It’s been ten years since I spent any time of note in Oxford and it felt a little strange to walk the streets again, rediscovering old haunts and marvelling at how little and how much has changed in the interim. What surprised me, too, were the places that I consciously sought out.
I wanted to see Alice’s shop, made famous in the 1850s, when the unassuming Rev. Charles Dodgson (known to the world as Lewis Carroll) wrote a story for Alice Liddell, whose father was then dean of Christ Church College. To say the story was revolutionary would be an understatement – it’s said to be the most translated work of English Lit, second only to Shakespeare. The Old Sheep Shop where Alice bought her sweets was a grocer’s shop till the 1960s. Now it sells Alice stuff… a tad twee but a lovely part of the story. I was glad to see that it’s still thriving.
In the year I spent in Oxford, I made it to some of the colleges but not all of them. I did go to Christ Church, to the dining hall where Harry Potter and his Hogwarts crew ate at school. I saw the secret tunnel that inspired Lewis Carroll’s rabbit hole, and I still marvel at the number of ‘greats’ who have graduated from the great institution. Everyone from William Penn (of Pennsylvania fame) to Einstein to the Winklevoss Twins who gave us Facebook. I used to pass by it every morning on my way to Uni. Christ Church on one side and Alice’s shop on the other. It still felt a tad surreal.
As I passed the various pubs, memories of nights and days and afternoons came flooding back. I spent the afternoon of the Pope’s funeral with a Polish mate in the Lamb and Flag (a pub owned by St John’s College whose profits fund D.Phil. scholarships, putting a whole new slant on drinking to educate). I spent a Friday evening in the Bear, amidst the collection of ties, marvelling at the misogyny of Oxford’s male student cohort. And I felt a peculiar attraction to the Eagle and Child and quite liked to sit where Tolkien and Lewis would hold forth with the Inklings.
Perhaps one of my favourite things to do back then, when I had money, was to take Afternoon Tea at the seventeenth-century Old Parsonage. It’s said that Oscar Wilde once roomed there, back in the day when he was still known as Finigal O’Flahertie Wills. And I loved it. This time around, I was invited to Sunday lunch after mass at the Oratory and can say, hand on my heart, that it has lost none of its magic. Starting the late morning with a Bloody Mary, munching through lamb sweetbreads and then ploughing through a Roast Beef dinner… it’s the simple things in life that afford the most pleasure. And true to form, while enjoying the locally produced fare, we set the world to rights, for what would Oxford be without the myriad debates and discussions that crackle through the air.
I rediscovered the joys of Jericho. Paid homage to Oxford University Press, the only publisher I ever wanted to work for (how different my life might have been). I caught up with old friends and idled away hours in the charity shops. I spent afternoons recounting all that has happened in the last ten years and while I enjoyed every minute, I wouldn’t want to go back there to live.
The year I spent there back in 2004/2005 was a good one. I learned a lot about my subject and about myself. But for me, the city is like a posh frock that I never quite feel comfortable in. It’s nice to wear every now and then but isn’t something I’d knock around in every day. There’s too much of a divide between town and gown for me to ever really feel at home there. That said, I’d happily go back and am already planning a return visit next year. I can’t believe that I spent a year living by the Isis and never once punted. That’s something that simply has to be redressed.