Monday, 22 August 2011

Oxford's emptying

Oxford's emptying.

I'm not even sure why, a day or two ago, I wrote these two words as a Facebook status update. Obviously I'm leaving Oxford. But — egotistical though I may be — that wasn't what I meant.

My happy cohabitation with Oxford began in 2001, in staircase 7 of New College. Now, almost exactly a decade later, I'm finally leaving this strange old city — at once so abstract and sleepy, so glib and savage. A place — and here I'm referring to the university — that (if you're not careful) can teach you to be better at tearing things down than at building things up. A place of criticism.

But I was lucky. And here, in this slow city, I have met more wonderful, creative people — more builders — than I could have hoped or imagined.

Craig Raine and (the sadly deceased) Tony Nuttall. I don't know what I did to deserve to fall (without any foreknowledge or research) into being taught by two so wise, compassionate, acute human beings. What was the most important thing I learnt from Craig? I learnt that a man who's spent decades teaching literature to cocky adolescents can still get choked up with tears when he reads a beautiful passage aloud.

And from Tony? Once I walked into New College's Front Quad some distance behind Tony. And watched him — a man months from retirement in the middle of a walk he'd paced every day of his time at New College — pause and simply gaze around him, delighted.

And my university friends. Most of them left the place long before I — the rats.

But — not quite knowing what else to do — I stayed.

And indecision can be the most powerful decision of all.

As a result of that first indecision, I came to be close to two people without whom my life would have been utterly, utterly different. Two people who have changed me.

Bronagh. Oxford emptied of you long, long ago.

And Rebecca. I'll always remember dipping with a half-embarrassed wave as we approached one another from opposite ends of Rectory Road — the first tentative tiptoes towards a collaboration that showed me: two people can create (can understand) without framework or contrivance. That showed me: some conversations are never going to end, but keep growing and branching and blooming, their myriad tangents and complexities interwoven.


Rebecca and I sat, today, watching the dusklight work its way through the gold and the pink as it fell on Oxford stone, Oxford metal. And we talked about emptying. About how a place is, after all, just a place — and it is us, and those close to us, who animate it.

For me, Oxford's animation has changed.

I thought for a moment of a map, stuck through with pins. My Oxford has been the triangulation of those pins. Perhaps some of those pins aren't even in the place itself. Move a pin or two — or take them away — and the triangulation shifts, wrenchingly. The lines' intersections change.

Good bye, slow, capricious Oxford — with your light and your heaviness. Good bye, Oxford.


Anonymous said...

Oh Tom, you don't need to make me cry first thing in the morning... Beautifully written. Sehr

CJ and PK said...

Just to say that both of us left Oxford after Finals, but have also had the delight of having sons attend there.

And, although the expression itself is rarely used of us, returning as a "grown-up" is even better.

Miranda said...

"A place is, after all, just a place". This post is lovely.

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