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Word from Wormingford

28 March 2013

Ronald Blythe spends time in the Oxford of Lewis Carroll

OXFORD in the rain. The cobbles shine; the colleges have emptied. But the city is full for the Literary Festival. From my window at Christ Church, I am able to look into Alice's garden. Japanese tourists pass by in scores and dozens, each group holding up a banner that says "Excelsior" in Japanese, and pointing scores and dozens of cameras. Plastic-wrapped because of the rain, they seem indefatigable in their sightseeing.

Peering through my window, what would Lewis Carroll have made of them? Alice in Wonderland ends with an Easter greeting to "every child who loves Alice".

But it is Passiontide, and resurrection is far off. Joggers, young and old, pass by, some with puzzled dogs, all soaked to the skin. But the rain is soft and without bitterness. They run to the river, some with wide leaps, others with little tottering steps. The Japanese pass with flocking movements, like gentle chickens, and sometimes hand in hand.

I walk to the Bodleian Library where, surprisingly, tea has been laid on a vast table. But no Mad Hatter, just Henrietta Garnett and myself to manage hefty scones and our audience. We are to talk about our houses, Charleston and Bottengoms. Each of them smells - of turpentine, paraffin oil from a previous occupancy, our old friends, artists, and the like. And so the visit passes.

Oxford becomes more and more beautiful beneath its spring scrubbing. Sad music flows from its tiny cathedral, and I halt to listen. At the endless tea-party, I am joined by Mr Binyon, whose Great-Uncle Laurence wrote For the Fallen, and by Diarmaid MacCulloch, who has just written Silence: A Christian history. Only, no one holds their tongue; for it is a literature festival, when writers chatter. And the constant rain does the reverse of putting a damper on our proceedings. Its stimulation is felt inside and out.

Back at Christ Church, going to bed, I am horrified to discover that there is nothing to read, other than the book I have written myself, and what good is that? Not a single volume exists in the tall rooms, not so much as a newspaper lining in the drawers, only a card telling the time of breakfast. Lucky Alice had found a book called Jabberwocky - maybe in this very room, fortunate girl. But all I could do was put the light out and starve for print. Outside, in the dark, her trees were greedily drinking the March rain.

Lewis Carroll finished writing Through the Looking Glass just before Easter 1876, ending it with another Easter greeting. "Do you know that delicious dreamy feeling," he says, "when, lying lazily, with eyes half-shut, one sees as in a dream green boughs waving and waters rippling in a golden light? It is a pleasure very near to sadness. . ."

Will the Japanese boys and girls in their hotels be developing their understanding of Oxford from a thousand photos? Will the joggers be setting forth to nowhere? Will the white cat - named after Alice's cat, Kitty - be despairing?

Still pouring, the car leaves the lovely wet city for home. The festival folk have given me a hamper. It includes a book - Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson, which I read when I was a teenager - and lots of biscuits and sandwiches. And so the day closed.

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