Sunday, November 9, 2003

This is Oxford? Wake me in time to start ranting …

A debating tournament is a really weird way to see a city.

Between 3 pm Friday and 10.30 am Sunday I saw an awful lot of the Oxford Union building, the street of shops behind it, and the road leading to our B&B and the railway station.

My parochial and predictable response, based on this thorough survey and comprehensive lack of sight-seeing, is that I prefer Cambridge. Cambridge is cluttered, cosy, market town with narrow laneways and the Backs along the river. Oxford seems more a city: seemed odd not to wander down lanes thick with gaggles of students and zooming velocities of cyclists.

It all seemed a bit too orderly and wide-streeted.

The Oxford Union though, is gorgeous. We had our quarter-final debate in the “Old Library”, a slightly octagonal, cupola-topped room of mellow lighting, towering old bookcases (including an upper landing with more books), fading frescoes and old clocks.

By contrast, the Union building at Cambridge is a slightly moth-eaten, vaguely dowdy fire hazard, though the actual “Chamber” where most high-profile public speaking takes place is a little cosier at Cambridge and a damn sight warmer. (I often had to wear suit, overcoat and jumper – sometimes even gloves – waiting for each round to be announced in the Oxford Chamber.)

So, the intervarsity itself (“IV” in the jargon). One thing you have to understand about debating culture is the language: two words you’ll hear often when debaters are unhappy are “shafted” and “robbed”.

It was a little amusing to be among all that once more, and to be debating alongside a Big Name on the Circuit (he was the World’s Best Speaker last year and is my team-mate for the Singapore World’s Debating Tournament in December.) It was like being on tour as a support act to Elvis: everyone was a bit curious to know how you’d got the gig when they’d never heard of you.

The competition itself was tiring, really tiring.

I had not really comprehended how seriously people took the Oxford competition as a prime warm-up for Worlds. There were 148 teams (and so nearly 300 competitors) there from everywhere: Manila, Boston, Princeton, Canada, Ireland, Russia, Hong Kong and from across the UK.

British Parliamentary-style debating is also a bit weird for Australians: two people to a team, four teams to a debate (two on each side); where the second teams have to come up with an “extension” on the debate as run by the first teams. Speakers can be subjected to “points of information” – essentially questions from the other side. Speeches are five minutes long and the topics for the debates change every round and are released only 15 minutes in advance.

At Oxford there were two debates Friday night, another three during the day on Saturday and then a quarter – , semi – and grand final in the evening: and lots of drinking both evenings. Pretty exhausting. I drank a lot of espresso – the bar in the Oxford Union serving the best coffee I have yet bought in this country for only £1.

How did we do? We did fine. We broke second at the end of the preliminary rounds, Elvis ranking at 6th best speaker for the prelim rounds and me weighing in at 8th. We survived a tough-but-fun fourth round where we met all the other undefeated teams – which was actually a harder round than anything we got in the finals series. We made it to the semis, but did not go through. The topic in the semi was that “This house would allow Terri Schiavo to die” – what was scary was that all four teams had clearly read the same Economist article.

And the topic in our quarter final was “That this house would sign a non-agression pact with North Korea”. Heh.

Anyway, we did not make the grand final. Some say we were robbed, I say “hey, we have judges for a reason – you just have to take the rough with the smooth.” Elvis was pretty relaxed about it all too, hell – what does he have to prove?

We went, we debated, we drank until 2.45 am and then got some sleep before charging back to Cambridge so I’d have time for a shower and nap before a 6.30 pm first run-through for the play. This week will be chockers with rehearsals.

Oh, and in weirdness upon weirdness I met at the IV a certain guy who used to debate for the ANU (friends, the man wore a novelty waistcoat with pig patterns to a “black-tie” event – as he did at Australian IVs six years ago); and my old office-mate from the 54th floor corner-view at my old Sydney law firm, he’s now studying at Oxford.

It’s a small, scary world.

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