‘Oxford’, the word, is a powerful thing. It means so much to people; it means different things to different people. There are oceans of myth and speculation, assumption and history – almost anywhere in the world you’ll find someone enthralled by the idea of Oxford. Oxford University, I should say, but the two are so closely linked (especially in reputation) that extricating them is difficult and almost pointless.
I spent all my first year here pinching myself (metaphorically…) thinking “I’m at Oxford! Me!” – mostly, perhaps, because the myths are not reality. I had to keep reminding myself that this was Oxford, perhaps also because I’d never before lived somewhere significant in the eyes of the world. Is there anywhere else in England, excepting London, which holds such a place in people’s imagination? Sadly, this goes both ways. The long-dead ideas of privilege and idle rich boys are persistent, as are all sorts of unfairly derogatory things. One of things which saddens me most is that some of my closest friends detest my student life in Oxford – and thus, unwittingly, detest the way I choose to live. The city and the university are swirls of academic ativism, tradition and learning, fun and fantasies.
So I couldn’t resist when I was offered a review copy of Justin Cartwright’s This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited. It’s a non-fiction account of novelist Cartwright returning to his alma mater decades after studenthood, wandering through the streets and colleges, reminiscing and presenting a history of this fabled city. But, oh, that someone else had written it. There is certainly enough of Oxford in this little book to engage me – interesting history, and occasionally a rather winning sympathy with natural and academic Oxford… but there is so much else. Cartwright can’t stay on topic for more than a few moments, and wanders off into his own, fairly irrelevant, thoughts and opinions. Like many of those who most fervently proclaim open-mindedness, Cartwright is as close-minded as they come – his rhetoric frequently strides between psychobabble and bland – but strident – atheism. (One of the things I love about Oxford University is that it was built to the glory of God – just look at the college names! Jesus, Trinity, Corpus Christi…) Cartwright labels a rather witty joke about evolution as indicative that someone may be a ‘religious bigot and sneering oaf’, and… oh, if I have to read Isaiah Berlin’s name again! Cartwright states, unnecessarily, at one point: ‘I have often thought of Berlin and Oxford as one’ – unnecessarily, because Berlin is mentioned on almost every page. I’m sure he’s an admirable chap, but he’s not the reason I was reading this book.
These irksome traits aside, This Secret Garden has its high points. The tutorial Cartwright takes with an English tutor (despite never, as far as I could tell, studying English as a student) is diverting, and the meandering through Oxford’s spots of beauty is touchingly told. I had a couple of serendipitous moments whilst reading the book – I’d got to a bit about the statue of Cecil Rhodes on the exterior wall of Oriel College, only to realise I was standing immediately beneath it (yes, I was reading whilst walking, again). And there are interviews with Clive Hurst, one of my colleagues in the New Bodleian, in the room where Justin Cartwright looked at a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio.
In the end, like the temporary footprints each generation of undergraduates makes on the sturdy permanence of Oxford, the city and the university are able to outweigh their narrator. Cartwright’s opinions are overshadowed by the mystique of Oxford – and you could do worse than find it in these pages. If nothing else, it has offered the finest epithet for Oxford that I’ve found: ‘In Oxford you can read a book anywhere you like, without attracting attention.’