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
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