Real Oxford — Patrick McGuinness

Real where?’ they ask, though it wasn’t a question. ‘What next: Real Narnia?’, ‘Real Disneyland?’ ‘Real Trumpton’?

I once wanted to write a book called Real Oxford. The jokes were predictable: on the face of it, and many would say it’s all mostly face, the City of Dreaming Spires would be one of last the places you’d look for the real. More to the point, it’s where you’d be least likely to find anyone who knew much about the real, though some of them might have seen it through a window once on the train to London (every 15 minutes and passing via Didcot, Reading, Slough), or on the Oxford Tube, which, every 15 minutes picks up its travellers from a pattern of stops between Gloucester Green bus station and the Park and Ride, via the High Street, St Clements, Headington, and Gypsy Lane.

In fact, one of the first things you notice when you arrive in Oxford—whether by car, rail or bus—is the way the place seems constantly to be processing movement, pushing it along: pedestrians, buses, cars, delivery vehicles, cyclists, and some who pass by so fast or look so strange that it’s hard to tell precisely what they are. Beneath the apparent permanence of the colleges and their towers, it’s the sense of transience that forms what would be called, in perfumery, the base note. It’s the place flushing itself out and refilling again to all kinds of rhythms and routines: the working day, the working night, the working weekend, restaurant-time, pub-time, club-time, but also the university terms bringing students in like waves and draining them away, also like waves, to be replaced by foreign-language students or besuited conference-goers with their own rhythms and priorities. It’s more like a cistern than a city. When I first came to live here, I saw how Oxford the city persisted, though the university dominated economically and its tendrils stretched right across town and beyond the city limits, with its industrial parks, student halls and technology centres, its arms-length business ventures that swallowed up old Oxford almost as fast as the developers built housing estates of Swindonian blandness. But the place—its character as a large, vibrant, diverse, part-industrial town full of history that is not defined by the university—was still there, always remaking itself. Well, it’s what I told myself.

It’s not a large place. The ringroad is peculiarly large, flabby even, for such a concentrated city. Looked at on the map, it’s slack, not taut. It’s not a ring either. This is because of all the green space, the undefined, wooded, half-greenfield, half-brownfield land that fills out the area between it and the city. If you drive around it you’ll see houses abutting the road itself, and then suddenly a clump of dark woods or a vista of rolling grassland. And as you walk the canal bank from, say, Iffley village back to Cowley Road via the Donnington Bridge, your hearing fools you into thinking you’re near a waterfall, or perhaps some lock permanently sluicing. It’s not, it’s the sound of traffic, hundreds of cars per minute, invisible but just a few hundred yards away, which the air, the fog, the tall trees and the gaps between them, perhaps also the pints in the Isis tavern (now contemplating renaming itself), translate into the sound of running water.

In Oxford, as in any city, we all use the same roads and streets, and it’s as if the place is too small to take us all in at once; so we inhabit it in segments of time, in zones, and we ourselves cross rhythms and routines too, are not confined by them. I have been in Oxford for twenty years, and I’ve always felt unsettled here. Maybe it’s because I’ve lived so long near or even in front of the Oxford Tube stops, seeing the stream of red buses coursing like blood cells through the city’s tarmac and limestone veins; or because I’ve watched pubs change name, beer quality and clientele so often that now my local is less a place (an ‘actual place’, I was going to say: I can’t even use the word ‘place’ without qualifying it or putting inverted commas around it) than a composite of remembered tastes, décors, friendships, a layering of my pasts, an accretion of my selves; or because I live in the Cowley Road area, the most fast-moving, multicultural and vibrant part of town. This isn’t saying much, incidentally, it’s just that in Oxford there’s only one area like it, so it stands in for all our multicultural elsewheres. I had a colleague, young enough to know better but so posh that it touched on innocence, who bought her student daughter a house off the Cowley Road, so she could recoup her money by charging her daughter’s lodgers. She called it an ‘inner city area’, which puzzled me: it’s middle class, full of academics and students, health food shops, restaurants, C of E primary schools and odd little shops selling robes, retro vinyl albums, 20 quid haircuts and, for all I know, disposable hipster beards. On further investigation, I discovered that all her life she had heard the phrase ‘inner city’ as, simply, ‘in a city’, thus simplifying many of the knottier issues of urbanism and demographic change that have defined the last 50 odd years. She was a philosopher, so I was at least grateful that her ignorant beatitude would find little outlet beyond the seminar room. But still…

