Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mercury, God of Speed, Christ Church Oxford
One afternoon as I was heading on home, I stopped beside the pond in the middle of Tom Quad and watched water slide like olive silk along the smooth back of a large fish. In the fading sunlight its scales glittered silver, like sequins clothing the sinuous body of a dancer.

As Mercury, God of Speed, poised above gently rocking lily pads the scene was tranquil.  What stories our Mercury could tell, including one of his own dunking.

Way back nearly two centuries, a mischievous gathering of students intent on a night of vandalism and led by a youthful 14th Earl of Derby, tippled bronze Mercury from his plinth and it was many a long year before he was replaced with our present Mercury who is a copy of a statue by Giovanni da Balogna.

“Boys will be boys” they say, and these occasional acts of mischief are looked upon with tolerance by the Dons, although Christ Church has its fair share of scars to remember them by.  A scarred door at the bottom of the steps leading to Christ Church's Great Hall bears testament to that bit of mischief.

Legend has it that the words NO PEEL inscribed with the aid of a nail into the solid wood of the door was a protest by students in the 17th century.  They were, the story goes, forced on the advice of the college doctor to dine on potato peelings.  The unappetizing potato peels would ward off the Black Death he said.  Not surprisingly a rebellion among students erupted.  

But legend it is. The truth is that the students were protesting against Sir Robert Peel Prime Minister of the time. 
More recently another group of undergraduates, maybe drunk after a night in the pub, emptied a bottle of bleach into the dark pool in the centre of the quadrangle as Mercury looked on. By morning the surface of the water was full of dead and dying fish as they floated in a stinking mass atop the poisoned water. Amidst the carnage bobbed the bleach bottle – empty. 

Those fish fortunate enough to have survived were transported to the “animal sanctuary” in the Meadow where they were lovingly tended and nursed back to health. It was a particularly unpleasant act of vandalism and doubly devastating; the fish had been a gift from the Emperor of Japan.

The pond has always presented an irresistible attraction for drunken students, so much so that during my tenure at the college each student found swimming there was fined 20 pounds payable to the Senior Censor.

On Red Nose Day almost the entire student population of Christ Church as well as Mercury and the stone carving of Archbishop Thomas Wolsey outside my office sported red noses. And then one morning when I arrived for work, Mercury was swaddled from head to toe in toilet paper.

Photo copyright Anne Gordon

Posted by Anne Gordon on Tuesday, 19th November, 2013.


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