Ah, the city of dreaming spires. Some say it’s a Matthew Arnold quote; some say it’s an inspired caption from my insta highlights. Who can know the truth? In any case, we’ve all abused the phrase at some point. Whenever the Radcam’s curves looked particularly sensual. The opening of your personal statement, to be read aloud at a drunken subject initiation. An aloof caption to assure the home friends you don’t like that you’re handling the inflation of your ego with grace. Our city parcelled in five neat words, to be awkwardly passed on during a cigarette on the bod to kickstart conversation.

It is inevitable that, as a sprightly first-year, one shall face the renowned ‘fresher small talk.’ If you’re a prospective student reading this, my early advice would be to get more hobbies. Also, get used to answering the holy trio of triteness. ‘Where ya from?’ ‘What’s ya college?’ ‘What d’ya study?’ I became a dab hand at concision. ‘St Albans.’ ‘Brasenose.’ ‘English.’ Sadly, before I could ever get into the flow of my small-talk big hits – key topics included my failures, my deepest regrets, and my insecurities, tried and tested successfully with random men on my interrailing trip – I was often halted at the first hurdle. ‘St Albans? Where?’ 

I would take another stab. ‘St Albans City? Just above London?’* Only to be met with vapid faces or confused eyebrow quirks. In fairness, I get it. St Albans City has always seemed, to me, a contradiction in terms. It constantly defies the markers by which cities may be defined. The walking pace of locals? The roaring nightlife? Number of Prets by square mile? Our one club, ‘Vida’, has the paradoxical effect of making its nightly inhabitants regret being born. At the top of our local food chain, geriatrics and babies plan their shuffled promenades with the shared intent of delaying my quest for half-price Itsu. It offers one Pret. 

As I quickly learned in my quest to cosplay as a Londoner, Londoners are obsessed with the part of London you hail from. Abroad, simply ‘London’ is fine. Nobody asks further questions. They’re too keen to nod their heads with enthusiasm and say ‘cheeriooooo’ with an expectant smile. Actual Londoners ask questions. You must align yourself with some faction, some club, as is the case for any city whose membership card you chase. North, South, East, West, Dauntless, Amity, Abnegation- it doesn’t matter. You must absorb a certain dogmatism of supremacy. ‘The whole is greater than the sum of the parts’ my arse. Loser must have been from Devon. In New York, I was the glazed-eyed recipient of an hour rant comparing East Village bagels to West. Football team preference cuts Manchester in half. Berlin was once so at odds that everyone decided to randomly build a wall one day, the most decisive ‘Talk to the Hand cos the Face ain’t listening’ gesture in metropolitan history.**

St Albans is different. Nobody has their guard up depending on whether you live by the Waitrose or the farm shop. Nobody instigates conflict based on where you source your organic fish. Even our three main schools, locked in a neck-and-neck Ofsted-score-based Mexican standoff, are linked by the portmanteau ‘Beausandver’, slapped above an illegible Latin slogan about success and community. We are entirely lacking in ‘parts’, our measly 7-mile ‘whole’ resulting in a tacit understanding of our limited landmarks. Our size does not afford rivalries or even the wide-ranging ‘where are you from?’, merely the localised ‘which street do you live on?’

So how does Oxford fare in comparison? Three times the size, the simple existence of Jericho and Cowley feels city-like to me. Cornmarket alone hosts more Prets than St Albans does bars. The students strut at a pace that telepathically communicates to canvassers that they’re Far Too Busy To Discuss Climate Change. If it lacks the chip-on-the-shoulder bite of London, under the surface of every city lurks a latent potentiality for division. The solved sum destined to be crossed out and over-complicated by a bored English student still jilted by her maths GCSE grade. Who says it hasn’t reared its head already? I don’t know the locals. I don’t know if there is an annual thumb wrestling competition between the most dexterous of Jericho and Botley, or years of conflict based on a decennial sheep race between Cowley and Summertown. And principally, we already have one key rivalry. Collegiate, I hear you cry? Town vs gown, if you wish to adhere to facts. Subject, the STEM kids demand, jaded by the unimaginable free time I had to write this genius. To all, I shake my head. I hereby christen the rivalry between Iffley Road and myself.

Myself and the ‘ole IR*** have a complicated relationship. For one, the university gym is located there. Nuff’ said. Too frugal to empty my pockets and join the Puregym train, Iffley Road became a daily (monthly) trek last Trinity for myself and my motley crew. To the tennis courts I marched, armed with my new OULTS**** membership, a recent rental of ‘King Richard’ printed on my Amazon order, and a fierce crush on Emma Raducanu, sure that these factors would propel me to stardom at a game I had never played nor been remotely interested in. Having completed all of two sessions – three if we count the one sad walk of shame home after realising I’d booked onto an advanced lesson – I was ready to return this Hilary with a vengeance. Alas, God had other plans. I was struck down on Varsity with the second torn ACL of my 20 years on earth.***** In the words of my father’s colleague, ‘serves her right for being a posh twat.’ Thanks Charles.

Secondly, the gym itself. If I were to refer to the gym group chat made at the height of our fitness ambitions, I would scroll to see at least fifty saved chats dedicated to the behaviours of Iffley men. My friend was the consistent subject of borderline-misogynistic Oxloves. A Dwayne-the-Rock type often mistook the squat rack for the recipient of a Magic Mike fantasy, dry-humping with haste. An elderly patron kindly makes the effort to moan loudly during his lunges so that my deep concern about his commitment is assuaged. Most criminally, one man pumps his glutes in jeans. Monster.

Thirdly, IR forms a part of Cowley. Home to the longed-for student houses that my college denies me; my favourite club; and a rougher-around-the-edges vibe that has always felt more student-y, I dislike it because it forms a part of what is just out of my reach.****** Also, my bike brakes are loose and I haven’t lived down the shame of a mild bump-and-run in its slow-moving traffic when I was beladen with my LIDL shop.

My last qualm with IR is, contrastingly to my innate personhood, deeply reasonable. It tried to kill me. Two weeks ago, I left a house party located on (you guessed it!) this devilish spot. It was 4am. I had my headphones on. I was drunk. I was alone. In short, I was not doing myself any favours as I wobbled home on spindly wheels. I heard the unmistakable sound of a car racing around the corner over the opening notes of John Mayer’s ‘Why Georgia?’, my go-to ‘I want to feel as if I have good music taste’ track. I did not turn back, but kept faithfully within the white lane marked for bicycles, as if my fidelity to the curb would cancel out my foolishness. I only turned upon hearing the shatter of glass. 

Two people got out and pushed past where I had braked to an eventual stop. The rest of the party stragglers ambled over to gawp. A stag-do stumbled along, keen to impart their analysis of the scene with the shivering copper. I swung my leg over my bike and pedalled off. But not before changing the song. If there’s one moral to be learned from all this, it’s that loyalty to my Year 6 cycling proficiency lessons must take a backseat to my somewhat-Swiftie status. John Mayer clearly has some bad juju after screwing her over. ‘Dear John’, fittingly, was the first song that came up when I shuffled her Spotify. Taylor’s Version, of course.

* Dear friends of mine will know that I never say this. They know that I will insist on being from ‘North London’ until someone is cruel enough to whip up Apple Maps.

** My first crush was seated next to me in year 10 history, so forgive me if I recall these events incorrectly.

*** Iffley Road. Catch up.

**** Oxford University Lawn Tennis Society. Catch up.

***** I posted about it on my insta in case anyone missed the news! @susieweidmann xxx

****** A.K.A is a ten-minute cycle out of my busy day living amidst the spires that this Arnold guy cums over.