As for the word ‘real’, it has to be used with caution, has a dark and frightening prestige on the few occasions it’s used in university business. Early in my academic career, I asked for permission to miss one of the final examiners’ meetings to go to some conference or other. I received a formal letter from my Chair (‘Real World’ translation: line manager), typed and cc’d, telling me I would be in real trouble if I missed the meeting. The word real had been double-underlined in red, as if to signal its outrageous, its monstrously alien, intrusion into university life. Clearly, until now, I’d been in pretend trouble, toytown-and-gown trouble. Not now. This would have been real. It’s not a word we use lightly around here.

I once invited the French poet Gilles Ortlieb to stay in Oxford for a few days, at All Soul’s college on the busy High Street. It’s an extraordinary place. It has no students, only academics, and even then it’s not always clear the place is inhabited: past the vast oak door with its tiny entrance portal, it’s like scholarship’s version of the world after the Neutron bomb. Ortlieb has a line in a poem about the accumulating banality of most of our lives, its quiet enrichments too—the everyday, filling us out, holding us up. It’s a line of such elegant fatalism that I’d like it translated into Latin and worked into the university crest: ‘Le réel, éternel vainqueur aux points’: ‘reality: always the winner on points’. I imagine a long, inconclusive slugging-out in a boxing ring, the points coming, in the end, for the stamina and not the skill, and the referee’s decision to be praised more for its finality than its fairness. That might be the real.

Not in All Souls though, or at any rate not yet. On the other side of its cream-coloured limestone walls is Oxford’s busiest street, the main drag, pavements riveted with bus stops, a road pocked with traffic islands. And right outside the college, one of Oxford’s most peculiar objects: an atmosphere detector measuring air pollution. It’s a sort of grey metal box covered by a square metal cage, tightly-meshed, in which you expect to see some sort of bird, but inside which sits, on a sort of platform, a reinforced glass bulb and a sort of ear-trumpet open to the elements. They’ve been there for at least as long as I have, measuring the city’s lungs. Beside them, some picked-clean chicken bones and a plastic fork from one of the kebab vans have been pushed through the mesh. It looks like an altar with some ancient propitiatory offering to the gods of carbon dioxide or global warming.

Having lived here so long, as a student first and now as a mid-career academic, as they call it, the Oxford I felt drawn to was a place of noise and bustle and temporariness. It felt real, and uniquely so, not just in its constituent parts but in the way those parts coexisted, intertwined, ignored each other and often crashed. It was a functioning, dense, ramifying city, with factories, a car plant, rich and poor areas, places of catatonic gentility and places of real and often random danger. It has its maligned neighbourhoods, such as Blackbird Leys, the estate where, the year I arrived, there were days of rioting and weeks of tense truce after the police cracked down on joyriding and car theft. (Parts of the Cowley Rd still have the sleeping policemen and speed bumps from that period) I remember the Private Eye cartoon: City of Dreaming Spires had become City of Screaming Tyres. The distorted image of Blackbird Leys is matched by the surprising collective ignorance of one of the most extreme cases of institutionalised snobbery, the ‘Cutteslowe walls’, seven-foot brick partitions topped with twisted iron erected, in the 1930s, to separate the wealthy residents of North Oxford from their social inferiors on the nearby estate. In 1935, a demonstration led by the British Communist Party marched on the wall with picks. They were arrested. The walls finally came down in 1959, but the traces remain, and one is never very far from wondering what other kinds of partition and division, less visible, less tangible, and less easy to pull down, the place still perpetuates. Judging from some of the comments in the Oxford Mail when it celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of the wall’s destruction, quite a lot—I’m sure some of the calls to rebuild them, and build similar ones elsewhere in Oxford, were not ironic.

