Recently, a friend and past teacher of mine from Oxford University Continuing Education, award-winning author Rebecca Abrams, spoke and read from her brilliant new work before an audience at Brasenose College. In the middle of a conversation about it with colleague Dr Sos Eltis, and in response to a question from the audience, Rebecca flung her hand into the air to emphasize the fact (hello, clearly, couldn’t everyone see?) she had always loved language: books, chapters, paragraphs, words and letters. Yes, even the individual letters of the alphabet. Because just think what you can do with them! She highlighted for us the magic of sounds, letters, words scratched on a page, the whole beguiling act of writing—one character at a time. Wasn’t this something narrowly short of enchantment?
I sat pondering on what she’d said. Maybe the mathematicians have it wrong, I decided. It’s not numbers, but letters that underpin the universe—for some of us anyway. ‘Look at where I live,’ Rebecca mused aloud, to her audience but mostly to herself. ‘I live in a town literally stuffed with books, groaning with books: Oxford.’ On this particular evening, one of the first icy nights of approaching winter, sitting in the drafty Amersi Lecture Room, we could have been straight out of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. I leaned forward in my chair, fully empathising with what she had said, as did others in the audience: this was just the way we worked too—one character at a time, on the page, scratching out symbols whose origins were lost in time, though their supernatural beauty remained intact. Older wizards nodded, smiled; young witches sipped Evian from reusable, stainless-steel bottles and asked insightful questions.
Look at where I live, in a town bloated with books… and more than that too. It’s a place that is not only a repository of precious literature, but also jammed, rammed, packed with authors—past, present and future, both known and unknown. Percy Shelley, Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, Vera Brittain, Dorothy L. Sayers, Robert Graves, C. S. Lewis, Dr Seuss (yes, even Dr Seuss), John Betjeman, Harper Lee (Harper Lee? To Kill a Mocking Bird Harper Lee? Yes, that one), Jill Paton Walsh, Wendy Cope, Philip Pullman, Russell T. Davies… the list goes on and on. Sometimes I imagine I can hear inspiration crackling in the air here, though why the town should act as such a lodestone for authors after its inauspicious beginnings as a place for oxen to cross a river, I do not know. While there’s evidence of Oxford being an academic centre from 1096, we must really thank Henry II for forbidding English students to study at the University of Paris in 1197 because that is when the quill-scratching began here in earnest.
As winter draws in, and the holiday season approaches, Oxford seems to wake up then warm up. The Christmas lights are switched on, their glow reflected by ancient walls. One church (or pub) after another resounds with song. Fires and flaming torches burn. A dusting of snow sets off the winter scene perfectly, and tour bus after tour bus parks on the outskirts, the disembarked passengers hardly knowing where to start—so many high walls, closed doors— in a medieval citadel that can seem impenetrable to the uninitiated. But there is a literary vein underlying this place, perhaps visible, perhaps not, whose blood flows sweet, rich and thick: Oxford’s great heritage; a treasure beyond price. It is even after all suggested by some scholars—and who am I to disagree? — that Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford, was secretly our own beloved Shakespeare, who perhaps best described the atmosphere (and Oxford?) at this time of year:
Some say that ever ’gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
Wishing you all a charming and enchanted Christmas.
Photo Untouched #flickr https://flic.kr/p/7tCcWS
On sale, paperback released 28th September