I was stuck for a room in Oxford – on account of a quidditch tournament – so I went about the various colleges, knowing that some let rooms to visiting dons and queer-looking strays. (I can easily pass as the former; one merely needs to stand straight and refer periodically to Joyce and the ghastly weather.) I tried at Nuffield and St. Peters but was told, in no uncertain terms, to piss off. At Christ Church the porter spent twenty minutes trying to get me a room at the Premier Inn on Crawley Road, but grew frustrated by the automated phone service so hung-up and told me to clear-off. In the college’s launderette I overheard, in relation to a pair of socks, a discussion of Post-Kantian Aesthetics, which I found indulgent – I mean, do undergraduates really need to be washing their socks? I was eventually escorted off the premises by a Latvian porter, who found me on tip-toes peering into the canteen.
(To protect the health of my grandparents, where I slept in Oxford, and how I came to sleep there, is best left unwritten.)
For those eleven remembering minutes I was in the cupola of the Sheldonian Theatre (Wren’s debut, 1669). It is in the Sheldonian that Oxford’s students graduate, so I had a bit of fun and got up on stage and awarded myself an honorary degree for failing to distinguish myself on the world stage. The ceiling, by the way, is a patch-work of 32 paintings, collectively depicting a bunch of cherubs dicking about in the firmament (sp.?). Up in the cupola, or loft, I saw Broad Street laden with parked cars; labourers in orange laying this and setting that in the rain; Clarendon House and the Bridge of Sighs, across which grumpy undergrads scuttle after making a dog’s dinner of their finals; gables and statues and umbrellas and cameras and parked mountain bikes; the buttery rump of Radcliffe Camera, which reminds me of a bedsit I once squatted in Lowestoft; and a student in his room with a cup of something hot, bent over this or that magnum opus, perhaps another Wren or Shelly or Chelsea Clinton.
At the Ashmolean museum an old man was told-off for sitting on a sixteenth-century chair, probably sensing they had something in common. As I walked about, I wondered whether the portraits of this and that nobleman, which dominate so much of so many galleries, are the equivalent of modern ‘selfies’? And whether the depictions of gods and angels and other biblical-folk are the equivalent of glossy spreads of Katy Perry and One Direction? And whether the still-lifes of fruit and pheasant and hunks of bread are the equivalent of unironic photography of toilet-paper and microwavable lasagne? The museum’s rooftop cafe was my preferred gallery. Here the children took joy in flicking orange juice at one another, and nicely dressed couples had nicely worded discussions about what to have for supper that evening. I found the display of kindly patience shown by one waiter to another (the one having upset the tea-tray of the other) more affecting and instructive than any of the Ashmolean’s precious pieces. But, then again, I am a philistine.
I went to Evensong in Merton College for a remembrance service. I was worried that I wouldn’t last the whole ninety, so I sat at the end of a pew. It was difficult to judge when one was and wasn’t supposed to stand up. Accordingly, as the choir made a start on Away in a Manger, I was the only other person stood, which I quickly, and embarrassingly, rectified. During the drinks reception a ring of vicars discussed Chelsea’s equalizer, which oughtn’t, I gathered, have been a penalty. I don’t know why exactly but I have felt a little sad and lonely in Oxford – I’ve tears in my eyes now. Perhaps it’s because I have memories of failing here, so everything around and about me feels like a reminder of not being good enough. To cheer myself, I made a joke at The Bear on Alfred Street. A sign outside announced that the pub had been open since 1242, so I asked the barman (a weedy, good-for-nothing fellow) why he had opened late that day.He looked at me blankly. ‘It’s just that it says outside you opened at a quarter to one.’ He asked me whether I wanted anything and I said no. ‘So you just came in to say that?’ I had, so I left, and went to Milton Keynes.