When we remember that the people on either side of the Cutteslowe walls were often employed by the same institution—the Colleges and Halls of the University of Oxford—we get a sense of the place’s odd polarities: one the one side of the wall, the university’s servants, staff, groundsmen, laboratory technicians, porters and cooks; on the other their self-styled betters. Walls like the Cutteslowe walls may look like imposing structures, but, as the cliché goes, they come down faster than the mentalities that get them built. It’s in Oxford’s cemeteries that the equalising takes place, and one of the poignancies of visiting the city’s dead is finding the likes of Max Müller and Kenneth Tynan buried a few graves away from a lodge porter, or a college butler. There are dynasties of university groundsmen, scouts, cooks, and others all across the cemeteries of Marston, Jericho, Cowley, Botley, Abingdon Rd, all of them rubbing shoulders, or at any rate femurs, with those whose rooms they cleaned, whose food they cooked, whose post they sorted, whose lawns they manicured. Thomas Gray could make a poem about social injustice, the riggedness of the system, by looking at the dead of a country churchyard, yet churchyards now, to me, seem like examples of a world more organic and connected and socially porous than the present.

From the day I arrived I thought I’d leave. I didn’t know.

My father studied here. He came from Newcastle and took the train. He was from a shipyard worker’s family; his father was already ill and unemployed, and would die before my father graduated; his mother worked the tills in a supermarket, and later in a café. It was 1957. All studies show that educational opportunity is less now that it was then, in Oxford especially. I naïvely asked my father if it wasn’t rare for people like him to go to Oxford in those days and he looked surprised: ‘No, I think 3 or 4 of us got into Oxford from my school—we took the train down together’. These days only the most expensive private schools have Oxbridge entry stats like that. Progress, in educational terms, has been non-existent in Britain: social mobility hasn’t improved, but above all, in ways we feel in Oxford, access to the best higher education has actually decreased. My father described arriving in a taxi that October night, hailing a cab and taking his cases to college as being a sort of welcome into adulthood.

Maybe it’s because he came from such a different world that he bought into Oxford. He remembered Richard Burton and Hugo Dyson, recitations of Chaucer and Shakespeare in the University Parks. His endless stories about the place, and the addled mythology he perpetuated, made me pretty certain that he himself hadn’t experienced much of the place’s grace and charm. He was neither a sufficiently angry young man to push productively against the place (the anger came later) nor sufficiently middle- or upper-middle-class to feel easeful and entitled and generally go with its flow.

Oxford stayed with him as a kind of idyllic epoch. It does that, as I know from the students I’ve taught, who return to the place, or to a version of it, and from friends in the development and alumni offices who deal with financial dimension of nostalgia: donations and bequests. Nostalgia can be bought and sold, like any other commodity, and it can certainly be invested, nurtured and allowed to grow, until it replaces the very memories it used to preserve. My father never did much afterwards, but Oxford stayed in his wallet like an unspent gold coin. A waste.

He visualised me, when I got my job—I never told him I was being interviewed, for fear of failing and disappointing him, again—in an elegant cream jacket deadheading my flowers in a large garden in Summertown, sherry warming on the veranda, muttering my lectures to myself, rehearsing my off-the-cuff High Table bons mots in the late afternoon sun. Perhaps even having a chat with Iris Murdoch over my bohemianly tatty topiary. That would have been, in his mind’s eye, in the leaf-muffled avenues of North Oxford, the sort of place there used to be a wall around, on the other side of which would be people like his young self. He imagined something like the film Accident. I know he visualised this because he explained the fantasy in detail before coming to see me the day I told him I’d bought a house. When he visited me in my first house in Princes Street—a two-up two-down in East Oxford, off the Cowley Rd, near a church converted into a Caribbean centre, and amid rubbish that rolled like desert tumbleweed, I don’t know what disappointed him more: the fact that my only kitchen surface was the top of my washing machine (and would remain so for the rest of my time there) or the fact that the house looked and felt little better, as he put it, than the place he’d been brought up in. I wish it had felt as cheap too—I’d just taken a 30 year sphincter-stretching mortgage for it, and the only thing I’d be deadheading was bindweed in a garden where Conrad could have set Heart of Darkness.

