It is now two decades since I lived in Oxford. I was then a drunk and lonely puddle of a person, with only a gift for screaming; but no matter how low I sank, to paraphrase Alcoholics Anonymous literature, I never sank quite as low as to consider eating at the ’bab van (kebab van) outside Univ (University College) on the High (High Street); I preferred to dine in Hall (a hall). Oxford, you see, has its own native dialect, a sort of pidgin posh best worn with a depressed carnation and a giant inedible chip made of class terror. Perhaps the roots of my eventual redemption were in that tiny grunt of gastronomic self-esteem; who knows? Or was it just another thing I dreamt and actually I ate ’babs constantly? Maybe I really was a ’bab? I wasn’t a horrible teenage alcoholic, after all — just a ’bab. (Forgive me. Oxford is a city for peculiarly self-hating hallucinations, in the way that Market Harborough is not. Sometimes they last for years.)
I once wrote an article for the Guardian saying I wished Oxford would burn down, but I was on deadline, and ashamed. Not that it is just me. Many people hate Oxford. The only people who don’t feel chippy about Oxford are probably too thick to get past the porters (guards) and into the arms of the scouts (cleaning ladies and gentlemen who exist to protect the dead stones from the anxious flesh children), with or without an interpreter. That is why Colin Dexter had a career. He murdered Oxford students and dons in his head, marvellously; his vision was so universally adored that it is currently on its second spin-off TV series. That is Britain: class war and class angst mortified into Sunday night television, with a glint of anti-intellectualism. And why not?
The Cherwell Boathouse has one initial thing to recommend it; it is not actually in Oxford, which is a city so stripped of warmth it has a bank disguised as a hotel, and a prison disguised as a hotel. One day they will convert an ammo dump into a hotel and give it a stupid name but I hope I will be dead by then. It is to the north of the city and it is on the banks of the River Cherwell, before it flows into the River Thames, which here is called the Isis, because some pointy-head inadequate decided Oxford was too special to have a river with the same name as a river that flowed anywhere else; here, she must be exalted as a goddess, presumably because of her proximity to the pointy-head inadequates who are themselves the source of my eternally anxious dreams. And on the Cherwell, you take a punt, which is a kind of shit gondola, whose existence sort of cancels out the glamour of the Isis effect, and drink cheap red wine and fall in the water and the people dining in the Cherwell Boathouse will watch you do it; that is Entz (entertainment). This is amazing because it is explicitly sadistic, sadistically unsaid, and almost more intimate than watching people have full sex; boaties (rowers) floating on bits of cardboard, yelling at each other with all the unexpressed yearning homoeroticism of their race.
So the boathouse is still a boathouse, with a pleasing smell of tree and filth; next to this is a smart, sage-coloured restaurant with a car park full of 4x4s squeezed unhappily together and a menu featuring well-cooked and unthreatening event food. I think of Peter Jones and candy-pink straw hats and unhappy marriages. I cannot imagine anyone not on a day trip coming to the Cherwell Boathouse unless, like me, they are hiding from an entire civilisation. It is not for the casual diner, but the formal diner will enjoy excellent pudding. So. I apologise. The destruction should not be by fire. Perhaps by water?
Cherwell Boathouse, Bardwell Road, Oxford OX2 6ST, tel: 01865 552746.