New Year. New ideas, people, places, things? Nope. Not for me. Not entirely anyway because I am hugely grateful for the existing ones, especially the old ones like the town where I live. Literally old, founded in AD 912, Oxford was never on my radar, but we all know what they say about plans, don’t we? Ho-hum.
On the face of it, I am here because my son attended Summer Fields School in North Oxford, but my son hasn’t been at that school since 2016, and seven years later here I still am in Oxford, a town you could not invent.
I imagined myself by this age (67) to be on a wide, breezy veranda overlooking some wonderfully tropical bay, but instead I am here, in a solid brick house (“huff, puff, you will never blow it away”) that backs onto the Oxford Canal, where already at this early hour on a Saturday morning kayakers in woolly hats flash by the end of my garden.
I say veranda, but I really pictured a rabbit hole. From the first book that drew my interest, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, it was a rabbit hole, a place where the rules and regulations were meant to be broken, turned on their heads, a place of nonsense, that was for me.
The opening for those who care to recall:
“Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do: once or twice she had peeped into the book her sister was reading, but it had no pictures or conversations in it, ‘and what is the use of a book,’ thought Alice, ‘without pictures or conversations?’”
So it was hello to a rabbit in a waistcoat with a pocket watch, and it was down the rabbit hole for me, and given that Oxford is the exact place where mathematician, author and puzzler Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, conceived that hole, how could I possible live anywhere else? How could he have written anything else? Oxford is a town that defies invention. With a higgledy-piggledy layout of cobblestoned streets, bridges and buildings with names like Aristotle Bridge, Magpie Lane, Queen’s Lane, Bear Lane, Deadman’s Walk, Oxford Castle, Christ Church (known to all Harry Potter fans), the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre (where Handel premiered Athalia in 1733), no one could make this up.
Now it is rumoured that Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures on hallucinogens, but this has never been substantiated. He, I concur, was just a man of his time (1832–1898) and place, and of course that place being Oxford, he was called on to mix things up. From trees dating back to 1645, which he sat under, to the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest in Europe, to the door leading to Narnia (mentioned in my October ’22 blog), to a traditional tea in the drawing room of the town’s grandest hotel, Oxford is a panoply of order and disorder, of sense and nonsense, old and new. This quality surely stems from the centuries-old confluence of student and professor, pupil and master—the best and the brightest taking everything one step forward, or perhaps even wiping the slate clean. Yup, it buzzes!
Oxford is an everyday treasure hunt of the unexpected and the never before seen. For example, as I read at the Bodleian, where far too many luminaries have tread the worn stairwell and now are perched somewhere on its 117 miles of shelves, I am always surprised by my research, which mostly keeps me on course or just as happily sends me off in a new direction.
Most wondrously this past year, when popping in for a latte at the Weston Library café across the road from the Bodleian, I took a sidewind through the ‘Sensational Books’ exhibit. Being challenged to rub, stroke, chew, wear, sniff books, anything but just read them, I stopped dead in my tracks. There under thick, bulletproof glass lay Audubon’s Birds of North America; the full, hefty, leather-bound set measuring a metre across, the most expensive book in the world—and the heart and soul of my current work in progress, novel number four, The Fair Incognito.
Topsy-turvy? Who would have guessed? Not me. Oxford at its best? Only a short walk from my own front door the image, the book, the inspiration for my own work? Maybe all coinkydink, but after a quick sip, coming face to face with the iridescence of plumage yet to be emulated, I have to agree with Lewis Carroll. I love Oxford! And yes, it’s down the rabbit hole for me.
Wishing you a fine January and your own winding way in 2023.
Photo by iStock|IR_Stone