My Oxford: Margaret Ounsley
Margaret Ounsley briefs MPs and peers on issues of interest to the university and coordinates visits to Oxford of ministers and parliamentarians. Prior to this, she had worked in the Government Whips Office in the House of Lords, and as the Head of Public Affairs for WWF-UK.
Can you tell us a bit about your relationship with Oxford?
Before I worked in Oxford, I suppose I knew it as a tourist spot – somewhere to take relatives when they came to visit. Of course, I also knew it through episodes of “Morse” and “Brideshead Revisited”. In some respects that is quite a useful introduction to the place, as it serves as a reminder of how much of the wider public know Oxford and its old university.
What to you are the most iconic aspects of Oxford?
It’s difficult to avoid the fact that for the vast majority of people, the Sheldonian, the Bodleian and the skyline of dreaming spires are immediately what come to mind. Then, perhaps, the quads and river views. But for the sake of a bit of contrast, and assuming that by “iconic” we are meaning representative and symbolic, I am going to plump for the Blavatnik School of Government. It is a beautiful building that looks stunning in its setting, and I think it exemplifies something of the dynamism of a university which takes the best of its past but is also looking bravely out to the future.
What are your favourite haunts around the city?
I love the fact that there are so many creative spaces around Oxford, from the Jam Factory to the Old Fire Station, the Museum of Modern Art, the Story Museum, theatres such as Pegasus and the Playhouse and the Burton Taylor studios. One of the great privileges of my job is getting to know the energetic and lively people who run these places, and often keep them running on a shoestring.
Where do you eat and drink?
My job means I end up eating and drinking in lots of places around the City, but when I am just out socially then I love some of the old pubs such as the Royal Oak and the Kings Arms. Obviously, being based just on the edge of Jericho there is an enormous choice – The Rickety Press is normally good. I also like the Kazbar down the Cowley Road.
What about Oxford has inspired you or helped your creative process?
Back in the day I was a history teacher. My career has taken me off on a very different path since then, as a public affairs specialist, but history remains my first love – it has been great to make use of the University’s Department for Continuing Education where I have studied for a Diploma and Advanced Diploma in English Local History in my spare time. It has been genuinely inspiring to get back into the discipline of academic study, and have access to such brilliant tutors.
What’s the worst or least attractive thing about Oxford?
The truly shocking social divide. The University works a lot behind the scenes through its Academy, working with local schools, and through the volunteering of its students. But there is still something glaringly disjointed about an establishment which sits at the top of the world’s league table of universities sitting in a City where some children struggle to leave school with five GCSEs. However, as much as the University works on outreach and access, and it does a huge amount, that image will always get the headlines.
Do you have an area, street or village in Oxfordshire that is special to you?
I am a keen walker, and have been walking in the environs of Oxfordshire for about 35 years now. I still have painful memories of setting out to walk the Thames path to Oxford from Reading in a brand new pair of walking boots sometime in my twenties. Needless to say, I did not make it. If I had to choose, it would probably be that stretch of river through Dorchester-on-Thames. What with the Abbey, Wittenham Clumps and the Iron Age fort, it is an extraordinary example in a small space of how human settlement has shaped the landscape around here for thousands of years.
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