It’s a long time since I’ve gone back to Oxford. Last weekend, we took the one hour train to get there. The sceneries haven’t changed: fields, trees and the occasional cows and sheep.
The college is still protected by the same heavy wooden gate the height of two persons or more. They have a new porter now. I looked at the wooden letter shelves – the pigeonholes – and a wave of nostalgia returns, thinking that there might be a letter or two for me.
They had planted a new plant with purplish, velvety leaves around the front quad. The grass was greener than I recalled. We walked down the path in the middle. The buttery was closed on that day but I went through the swing door to see the college pub, the library, and back quads, and the beloved Helen’s Court where I used to live. There was a strange calmness about Helen’s Court that moved me, its blue doors and sash windows. The much-used wooden cart propped up at the shed – I remember how I used those tools to take my luggage to the storeroom come the term end. After putting in all the luggage to that cellar-like storage, I was usually much exhausted and longed for a good sleep.
The Kybald House on the other side of the campus was a quiet and adorable red brick building where I lived in the second year. For the whole year, I saw the late Prof Strawson, a philosopher of metaphysics – who had a room and a study there – every now and then. He always had this learned air about him, always looking rather pensive and tranquil. There was a lovely bath in Kybald House with billowing floral curtains.
Oxford was good to me but I felt it was a thing of the past now. I love its elegant and unchanged self, but having spent time in other places – Hong Kong, London, Beijing, Norfolk etc – I felt acutely the sense of unreality of the city of spires. It is a place of enlightenment and transition, but it must be somewhere that you grow out of.
I always remember Vidia Naipaul’s reading whenever Oxford springs to mind. He read from his book – Half a Life – to the college students and I remember him saying how lonely and out of place he had felt while studying there. He didn’t feel belonged. Poor Vidia. His alleged solitude made me feel curious about him. I have been reading his book Literary Occasions now, an absolute gem. Our society’s sometimes too institutionalised. One college evening when people were having fun at the college ball, when most were enchanted by the fire-eaters and mobile beauty and massage parlours and pageant shows, that was what me and my friend discussed. He did philosophy, very brainy and British, but he didn’t feel belonged. It might be a matter of personality, of place, of encounters, or simply a coincidence.
Didn’t manage to go to have the G&D ice cream on that day, but we went up to the St Michael’s tower of Anglo-Saxon times. It’s exhilarating to be up there and see all the sand-coloured colleges, narrow lanes, students and quads dwindle into manageable sizes, to grow out of that ancient, protective micro society.