I bought the place in 1998, at the start of the middle of the East Oxford gentrification process. It was barely affordable even then, but the old Cowley Road community was still more or less there, multicultural certainly, but with a white working class and solidly Labour, modulating, in the lower parts of Cowley Road, Iffley Road and St Clements, into a vibrant Green Party activism. Some of the UK’s first Green councillors were elected here in 1995, notably Mike Woodin, a tutor in Balliol who fought every good fight, and with whom I worked, though I was in a different party, representing academics opposed to student fees. Mike died in 2004 aged 38, and his coffin was towed by bicycle at his funeral. He was instrumental in the Green Party’s rise, and contributed more to Oxford politics, and more durably, than any of us from the traditional parties. His deep scepticism about the Euro, and about the hard, capitalist, monster-bureaucracy of the EU was ahead of its time in the way it articulated an ecological, left-wing unease with its totalising projects. Woodin’s Way, near the Castle, is named after him.

But the London commuters, the university lecturers priced out of their traditional hunting grounds, middle-class families finding areas like Jericho suddenly out of their price ranges, were starting to change Cowley Rd and East oxford more generally, for both good and ill. The place began to glow with dinner parties seen through new double glazing, the climbing scales of piano lessons would wind themselves around you as you returned from Sunday lunch. You could smell the asparagus steaming. You could hear the buzzing of drills and electric saws, could see the domino-ripple of loft conversions street by street. The worst of it of course was that the people one peered at through the windows in the soft-lit rooms with such contempt were people like oneself. Those weren’t windows, those were mirrors.

My neighbour, Doris, was 92. She had been born in the house she now occupied. She had that beautiful Oxford accent I hardly hear any more—imagine two parts West Country to one part Midlands. She told me I’d be happy here, that this was a place where people weren’t nosey, but still looked out for you. She and her cat Tracey lived on Doris’s pension from the Potato Board, where she had worked all her life. But Doris was in the early stages of dementia. I’d never seen the illness take over so fast. Within a few months she was only partly there, and what was left behind of herself was intermittent. But she was right about the community. Her friends cared and came; people took care of her: everyone, it seemed, but her own family, who stayed away until she died, after which they rushed to claim her now extremely valuable house. Of her friends, I remember especially Olive from Cross street, who called twice a day, brought food and did Doris’s shopping. Olive, herself in her late seventies, had inherited a tortoise from her aunt 48 years before, and since Olive’s garden gave onto mine, I used to watch the creature sunning its shell on hot afternoons. But Olive did one thing that Doris abominated—took her to church. Olive’s was a kindly but essentially predatory Christianity. Every Sunday they’d come for her, Olive and a few Sunday-bested chaperones. I could hear Doris through the single-brick walls shouting ‘I don’t want to go to your shittin’ church, if you think I’m going to sit and listen to all that piss you got another thing coming!’; ‘I don’t care about your bastard god’. There’d be a gentle tussle. Finally Doris would meekly step out and look back longingly at her house. A couple of hours later, she’d be back like some Old Testament figure, fuming, haranguing her maker, his church, his representatives on earth, with fabulously inventive imprecations. It was salty, scatological, stuff. At these times, Doris sounded pretty on the ball to me.

Doris died in pain and confusion. 1999-2000 was one of the coldest winters for decades. She caught ‘flu, then, somehow, gangrene, from an untreated cut. Her house, when I went to help her up when she fell (I could hear her falling, the walls were so thin), smelled terrible. The odour started gamey and sweet, and if you half-caught it, and didn’t know what it was, there’d be something compelling about it, luxurious even, that you’d want to investigate. Orchid, maybe, the smell of a florist’s at day’s end, close and enveloping and organic, the scent of a rose on the turn. You’d hazard a fuller inhalation take more of it into your nostrils, and then you’d know what it was, and retch. It seeped through the walls or crept up on you in the backswing of a door, before hitting you full in the nose and mouth as you entered the house. Her nightmares woke me, not her; and by the end I thought I could smell the gangrene in my own living room; often I woke up dreaming the smell. Before Christmas 1999, Doris went into hospital for an amputation, but was too fragile for the operation. But she never came home either. She left her house to Olive, who fought a successful but wearying battle with Doris’s absentee family, who questioned her will and soundness of mind when she made it.

