Oxford town, Oxford town
Towards the end of a bout of joblessness and homelessness, just before Xmas four years ago, I was sat in the television room of a hostel in Newcastle, watching a programme about the Spanish Armada. Everybody else must have been either out at the pub or temporarily barred from the hostel and I had the room to myself for the while, able to relax without the irritation of somebody making it hard to hear the television, or worse, somebody trying to pick a fight. Trying to pick a fight with me, which I was afraid of for most of the three months that I lived there. When you're in a hostel you're almost permanently conscious that you're just one row, one argument, one dispute with authority from being on the street.
It's stressful, unsettling and destabilising and of course it makes that fatal row all the more likely. Take away other people and you take away the cause of all your problems: easy to feel that's true when you're cooped up with other people in the YWCA.
However, that evening, or that part of it, was other-people-free, and I settled down, relaxed, to learn what I could about the Armada (a futile exercise, in retrospect, since I can now remember none of it). All of a sudden my mood of relaxation was disturbed, disturbed by the thought that I knew what was going to happen next: they were going to have one of my old Oxford tutors on. I knew it. And so it came to pass: the talking heads were academics, academics specialising in Tudor history, and one of them was Susie Brigden. I knew it. Even in a little corner of Newcastle, even in a hostel, I could not escape them.
It is, today, twenty-two years since I arrived at Oxford. I have seen the date for months: all over summer we stamped books with the date 5 OCT 2005, the date for returning vacation loans. I had time to become aware that 5 October was a date that meant something to me and further time to realise why this was. I would rather have gone unreminded and the anniversary left unremembered, but it was otherwise, the books are coming in bearing that same date and we are twenty-two years on from my arrival at that university. More than twenty years. More than nineteen since I left the place. But I will never get away from it.
That's what I hate about the place, as much as anything. You can't get away from it. I remember watching Have I Got News For You when John Sargeant (Shrewsbury and Magdalen) was on with Ian Hislop (Shrewsbury and Magdalen). Paul Merton (neither of the above) commented how odd it was that he never came across anybody who he'd been to school with. Nor do I. Nobody at all - save, as it goes, the sports editor of the Guardian - who I knew between the ages of 5 and 18.
But take the period from 18 to 21 and it can hardly be avoided. If they're not writing chick-lit novels advertised on the Tube, they're being found not guilty of conspiracy to defraud or presenting on The Culture Show. Every so often, they go quiet for a while, and then another one is being appointed to run Royal Mail's marketing.
You can't get away from them. It was half the problem at the time, cooped up with them as much as I was cooped up at the YWCA, as rootless then as I was homeless later, as miserable then as I was later nervous and destabilised. Impossible, I should think, to explain precisely why. Probably in bad taste, too. Explaining that three years at Oxbridge was a nightmare is a bit like explaining that a morning in a Kensington hotel is a morning spent in Hell. Plenty of people would give everything they had to swap with you.
But it was, nevertheless, a nightmare, a period of confusion and unhappiness. A couple of summers past I went to a reading, from his autobiography, by Terry Eagleton (Oxford University, Trotskyism and the Catholic Church) and during the Q&A I asked whether Oxford were not simply a machine for hurting people. It's not something I'd say to anybody who I didn't think would understand. It's the sort of thing one can only say if the person to whom you say it knows you do not mean it literally - but knows, also, why you say it, and why you think it's true. I think he did: knew what I meant, that it was an intense experience and one set up (hence why I said machine) so that it hurts those people who do not fit in. I did not, at all, fit in. Not there, not at that particular time.
I was the wrong sort of person in the wrong place, come from a comprehensive into a world resembling a public school, where almost everyone around you had experiences and expectations very different to yours. I was somebody aware of the world around me and yet found myself in a world apart, a world the revelled in being apart, a world defined by its distance from the world at large. I was a young man terribly unhappy, needing the right time and place and circumstances to deal with that, needing, probably, to be left alone: and being instead in a hectic atmosphere, one composed mostly of success and self-congratulation. It was a bad place at a bad time. A bad time, most of all, to have a miners' strike and lose it.
I don't know what to think about it now. I lost my love of reading there and never got it back entirely. I lost my love of learning there and only really got it back when I began to work in libraries. I suppose it was a lost opportunity, of a sort, although it was an opportunity I never could have taken. I went to the citadel of learning and all I learned was that I hated it. Mr Antolini says to Holden:
I have a feeling that you're riding for some kind of a terrible, terrible fall. But I don't honestly know what kind.... It may be the kind where, at the age of thirty, you sit in some bar hating everybody who comes in looking as if he might have played football in college.But that was all I learned while I was there. My fault, their fault, nobody's fault, it makes not a pomegranate's worth of difference in the end. Except that I cannot get away from it: and so I think about it still, though, for nearly twenty years' worth of thinking, I still do not know what to think.
You cannot get away from it. On Monday night, irritated by Channel Four News making a major moral crisis of the drinking of George Best, I changed channels and found myself watching The Battle For Britain's Soul, a history of Christianity in Britain. The presenter started to talk about John Wesley: and all of a sudden my mood of relaxation was disturbed, disturbed by the thought that I knew what was going to happen next. They were going to show and talk about the college that he went to. Perhaps, even, the room he had had when he was there.
It came to pass. There was the Reverend Peter Owen-Jones, in what was, when I was sat in it twenty years ago, the John Wesley Room. I sat in it being tutored by a man who later became the Rector of the college, whose predecessor, the holder of the office while I was a student, was the model for George Smiley. Which meant that when he died, I read about him twice.
I cannot get away from them: they are part of me now. Which makes no sense to me, for I was in the place but never part of it. I was the part that didn't fit. It matters not, at Oxford, where you're from: you can still be one of them. As long as you want to be one of them. But I did not. I could not have done. I could never have been one of them.