Here comes another atheist children’s book by Philip Pullman, and I bet it would not get half so much attention were it not set in my soggy, beautiful hometown, Oxford. Oxford grows stories as other places grow apples or mushrooms. It produces more melancholy than it can consume locally. As autumn arrives, the city’s ancient streets and secret gardens grow damper and sadder than is strictly necessary, just as it fills with a boisterous new cohort of undergraduates, who will mostly miss the point of it and leave before the damp has got into their bones. A true understanding of the place is left to the permanent inmates, the townies who dwell just beyond the enchanted districts, and observe the temporary residents with a knowing, cynical eye.
But a few of these passing visitors see what is here, and they have created the fictional alternative city which hangs like a river mist around the edges of the real one. You see it in the corner of your eye, especially at twilight. It is always hurrying away round a bend in the street or through a gateway you had never noticed before. Here is Thomas Hardy’s unhappy Jude Fawley, turned away from the world of learning by insolent snobbery. Here are Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, soaked, dispirited, exhausted and anxious to get back to the modern joys of London. Here is Max Beerbohm’s dangerously beautiful Zuleika Dobson, causing beads of horrified sweat to form on the foreheads of the stone Emperors in Broad Street as she passes, for they know the doom she brings. Here is Evelyn Waugh’s Charles Ryder, looking for the low door in the wall which will take him to Alice’s enchanted garden, or something like it . . . and here is Alice herself.
In the original ending to Lewis Carroll’s first Alice book, Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, it is clear that this enduring fable is set in Oxford (though I did not realize this till I had reached the age when we foolishly scorn the books we read when we were small). Did Lewis Carroll (really a clergyman and mathematician called Charles Dodgson) cut out the obvious reference when he realized that his creation might be so enduring that it was better not to be too specific? I do not know, but in the original ending, Alice’s sister
saw an ancient city and a quiet river winding near it along the plain, and up the stream went slowly gliding a boat with a merry party of children aboard—she could hear their voices and laughter like music over the water—and among them was another little Alice. . . . So the boat wound slowly along, beneath the bright summer day, with its merry crew and its music of voices and laughter, till it passed round one of the many turnings of the stream, and she saw it no more.
I have a taste for Victorian sentimentality, which I have to keep under control, and this is a rich slice of it. In fact it brings me close to tears, because by placing a story I have loved since early childhood in an actual time and place, it forces me to know that Alice, the actual person whose company I so much enjoyed in those books, is not a perpetual child but grew old and is now dead. This is the cold realization, which eludes us as children, that the warm, bright, cheerful, busy things of today are bound eventually to be a long time ago.
I know exactly which curve of the river it must have been, and I can now imagine them vanishing round it and being “seen no more,” a suitably nineteenth-century bit of finality, like a bell tolling or an inscription in stone. When fiction and reality meet there is a strange short-circuit in the mind. Beware of it. It works in several directions. I have had part of my own life put in someone else’s novel (Upstairs at the Party, by Linda Grant, with my help and consent), and I cannot tell you how shocking it is. It is not the seeing yourself as others see you that is hard to take, but the sensation of standing by your own tomb. The events recalled, which I had foolishly thought were recent, are now in an unreachable past. It is a slightly breathless feeling, as it might be to view a drowned village where you once lived, through the clear waters of a reservoir, knowing you cannot reach what you can still see.
So as I walk along the riverside pathways, or slip into the college gardens at dusk, as autumn turns to winter, I am seldom free of the fictional Oxford, or of the small part of its immense, intricate past that I myself have seen. Here I watched England change from being one sort of country to another. That parking lot was a cattle market, fragrant with the smell of damp livestock, herded by suspicious, terse men in brown tweeds, with boiled red faces, for whom the market pubs stayed open all the day. That apartment block was a brewery, whose yeasty stink perfumed the whole city every Wednesday, as that week’s mild and bitter, brown and pale ales were made by the methods of the middle ages. That tourist café was a used bookshop, room after room of tottering piles of aged volumes, its uneven staircase climbing upwards almost to the rafters, classics read, sold, reread, and resold over decades by forgotten students. That university building was a grammar school where girls from housing project estates were introduced to Shakespeare and the sciences. Now only money can buy you that, and the children of the poor know nothing of these things. That pretentious hotel was a prison, where men had been hanged for murder and buried in the precincts, within living memory. Now we have none of that sort of thing, but we have more murder, and if our trauma surgeons were not as brilliant as they are, we would have even more of it, for the knife is now a horribly common weapon. And these colleges, now so modern, gender-fluid, multicultural and progressive, were stern all-male institutions, whose doors were barred at night against the opposite sex and whose walls were savagely spiked to stop adventurers climbing in (and out) on feline expeditions.
The new Oxford, with its fair share of Starbucks and burger joints, is far more convenient and easily negotiated than the old—though the flood of tourism means the college buildings are now mostly barred by day, or open only to those who wish to pay. If they were not, it would be impossible for anyone to do any work in them.
But perhaps it is not such a good place in which to think and imagine. Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse detective stories, in cold prose, were never any more than all right. It was only the lush TV series, in which Oxford was apparently filmed through a gold-tinged filter in a permanent summer, which made them so alluring. As for Philip Pullman, his Oxford (groaning under a strange religious dictatorship in a parallel time to ours) grows ever more nostalgic. Much of his latest is set in and around a real pub, on the northern fringes of the city, which I used to enjoy visiting long ago. It is a handsome building next to a roaring weir on the young river Thames. But the modern world, of crowds and cars and tourism, and what they bring, has robbed it of something, and I no longer go. Mr. Pullman has solved this by moving it firmly back into a past of stodgy English food and a bar full of locals. And his two child heroes, like the long ago Alice, pursue their adventures in a boat. In fact, one of them is even called Alice. But, try as he may, Mr. Pullman has not managed to take us across the boundary which separates competent storytelling from spellbinding. His Oxford, just like the real one, is a place from which the spirit has fled, leaving the towers and spires where they are, still a heartbreaking, uplifting sight from the surrounding hills in any light, but hardly anyone still knows what they mean and why they are there.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.