My freshers’ pack (a yo-yo, two balloons, a sachet of instant hot chocolate and a condom) is barely visible beneath English Historical Documents, volume 1. Two nights of dancing knee-deep in foam has taken its toll on my shoes, and I feel slightly tricked – encouraged to partake in a week of university-approved partying, and then, two days in, given a 19-item reading list and an essay due in for next week. School friends’ Facebook pages are torturous: three weeks into term at other universities, yet to hand in their first piece of work and seemingly out every night.
At dinner the conversation has morphed from ‘So where are you from?’ to ‘You haven’t started writing yet either, have you?’. College is awash with dazed freshers who, after two years spent thinking getting into Oxford was the final destination, have just realised that they have a lot of work to do.
Our fears are not unfounded. My fellow historians and I have spent much of the last week recalling our tutor’s words of welcome, delivered to us as we sat hungover, bewildered and exhausted: ‘You’ve all probably been the best at school, and have always been told how clever you are. There’s going to be a different pecking order here. Some of you will shine at Oxford, and some of you will be less shiny’. This is true, of course, but at school our teachers would never have dreamt of saying it.
But there’s plenty to temper the temptation to call the Bristol admissions office. The smell of cold stone in the cloisters (not, I know, to be confused with learning). Taking a seat in the Union debating chamber, and the way the cutlery tray in Hall includes soup spoons and dessert forks. Getting the gossip on George Osborne’s student days from our gown-clad tutors, while watched from the walls by other notable Magdalenites — among them Joseph Addison, who founded the Spectator.
I’ve been told by nearly everyone I know that I’m going to have the time of my life at Oxford, and I really hope they’re right. For now, though, English Historical Documents awaits