Real Oxford

Patrick McGuinness
Publication Date: 
Monday, July 5, 2021
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Oxford, city of dreaming spires, bicycles, Inspector Morse, tourists, gentility. Or perhaps a less familiar place? Jericho, once seedy backstreets with Oxford’s main porn cinema and an astonishing concentration of pubs, now mythologised by Philip Pullman and gentrified beyond the wildest imaginings of the college groundsmen and porters for whom it was designed. Cowley Road, the ethnic mix of restaurants, the core of Labour-voting Oxford East ward, and one of the first to elect Green councillors. Iffley and Osney Island, characterful places where one side of the street is barges, the other terraced houses with watermarks on the front doors. Cowley and Blackbird Leys, rough, industrial but also textured by modern history. In Summertown and North Oxford, huge, elegant houses back up to the river, and North Parade has crescents of Georgian splendour.

Mesopotamia attests to Oxford’s history as a place of military adventure, and with the arrival of one of the UK’s largest mosques, the consequences of those adventures, in a thriving and mostly happy multiculturalism. There are also places of such blandness that McGuinness relishes the challenge of writing about them. And there are the colleges, the bookshops, galleries and museum, the city centre prison, the students, the tourists, the refugees and asylum seekers. Oxford’s combination of history and the Establishment, and of transient population and change make the city a compelling subject.

Patrick McGuinness has lived and worked in Oxford for thirty years and brings an intimate knowledge to this new exploration of the city. In this book he reflects on the familiar and introduces us to the unnoticed, to create a new way of looking at Oxford.


Watch Patrick in conversation with series editor Peter Finch at the online launch:



Review by Richard Lofthouse, Oxford Alumni

Thursday, July 1, 2021

This is a gem of a book written by a celebrated poet and novelist, not to mention Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford, Fellow and Tutor at St Anne's College. Patrick McGuinness wanders around the city making sage insights engraved with the proximity and observance of living here for three decades, long enough for very many businesses to come and go, very many sacred sites to be destroyed in the name of ‘Progress’, and many others to remain standing when maybe they ought not. It’s also wonderfully funny, but much better than cheap shots. Starting off at the railway station and describing it as looking like ‘the shell of a bankrupt garden centre’ is simply accurate reporting, while a few pages down the line we find a quotation from one Thomas Sharp to the effect that ‘Oxford stations have come to be spoken of with the kind of joke that people make to keep them from the black despair of hope continually deferred.’ And that was said in 1948, but in 2021 it is also merely accurate reporting for anyone who has been keeping an eye on the station for the past decade. Apart from all this – and there is no room here to do justice to the book so do get a copy – ‘real’ turns out to be scratchy and claw-bared, with the past speaking angrily and the mystical, mythical Oxfords of which there are so many are shunned and sidelined while all the other bits – bits you never went to as a student like Blackbird Leys – get celebrated and studied. This is great stuff and much better than a mere guidebook, but it is also that and you could walk around with it in hand, quietly chuckling as the outrages pile up and the industrial past gathers its iron wits, to choke the ivory towers and spit at the dons. The section on why Boswells closed is controversial because I’m not sure it’s right, but the book is so post-pandemic that at least all these topics are present and accounted for, summer of 2021.

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