Naipaul and his tenaciousness

vs_naipaul-lgDespite his age, Sir Vidia Naipaul is still a vivacious, resilient and doubtlessly thought-provoking character.  I like the way the London Evening Standard editor, Geordie Grieg, introduced him at the seminar, hosted by Intelligence and held at the beautiful setting of the Royal Geographic Society: 50 years ago he came to England, 40 years ago he wrote A House for Mr Biswas, 30 years ago he won the Booker Prize, and 10 years ago he won the Nobel Prize. What a life.

A younger alumni of the same college, I remembered going to his talk at Univ, Oxford, ten years ago. Introduced by Lord Butler, Naipaul was back then already a rather outspoken character, and he refused to perform the role that the Master had carefully set him up for: to be thankful. Instead, he told everyone in the audience how he disliked his days at Oxford and felt miserable there, and that he went to Oxford in the hope that such an education would help him become a better writer, only to realise that it hadn’t. For him, the habit of speaking out, of offending people, were to become an important part of his later life. For me, still an impressionable young college student back then, always taught to respect authorities and to feel indebted, I admired him for his courage to talk about his exile, his alienation and his tremendous self-conviction. I also respected him for writing books that dealt with difficult topics.

I never shared the same level of enthusiasm or nostalgia for my Oxford days as compared with other college friends. It is true that I enjoyed the freedom and the opportunities immensely – but it was the freedom of a college student living abroad, and being able to live her days without worrying about money or job prospects – not so much out of love or loyalty for the centuries-old institution. Back in those days my English was dreadfully inadequate, and countless times had I felt out of place, awkward and defeated. I disliked the posh accent, the subtle, upper class ways and the tight-lipped culture of it all. I thought them mere gestures to disguise old school insecurities. Yet it was a sense of inadequacy that spurred, or partly spurred, Naipaul on as a writer. He has become more famous as a result of his anti-Oxford view.

For many days last year I had my design lessons at the Royal Festival Hall Cafe, and each time I would pass by Nelson Mandela’s bronze bust statue outside the hall. Under the sun’s glare, I would look at the statue’s inscription on the plinth, ‘The struggle is my life’, remembering the fact that each day in England doesn’t come easy, and that perhaps it never would.

Ten years ago I was glad of that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet Naipaul. Ten years after, I felt incredibly lucky to have a second chance to hear him talk about his work. I hope it won’t be the last time.

I will write more on his books and especially, my favourite, Literary Occasions: a collection of essays, which I shed tears when reading.

Oxford: a trip down memory lane

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.

st michaels church tower oxford
From St Michaels Saxon tower oxford