behind the bar. Lilac!

Anyhow, in my travels I haven’t found anything quite like them. So here’s an idea for an enterprising travel agent: British Pub Holidays, a tour of the country’s pubs. The added value would be the selection, which could be varied to taste: you could focus on food, geezers, gays, games, music, horse brasses, Shepherd Neame, twaddle, pastel colour themes, and so on.

***

I started with a question and I’ll leave you with one: what are the two most money-making pieces of intellectual property created at Oxford University? I’ll put the answer in the comments if no-one gets it.

Dabbler Diary is brought to you by Glengoyne single malt whisky – the Dabbler’s choice.


  1. Brit on Friday 7, 2012

    I’d happily go on a Twaddle pub tour of Britain. In fact I’d happily volunteer as a guide.

  2. Recusant on Friday 7, 2012

    ‘Lord of he Rings/The Hobbit’ and ‘The Tales of Narnia’.

    I’d go on a pub tour too, if I could have a smoke. They lose their appeal in January, what with nipping out into the cold and damp for that vital ingredient of a pub’s atmosphere.

    • Gaw on Friday 7, 2012

      Got it! I think it was Martin Rees who pointed this out, by way of demonstrating how pure research can be commercially valuable even if it doesn’t set out to be.

  3. BenSix on Friday 7, 2012

    They lose their appeal in January, what with nipping out into the cold and damp for that vital ingredient of a pub’s atmosphere.

    Am I the only person who enjoys smoking outside? It’s one of the better elements of a rather bad habit. The beauty is in the fact that it gives one the perfect excuse to leave uncomfortable and tedious conversations, and to bitch about the non-smokers left inside…

    Then again, perhaps that isn’t the healthiest of pleasures…

    I started with a question and I’ll leave you with one: what are the two most money-making pieces of intellectual property created at Oxford University?

    Harry Potter was only partly filmed in Oxford so I’ll have to go for Alice and LOTR. If this was QI, though, a big old hoot would sound and it would turn out to be something more counterintuitive. Inspector Morse?

    • Gaw on Friday 7, 2012

      Totally agree with you BenSix – smoking outside is potentially highly convivial. I recall being in Dublin post- their ban and pre- ours. I had some fantastic conversations in lean-to’s at the back of pubs.

      My guess is that Alice didn’t make the cut as the film wasn’t as commercially successful as Narnia’s.

  4. Mark on Friday 7, 2012

    Oxford is so full of students from all over the place that soon they’ll be asked to start living in those Cowley-built Minis if the overcrowding continues. Still, shorter degree courses for those of every age, not only 18-21, sound a very good idea and I know several folks here from other countries who are doing them. And those conferences have a lot of time and rooms to fill when you consider that the university terms last for only half the year. Perhaps it’s time to reconsider that one.

    I’m with Recusant on the first of the most valuable properties, though I’ll take a 33-1 and say the King James Bible for the second, on the grounds that even though it was only partly done at Oxford it’s been on sale for a few hundred years already and the 1769 Oxford edition seems to have become The One. And in terms of value you can’t put a price on, it has to the The One.

  5. Gaw on Friday 7, 2012

    I suspect the King James Bible would need the attentions of some rapacious Hollywood producers to really coin it. LOTR’s have been impressively keen to extract every last penny – $5bn and counting, I think.

  6. Susan on Friday 7, 2012

    Kudu and ostrich – would probably go down well with the locals in Putney, Gaw. Occasionally a French farmers’ market pops up here selling industrial style crepes, croissants and cheeses. Meanwhile, at the local deli, organic fruit and veg and handmade chocolates are priced as if they’re sprinkled with gold dust.

  7. malty on Friday 7, 2012

    If Oxford is running short of the readies they should have a word in the ears of Cameron-Clegg. An English version of the NYA is required plus a latter-day LBJ, he had the Texas unemployed youth building stuff for the universities, in exchange for the readies, allowing the poor mites to pay for their studies.
    Can’t see Oxford allowing through it’s hallowed portals a bunch of half-trained plumbers and plasterers, can you.

    Leaving the environs of a genuine Weihnachtsmärkte we were greeted today with a wee pretendy one at the Scottish National, the stall selling das toddy had a large notice ‘£2.50 deposit on all mugs’

    The British eh, don’t you just love ‘em

    Oxford’s prime income stream, must be Morse, by a mile.

  8. malty on Friday 7, 2012

    Dabblers in a different time zone? its Sunday the 9th up here.