Thursday, 6 May 2010
Three Oxford colleges
And the good news is that most of the inmates favour the Lib Dems, at least according to my adorable mole Carla of Magdalen, who gets to vote for the first time. No doubt there's a neoBullingdon bunch of hearties who actually like the look of Cameron's smug face, as Carla's boyfriend and his mates emphatically do not. But I think I'm right in saying that Oxford central is surefire Lib Dem territory, as my own borough, sadly, is not.
Until I took the train to Oxford on Saturday and read The Guardian from cover to cover - something I very rarely do - I felt honour-bound to take one of two options: vote Green, because that was the only party which bothered to reply to my local ecological concerns, or Lib Dem. Then Polly Toynbee told me I must bow to an imperfect system and vote tactically. So it's Labour again, though I seethe with resentment at injustices both here and nationwide. The die is cast. But PLEASE don't think your vote doesn't count, or all parties are the same. The fact that we live in a flawed democracy is such a luxury.
For the nostalgic visitor to Oxford, though, such questions are suspended. I'm deep in Dorothy L Sayers's most autobiographical novel, and probably her masterpiece, Gaudy Night, in which Harriet Vane, writer of detective novels, returns to her old college in middle age for a 'gaudy'.
If only one could come back to this quiet place, where only intellectual achievement counted; if one could work here steadily and obscurely at some close-knit piece of reasoning, undistracted and uncorrupted by agents, contracts, publishers, blurb-writers, interviewers, fan-mail, autograph-hunters, notoriety-hunters, and competitors; abolishing personal contacts, personal spites, personal jealousies; getting one's teeth into something dull and durable; maturing into solidity like the Shrewsbury beeches - then, one might be able to forget the wreck and chaos of the past, or see it, at any rate, in a truer proportion. Because, in a sense, it was not important. The fact that one had loved and sinned and suffered and escaped death was of far less ultimate moment than a single footnote in a dim academic journal establishing the priority of a manuscript or restoring a lost iota subscript. It was the hand to hand struggle with the insistent personalities of other people, all pushing for a place in the limelight, that made the accidents of one's own personal adventure bulk so large in the scheme of things.
But she doubted whether she were now capable of any such withdrawal. She had long ago taken the step that put the grey-walled paradise of Oxford behind her. No one can bathe in the same river twice, not even in the Isis. She would be impatient of that narrow serenity - or so she told herself.
We lapped up that 'narrow serenity' after a lunch in the converted church that is Freud's cafe - mediocre food (including an unspeakable crumble), superb atmosphere and service (though not, of course, in this crumbling shrine, of the religious sort).
Worcester College was open for the afternoon, that 18th century 'ornamental pile' adding to the monastic buildings of the former Gloucester College, of which the medieval south side of the Quad remains (back side pictured above). The handsome north range, seen here from the Hawksmoor-inspired facade, dates from 1753-9.
The gardens were glorious, even on a bitterly cold May afternoon, with water everywhere
and a lovely walk along the lake with its overhanging horse chestnuts.
After a quick dip into the Ashmolean, it was time for evensong in Sir George Gilbert Scott's overlofty Exeter College Chapel, modelled on Paris's Sainte Chapelle
though of course with glass that can't compare. There is, however, a splendid Morris tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi, partly designed by Burne Jones, the first of ten, one of which (from Manchester) I reproduce below.
The purpose of attending evensong was to hear not so much the rather strident choir of girls and men but an address by Michael Symmons Roberts, whose libretto for MacMillan's The Sacrifice I've so admired. Jimmy was also in Oxford on Saturday for the premiere of a new choral work - as I only later twigged having seen from afar a familiar face at the Berlin Phil concert, and ascribed it to a half-remembered German musician (stop press: Jimmy told me at last night's world premiere of the Violin Concerto that it couldn't have been him). In a muddying acoustic, Symmons Roberts read several of his poems dealing with the practicalities of resurrection: what would Jesus and Jairus's daughter have had to eat? The short, pithy poems came from his collection Corpus, which I've just ordered up.
Then we decided to drop in on Magdalen and see if Carla was about. She was, and took us exuberantly on a tour. It's a college I've always wanted to see, and never until now succeeded. The cloister is probably the most beautiful in Oxford, though Christ Church, of course, has a different, loftier claim.
The sculptures which adorn it don't get so much as a mention in my Pevsner, though they're famous for inspiring C S Lewis, fellow for many years, to transform them into the statues which adorn the White Witch's courtyard in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. Everyone loves the twins.
The chapel was mostly restored, heavily but well, by Cottingham in the early 1830s, but its antechapel has some splendours, including the grisaille windows of 1632
and a set of very characterful misericords. Of course I snapped the lot, as it's my obsession, but I'll take the liberty of only reproducing a grotesque face and one particularly naughty specimen.
As for famous forbears, T E Lawrence was here; C S Lewis lived in the New Buildings of 1733
and Oscar Wilde had a room on the High Street side, though no one seems sure which one it was. Carla, of course, fell in love at first sight with the whole place and its deer park, which is why she chose it. And very happy she seems to be there, too. Ah, the young. It won't be long now before the godchildren are aiming for Oxbridge, so I'm much looking forward to bringing Evi, Alexander and Rosie May on a visit.