FT Life and Arts: On why Oxford should never change

How dare they? Oxford is my hometown; I love it. No, I hate it. Most importantly, I know it. But I never gave permission for it to change.

All families, all towns are weird but Oxford, perhaps, is a little weirder. Sweaty freshers and Japanese tourists may admire the ancient sandstone and crumbling professors but, to those of us who grew up there on the fine line between Town and Gown, the children of scruffy academics and their irritated wives, our little city’s strangeness was invisible. We were too worried about combination skin to register the bonkers Victorian Gothic architecture, the Fair-Isle brickwork that surrounded us. Which college was which? Who cared, when one was engaged with perfectly normal childhood pursuits: wondering how to find a husband the equal of John Keats and translating Bob Dylan’s “Just Like a Woman” into Ancient Greek.

It was only when I moved away that I began to glimpse Oxford’s magnificent silliness. Others admired the filigree bridges; maybe I should too. But it’s hard not to hate the place one has escaped from: all those mumbling male geniuses too clever to reproduce, the squalid studies, the vomiting gargoyles, the misogyny and privileged angst. When I visited my family, they were still furious about parking. Everything remained the same. That was its job.

Then visiting Spanish writers said they fancied an afternoon in Oxford. What if they were robbed by punt-touts? “I know,” I said, with infinite graciousness. “I’ll take you myself.”

The route through the Chilterns is beautiful, in a mild-mannered way. “Look! Look!” I kept insisting, gesturing at the filthy train window. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

“It is . . . pretty,” they agreed, scrolling through Instagram. A fierce protectiveness took hold of me; I recalled that Oxford is the 52nd largest city in Britain, and felt a rush of native pride. Never mind; the dreaming spires would knock their spoilt Castilian socks off. I was craning my neck after Slough; where were the spires? I spotted the ice-rink, the shopping centre: wait, what’s that?

It was only the pointlessly ugly copper ziggurat of the Saïd Business School. Still, one can’t look a gift billionaire Saudi arms dealer in the mouth; it was a spire, wasn’t it? The Spaniards smiled politely.

I led them proudly along the spectacularly crumbly wall of Worcester College (“Oxfordshire limestone”) and up Beaumont Street. This, at least, I knew about.

“It’s, um, 18th-century,” I explained. “And this is the Ashmolean. It’s . . . much better than it used to be.”

“How old?”

“Oh, probably 18th century. And there’s the Martyrs’ memorial . . . ”

“Martyrs to what?”

“Catholic. To the Queen. Or no, that was . . . I think it was Cranmer. Hang on . . . ”

“Please,” they said, “can we see Bodleian’s Library?”

“Fine, although there’s so much else to see first.”

But Oxford had changed. Balliol College seemed to have moved; the cabbies’ shelter had turned into a falafel stand. A lifetime ago I knew the St John’s porters, played with their children at staff Christmas parties; their heirs, in their new glassy lodge, were unwilling to let us through. Oxford is a collection of tiny fiefdoms; every porter, or Chattels Fellow, or Middle Common Room Treasurer, has the final word on their small domain.

Having grown up here, I instinctively knew how to work it: big smile, rude comment about a rival college, air of rampant entitlement and you’re in. Even here, though, the landmarks I remembered so clearly — the mulberry tree we plundered every year, the perfect circular lawn — had shifted. They were building a new library. What was the point? Everything was perfect as it was.

Yet nothing was as it should be. Where exactly was the Bodleian, again? Did it actually exist, or was it more of a concept, like the university itself? We ventured into Magdalen for the spectacular Harry Potter staircase, before I remembered it was in Christ Church. “Never mind,” I said. “It’s not that impressive. Look, there’s the Deer Park. Maybe. Wow, a boat!”

“Is this the Thames?”

“I don’t . . . think so. Anyway. Listen to the birds. And church bells! So peaceful.”

They pretended to admire the chiming, over the perpetual rumble of building machinery. Everywhere was expanding or renovating. I couldn’t remember the names of half the colleges but could spot redevelopment a mile off: “a fudge shop on the Broad? Bloody hell!” There were still the long-legged posh girls and mulleted boy-nerds. Placards offering every conceivable classical-music combination still lined the walls: the Oxford equivalent of prostitutes’ phone-box cards. But Blackwell’s, my safe space, my emotional-support bookshop, now contained a coffee shop, and a range of amusing pencil cases. New College’s smart refurbished kitchens smelled as cabbagey as the old; white-bread ham sandwiches lay under clingfilm as before.

Meanwhile, the academics were revolting. Indeed. Personally, faced with the finest minds of their generation, in their mossy gowns and frightening sideburns, I’d give them whatever they demanded. By the middle of the week it seemed that their fury at proposed pension downgrades, expressed at a meeting of Congregation in the Sheldonian Theatre and probably in perfect Aramaic, would defeat the vice-chancellor. How exciting: the dons are flowing unquietly at last. Would that they succeed.

