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.


David Damant said...

David Damant writes

It is a pity that the enthusiam shown by so many at Oxford for the Lib Dems overlooks the fact that proportional representation, if implemented, would ensure that governments and policies would for ever afterwards be the result of deals between party professionals in what used to be smoked filled rooms. Just the sort of politicking that those who hold Mr Clegg to be a bright new light wish to get away from.

Anyway, most fortunately all the main parties now run Mrs Thatcher's economic policies, so we can relax on that front

One may add that "The advantage is, as it has always been, with the less ancient and less splendid university"

JVaughan said...

I do indeed know that a general election is coming up, but, to my shame, do not know when it is. Is Labour expected to retain its majority, whether strongly or slimly? As you know, I would probably be voting for the party you did not mention were I living there, unless they have weakened, as our Republican Party seems to be doing here, _DEFINITELY_ in the District of Columbia.

I renewed acquaintance with _The_ _Chronicles_ _Of_ _Narnia_ earlier in this decade, and play my Focus on the Family dramatizations of them quite regularly these days. Yet I did not know that "Jack" Lewis was an Oxford man until I acquired these recordings, nor an Anglican since Evangelical Christians seem fond of his writings, and Anglicanism is often rather liberal these days.

I will belatedly write of your recent loss in the thread pertaining to it.

J. V.

David said...

Set about with the well-meaning opposition. I don't believe a word of it (least of all the ones about Cambridge, the point being that I love whichever city I'm in at the time).

Today, JV, it's today, and the results start flooding in at around 11pm our time. And, no, Labour is not at all popular, and I'm not surprised. The mood is that something has to change, and that the Lib Dems's hour might finally come, if only it weren't for the present system.

David Damant said...

David Damant writes

Well the quotation about the universities was from Macauley, who is of course thoroughly unreliable on most things. Lord Melboune said that he " would be glad to be as sure[ maybe he said cocksure ?]of any one thing as Tom Macauley is of everything"

But my remarks about Mrs T's economic policy were factual. The great expenditure on schools and the NHS ( etc) under Blair can be put down to her putting the economy right, - and all the main parties and most governments abroad followed ( or came to the same conclusions independently). It was perhaps a matter of trial and error over the 20th century - the other methods failed. More recently a bit of discipline by grocer's daughter would have been useful. Of course that still leaves the social questions open to choice.

Finance and business are the sine qua non. Art and music and ( add what you wish) are the raison d'etre. But you cannot do much satisfactory being without having at least enough of the without which not.

David said...

A good answer indeed, Sir David. Stet.

Gavin Plumley said...

Magdalen is a sublime college (my first choice alas). But I thought T.E. Lawrence (being the good Welsh boy) went to Jesus.

David said...

We're both right, Gavin. L Orrence went to Jesus, so to speak, as an undergrad and started (now I quote from Wiki) 'postgraduate research in medieval pottery with a Senior Demy [WTF?] at Magdalen College, Oxford, which he abandoned after he was offered the opportunity to become a practising archaeologist in the Middle East'. The papers can still be seen, apparently.

Robert McIntosh said...

From Robert McIntosh
I am a Cambridge graduate twice over(MA,MPhil, Architecture,Kings), but went to school in Oxford and spent many a happy teenage afternoon exploring three colleges about which you said nothing: All Souls, for Hawksmoor's magnificent scale of the facade and the lofty peaceful chapel and Codrington Library; StJohns for its sublime and large gardens beyond the Canterbury Quad; and Lincoln for its exquisite, tucked away feel. Also that jewel of south Oxford, and Lutyens' only work in the city, the (Catholic)Jesuit college, Campion Hall, wherein Lutyens did amazing, beautiful things with limited space.
Any chance of more photos of your goddaughter Evi?
Floreat Cantabridgia et Oxonia
Robert McIntosh

Robert McIntosh said...

Robert McIntosh
ps did you ever track down a copy of Sir Kenneth Dover's scandalous autobiography, Marginal Comment? I saw a copy in Unsworths near Euston Rd a few months ago - maybe it's still there.

David said...

No, Robert - it was nowhere to be found on AbeBooks. So I'd better ring up Unsworth forthwith.

'Said nothing' sounds like a reproach. I only set out to write about what we saw last Sunday. How I'd love to get into All Souls - I look at Hawksmoor's towers enviously through the gates. As it's a postgrad college, the normal admissions don't apply. Next time, maybe.

No, not posting any more pix of Evi. Nor of the delightful Carla, though she's more of an age to cope with strange men stalking her on the internet...

Minnie said...

What extraordinary range, David - from Polly T to C S Lewis via various beasties (and misericords - also a guilty passion of mine: expect you already know it, but St Lawrence, Ludlow, sports some smashers!). Love the pictures. Yes, that chapel is truly ghastly. Shame the choir(s) were a disappointment; but I have to say I've not heard of the poet/librettist, so shall definitely seek out his work.
Bet DLS would have found scholarship among the dreaming spires a tad arid after being extraordinarily successful (and fĂȘted) in advertising in London.
Too ancient to feel hopeful about politics, and find the LDs douteux (they could lose Jenny Tonge for a start, and V Cable's straight-talking front is, er, just that). Time for another revolution? Perhaps a good thing I live in a famously cynical town run by dodgy duckers-and-divers (but they're OUR triple Ds, and they get things done. For us. Fast). Bon weekend!
PS You'll have enormous fun introducing the godchildren to these glorious places.

David said...

Ah, Ludlow - possibly my favourite English town (though I'm told Stamford, which I haven't seen, is just as perfect). You got me digging in my postcard box for the set of misericords.

Minnie said...

Stamford is definitely worth visiting. Coincidentally, I'd just been downloading pix of misericords (incl.a terrific amphisbaena)before I read your post. Some of the best are in a book now, sadly, out of print & consequently costing a small fortune @ Amazon/Abe: 'God's Beasts' in case you don't already know it; quite a few libraries have a copy, tho' - worth a look.

David said...

Only you, Minnie, from our short but already delightful acquaintance, would be able to get the word 'amphisbaena' into a comment. You are so very welcome!

Colin Dunn said...

Wonderful misericords, David, but what has caught my eye is the grisaille window. Does it depict the Last Trumpet, or the Resurrection, or Ascension? Certainly some non-winged figure is rising into the skies.

Must get on with the task of reading and not just looking...

David said...

The last trump, Colin, with souls ascending and plunging.

I was also rather taken with some of the Victorian windows in the Exeter mock-Sainte-Chapelle: there's a rather fetching Samson bringing down the temple.

Didn't see you at last night's Martinu. Were you there?

Unknown said...

Copper beach? Here's what you meant

David said...

I'll look at that when I have a moment, Baz. In the meantime, I think you were referring to the more recent post. I'd already changed 'beach' to 'beech' once, but missed the second. Maybe thinking of the English Channel in temperatures of 70 plus now.