This is Oxford: The Crisis and the Kebab

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Two hallowed and inextricable Oxford traditions as old as the University itself are the essay crisis and the late night kebab. The real difference was that for me as an undergraduate the latter was a nightly ritual whilst the former was, thankfully, twice-weekly in the busiest of terms. But just as it was impossible to pull an all-nighter without a packet of pro-plus, a kettle, and a jar of Mellow Birds, likewise thinking without the sustenance of the magic mix of amorphous lamb and toxic-looking substances was, well, unthinkable.

Like essay crises, kebab-eating sessions never began the human side of midnight. I’m sure some ‘bab vans didn’t even pitch up till throwing out and throwing up time at the pub. From midnight till four, like a filler scene from a paranormal romance, groups of gaunt, waxy faces would crowd around these unholy shrines, talking a mix of philosophy and nonsense (or maybe more a seamless drivel of the two). In my later undergraduate days, when I had a girlfriend who was going through a particularly controlling phase, these communal times with my fellow night travellers provided desperately-needed pools of peace and like-minded space.

Like many of these things, there were rules and bravados (that focused largely on the strength of chilli sauce and whether it was the done thing to have garlic mayonnaise) that enforced the specialness of the van culture.

But most of all, there was almost football-ish rivalry and loyalty. Iwas at Christ Church, which meant a choice, and it was every bit as serious as choosing which papers to sit in finals. Cecil’s Pantry, which occupied the space just outside Tom Gate where there’s now a pizza wagon, or McCoy’s which I believe still sits outside St Aldate’s. It was no easy choice. Cecil’s pantry had the hotter, home-made chilli sauce. McCoy’s was milder and from a bottle, but the owner was a local institution and the meat was moister. If they’d sold such things, I’d still be wearing my McCoy’s scarf. It was repeated all over town – Mehdi’s on the High had a huge following, but at the base of St Giles there was a pair of vans next door to each other, and the same on Woodstock Road.

And then it would be morning, and one was ejected from the one subculture, the night-time crowd of one’s comrades, and forced back into that other group, one’s subject companions, who had each dealt with their essay crises with their own rituals in the company of their own subcultures.

And then, after spending 45 minutes reading one’s essay aloud (the secret to tutorials in my day was to spend so long reading aloud that the tutor never had time to pick you up on your oopses), the week would begin again – with a celebratory kebab!

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~ by danholloway on April 22, 2011.

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