Back on the train to Paddington, I longed for the only possible cure for musty WASP privilege: Asian food. Oxford can manage Thai, even a bit of Japanese, but there is a limit; the dons aren’t ready for bibimbap. No, even Korean felt too familiar. I needed something still more gastronomically avant-garde: Taiwanese or Shaanxi Chinese. “New restaurants 2018”, I googled. No: “March 2018”; give me the edge of the cutting edge. I needed space-food; the shock of the new. There is definitely still overpriced honey for tea on St Aldgate’s but in London, apparently, it’s all about pandan leaves and tofurkey. Dear weird Oxford; don’t ever change. That’s what London was invented for.

Onward and Upward in the Garden: from the New Yorker

Fifty Ways to Avoid Readying Your Garden for Spring

 

Ordinarily, my garden and I are embarrassing to be around. I can’t keep my hands off it; visitors, work, and children are all mere obstacles on the path of true pleasure. Just run your fingertip over the soft saucer of this quince blossom; gaze upon the magenta flower of this pineapple sage; notice the veiny strength of a banana leaf, the transfixing cleverness of a single vine tendril twirling into space. I have love-sickness, plant lust, mentionitis (did I tell you I have a garden?). I simply can’t keep away.

During these late days of winter, though, I find myself oddly busy with other things. Only a few months ago, I was fantasizing about acquiring a head torch so that I could tend my currant bushes after dark. Now I look down on the wasteland that was once my garden and experience merely . . . shame. It’s normal to feel guilty about gardening: not doing enough, not knowing where to start. But late winter—when the days lengthen, the light lifts, and one is confronted with twelve million nasty tasks left undone—is the guiltiest season of them all. Every handbook is banging on about the year’s time-honored cycle, about readying one’s plot for burgeoning life; like newborn lambkins, we should be quiveringly eager to begin. And yet . . .

It isn’t just the lashing rain and chilly mud, the morose clattering of plastic pots asexually reproducing in the corners. It’s that, when gardening entails minor chores, rather than a constant cycle of tasting and stroking, I seem to lose the will. I should face my disgusting, sagging shed—itself a classic example of the Mendelsonian law of false economies—purge its treasure trove of rotten sheep’s wool, rusted biscuit tins, desiccated bulbs, and horrific, child-painted mugs, which I lack the parental serenity to throw away. I ought to attempt winter pruning, but, lacking spatial awareness and the ability to follow technical (or, indeed, any) instructions, I can only gape dully at the diagrams and fail to identify basal clusters, central leaders, and lateral growths. Then, I either give up or, worse, go free-range, and then, each year, mourn my lack of fruit.

As for basic garden hygiene, my patience is thin. Cleaning plant pots with interestingly shaped brushes, disinfecting seed trays, scouring hand tools, plunging dismantled secateurs into oily sand: I can’t be bothered with any of it. I may tell myself it’s a sophisticated Darwinian-toughness test, that the fittest seedlings and worthiest perennials will survive. But, in truth, I’d rather have a bath with a seed catalogue, so that the doomed process of ordering, gloating, sowing, transplanting, potting, feeding, planting, tending, and then death can begin again.

Even my partial triumphs are depressing. My attempts to fashion leaf mold from the unattractively hardy viburnum inevitably results in a small patty of sodden plant gristle, which is forgotten until I slip on it and only then add to the compost bin. I always wrap my most vulnerable pots, the lemon-verbena and fig—late, amateurishly, but I do it. Now it’s time to unpeel them and assess which has done more damage: our puny winters; the snug, bathhouse-style environment I have created for the nymphomaniac local slugs; or the plants’ humiliation at having spent four months dressed in packaging materials. As Dolly Parton sang in “Coat of Many Colors”: if you’re clothed in a ragtag ensemble of moth-ravaged sweaters, bubble-wrap shreds, and ten metres of bargain-bought, secondhand agricultural fleece, people can be cruel.

Anyway, I’m busy. There are mysteriously persistent yet illegible pencil marks to scrub from an infinity of plant labels. Who else will sort my appalling glut of seed packets? Every year I flirt with alphabetization, and attempt to organize the packets chronologically, only, at the end, simply to pile them into heaps. And all the while I am longing for spring. I helicopter-parent my houseplants, polishing their leaves, constantly offering them drinks. I visit a local florist, which caters exclusively to window-box-owning city dwellers, and try to interest myself in the gothic nightmare of Ophiopogon planiscapus or in pointless pots of ivy and kalanchoes that not even a mother could love. If they sold vegetable seeds, I would be sunk. Instead, I furtively tend avocado stones and start considering kimchi—anything to give me a horticultural thrill, as long as I don’t have to garden.

Yet, within a week, everything has changed. Nature is waking up; there are snowdrops in the local park, a suggestion of green on the tips of my blueberry, cut-price raspberry canes on the high street. And, as gardeners everywhere start to develop that mad gleam, I feel it myself, that quickening, that pulsing desire. Sorry, I can’t quite make that deadline. Did you know I have a garden? It needs me. Let me at it.