Saturday, February 18, 2006

Oxford I: Kites

I first read Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials lounging on a sofa in a friend’s house in Scotland. Three books in three days: quite the reading habits of a nineteenth-century convalescent! Out of the window, a distant, still-snowy Ben Wyvis, white grass, black oak, ash, and a lot of sky. And kites. Red Kites, that is. The progeny of a release programme on the Black Isle, these were buoyant, glamorous raptors with long, kinked wings, delicately tacking their forked tails against the complicated breezes that blew off the hill behind the house.
Have you read these books? They’re marvellous. Philip Pullman trounces CS Lewis on every level (which is just as well considering how rude he's been about him) and a better question would be: Pullman or Tolkien? Northern Lights, the first book, begins with a scruffy, feral, fierce small girl called Lyra Belacqua, who is a ward of an Oxford College. But Lyra lives is an alternate universe, While Northern Lights' College world is in part familiar—it's still a world of retiring rooms, gowns, fine wines, factions, friendships, papers, presumptions—much is different. In Lyra’s Oxford, human souls assume the form of corporeal animal companions (her own is called Pantalaimon); electric lights are anbaric lights, there are armies of soldier-bears, in the north. Witches and tartars; and science natural philosophy under the aegis of Church-as-State. Like the other books in the series, it unflinchingly interrogates all our loves: of north and home and heart and work and—not to give anything away—God.

I saw a red kite on the way to Oxford. From a train window. It was poised on a turn, heading toward me, just about to stall in the way kites do — they are masters of slow, searching flight — and as it hung there, a paper-cut sharp sillhouette of tail and pinion stamped black onto the sky, it looked as heraldic and symbolic as a key or a shield or a telescope. And I remembered the kites in Scotland, and thought, oddly, this might be an interesting trip. Then a half-remembered line from the second book of Pullman’s trilogy, The Subtle Knife, came to mind. Will, a boy from our Oxford, meets Lyra. She is astonished by him, but realises that she is not lacking a soul, a daemon, but simply a corporeal one.

How much easier if his dæmon had been visible! She wondered what its form might be, and whether it was fixed yet. Whatever its form was, it would express a nature that was savage, and courteous, and unhappy.
That last line was what I remembered. Later, I walked the streets of Oxford as night was falling. And I remembered it again. Just as Pullman’s Oxford is recognisably Oxford, only not in this universe, it became plain that Oxford was a recognisable Cambridge, only not in this universe! I don’t mean the obvious differences. Of course Oxford is different: different buildings, different roads, different colleges from Cambridge. I’m not talking about comparing College fascias. The sort of difference I felt was something very close and invisible, like the feeling you get when someone looks over your shoulder when you’re reading. The kind of uncanny, inchoate feeling when you cross from a ‘safe’ neighbourhood into an unsafe one in a big city. Nothing is obviously changed, only you know you’re somewhere quite different. And after a while walking around that evening, the uncanny differences started to show through the obvious differences. And they were sometimes fine, like engraver’s lines, and sometimes bulky and brute as icebergs.

That evening I see bus-stop advertisements warning people not to buy guns. I see slaughtered deer slung up in butcher’s shops, headless and truncated, with rough pelts and waxy fat showing through. Over the entrances to college staircases, ghostly chalk tallies of rowing victories. I see a man struggling to breathe through an oxygen mask, the whites of his eyes showing through a crowd of paramedics. I balance my coat on a needle-dumps in a public loo. The tiny college Fellows’ room I stay in has a window opening onto to the leafless branches of a thorn tree. The staircase leading up to it, and both sets of doors, are painted glossy, bright, and battered carmine.

So that evening I decided that the whole city is wonderfully savage and courteous, and unhappy. No wonder Cambridge students call Oxford 'The Dark Side". Cambridge is not like this place, I thought. Cambridge is serene, wintry, dispassionate. It would unhesitatingly leave you to die if you were drowning, but it wouldn't hit you over the head with an axe. Oxford, after a moment's consideration of civility, would. Oxford is anglo-saxon and fierce. That's what I was thinking, bizarrely, as I walked about that evening.

So, with pretentious pithiness, I finally solved my puzzle. Cambridge is cold. Oxford has blood underneath. I understood, when I walked back into the dark quad at Jesus College Oxford, why T E Lawrence was here, and not Coleridge.

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