Monday, September 19, 2011
Back to the Dreaming Spires of Oxford
My series of blogs about my holiday to Britain was interrupted by events I couldn't ignore such as the 10th anniversary of 9/11 and generally my train of thought.
The sad fact is three weeks back into the daily grind it's as if I have never been away. My break seems like an unfathomable interlude or like a golden country only half remembered as viewed through a rain stained casement.
In Shadowlands, the Oxford academic CS Lewis dreams of escape to the Golden Valley on the misty hinterlands of Wales. But to me the Dreaming Spires of Oxford, as Matthew Arnold described the university skyline, always has a golden glow.
Oxford is about the past and while sadly I can't claim to have spent three years in this cloistered world, I had friends who went to Oxford. There were parties and bus trips and fleeting summer days on Christchurch meadow.
Still the Oxford that fires our imagination is from antiquity. Who could not read Brideshead and not want to be with Sebastian and Charles in this elite world of yesteryear? And as Brideshead takes a bleaker turn, the student pranks take on an enriched glow of a world half remembered that we can never go back to. It's a world away from the perfunctory reality of the Army that Charles finds himself in when he again sees the towers of Brideshead and two worlds away from Sebastian's sad decline into alcoholism and illness in a different country entirely.
It's the emotional intensity of Brideshead that, to my mind, makes it one of the best novels every written. It's that sense of love lost that can never be recaptured along with the recklessness of youth and those sunny days under the Dreaming Spires that we thought would never end.
But I could go back to Oxford and did, although negotiating its streets with the world's longest rental car, dubbed the Sausage Mobile, made driving into town a challenge. Parking is more so. We found a street but had to consider remortgaging our house to feed the meter.
Then there was the small matter of Zara's cousin James, who had come along for the ride, to add to the joy factor.
James had already endeared himself to me by declaring with the certainty of a five-year-old: "You are very old aren't you?
He followed this up by telling me. "You have a very large tummy."
We set out to find an authentic pub and, for once, were rather successful in this endeavor. It was called the Royal Oak and it was pleasant with the early afternoon sunshine slanting through the windows, even if this was hardly Brideshead Oxford.
Finally we headed into the city center but I was conscious of the time ticking away on the parking meter. Oxford gets a bad press sometimes but there are few experiences better than losing yourself down mellow lanes of Cotswold stone and wandering around the lawns of the colleges; in this case St John's that amazed with its cloistered elegance and intricate architecture. It looked far too ornate for anyone to study here.
Keeping the clock tower of Christchurch, the college where the rich and famous send their offspring, in sight we headed down the main street. But then disaster struck in the form of a shopping center, and I found myself sidelined with time running out on the meter, in the sort of mall that could be found anywhere in the world.
After a costly detour I prevailed, but spirits were lagging all round. By the time we reached Christchurch Meadow, a chorus of whining had replaced any enthusiasm showed earlier. As we trudged towards Magdalen College, I gave up on the idea of walking across the fields to see the classic view of the skyline.
Soon Zara and James were falling out over James' habit of going through gates first and Jax was wriggling around and hurling his sippy cup at middle aged dames. The excursion across the meadow seemed to be taking us in the wrong direction. At this point James announced his need for a "number two."
In the space of about 40 minutes to Dreaming Spires had become the Bleeding Nightmare. Fortunately we found a coffee bar and I went outside to take some photographs while we waited for the coffee to arrive. This turned out to be a mistake because James was shouting across the coffee bar from the toilet "Uncle David, Uncle David."
My wife urged me to make haste to the bathroom because a group of old, learned and sour faced gentlemen were looking clinically unamused.
"What is it James?"
"I need someone to wipe my bottom."
Later we made a route march back to the car. The parking meter had long since expired and we passed some of the most beautiful streets of Oxford in the late afternoon sunshine. Walking down these cobbled streets past the Radcliffe Camera and the Sheldonian Theatre, it becomes apparent that Oxford in places is every bit as pretty as Paris or Sienna.
Miraculously there was no parking ticket on the car. That happened two days later. And James continued to amuse as he projected his privileged lifestyle without even realizing it.
"So when you are grown up who will do the cleaning and cooking, James?"
"And the garden?"
And after a series of private schools, he'll probably one day end up gazing up at the Dreaming Spires, en route to a merchant bank and long hours, before the dream fades like the Oxford of Sebastian and Charles and he wakes up in a pinstriped suit and the micro meal in the dog.
But I never had Oxford so it's not there for me to lose. Its squares and cobbled streets will never remind me of lost love or lost youth. I can return and catch glimpses and see it as an outsider would. Tourists are often derided but there's something to be said for being a tourist from time to time.