Olive sold up fast, and Doris’s house was bought by a builder-developer who dug up the garden for his extension, finding the buried bodies of more than a dozen cats. Doris’s lifetime in pets. Their grey skeletons, some still leathery with skin the texture and pliability of beef jerky, some so dry they exploded when they hit the skip, joined the pizza boxes and empty tubes of No More Nails. The new owner was good company. I found his politics unpleasant, he found mine hypocritical. But we got on, because he was clear about what he wanted: he’d started with nothing, and was making money. He liked people on a one-to-one basis, but didn’t think much of humanity as a whole—a trait I’ve noticed on the political right. He made a nice change from the middle class lefties like me who liked the idea of humanity in the abstract but somehow found that individuals never quite measured up.

There was also a lot of bad faith—lying to yourself and knowing, essentially—about the way we operated: we’d pretend that what we loved about the place was its character, even as we changed it to make it less like itself. There’s that bit in Synge’s Aran Islands where he writes of how wonderful it is that the people of Inismoor can tell the time just by looking at the sun. Then a few pages later he describes how happy they were when, after a trip to the mainland, he brings them back some clocks. Sometimes we destroy what we love by loving it. It’s that moment when someone’s life turns into your lifestyle: the middle classes have been doing it for years, and its latest manifestations are things like hipster hardware shops, craft breweries, and gastropubs selling local food that’s more expensive than anything flown in from South America. In some imprecise way I’d find hard to justify unless I was drunk, I think beards are a symptom of this too.

We liked the idea of living in East Oxford, but wanted to change it all into what we already knew and already had: corner shops into Delis, bakeries into patisseries, pubs into gastro-pubs. In other parts of Oxford, such as Jericho, everything that was uneven, surprising, irregular, rough-edged, unpredictable, was being smoothed out and sanded down by gentrification. But Clive, my neighbour, who actually came from Oxford (he was probably one of the few people on my street who did by the end of the 1990s) didn’t bemoan it. Clive saw it as movement, and where there was movement there was money. East Oxford was going the same way as the rest of Oxford, and it suited him. Clive wasn’t prone to bad faith. It dulled his instincts for making money.

It was summer 2000. I thought I was in for the long haul, that I’d watch my developer neighbour package up Doris’s house into a slick des res and sell it for three times what he paid. If he did, I never found out, because it was I who sold up, surprising even myself, in October 2000, and moved to Cardiff. I was riding a house sale profit I’d never imagined possible, and summarising, in so doing, all the things I hated about property-profiteering. As I said: it’s a mirror, not a window. By some nice inversion, my house was bought by a Welshman who, like Clive, was in the property development game. ‘Moving from Oxford to Cardiff is it?’, he asked, ‘That’s a one-way move, butt—you won’t be able to afford to come back’.

Have I come back, or did I just never leave? I don’t know, but fifteen years later, after multiple rentals and stints in college accommodation, I now live in East Oxford again, one street further up, in a house that’s even smaller, costs twice and much as I sold mine for, and overlooks a car park and the delivery bay of the Cowley Road Tesco. ‘Attention, this vehicle is reversing’ is the electronic mantra I hear in the early mornings. It’s not the only thing reversing around here: as the place has been gentrified, I seem to have been getting degentrified. The line from Half-Man Half-Biscuit comes to me, its jagged little satire on upward mobility: ‘When I had my loft/ converted back into a loft/ The neighbours came around and scoffed/ And called me retro.’ Over the years I’ve lived in a variety of places, from oak-panelled, bay-windowed college sets with portraits of pickled Elizabethans to rooms where the wallpaper bore the scratches of large Alsatians. But from where I’m sitting now, Oxford is looking pretty real.

Patrick McGuinness has written a novel, The Last Hundred Days (2011), a memoir, Other People’s Countries (2014), and two books of poems, the Canals of Mars (2004) and Jilted City (2010). Also academic books on French literature.