As the BA flight from Warsaw landed at Heathrow, I felt a little tremor of anxiety, though it wasn’t anything to do with fear of flying. I was here for the Pembroke College gaudy. I had never attended a reunion before, and I had doubts about it. What if the people I really liked didn’t show up? What if I didn’t remember somebody’s name, while they remembered me? Above all, did I really want to see a bunch of old people claiming to be my contemporaries?
It turned out to be a delight. It was lovely to be woken again by the sound of the bell from Tom Tower, which used to be the view from my window; to take a morning walk around misty Christ Church meadow; to drink tea with the Master in the ancient Oak Room beneath the portrait of Dr Johnson, our second-most famous alumnus after J.R.R. Tolkien.
In the course of the weekend, a number of completely forgotten memories swum back into consciousness. Tiffany reminded me that she had once cut my hair for 50p, a concessionary fee for a penniless refugee. She had photographs to prove it. The sight of a few faces brought back the debates in the Junior Common Room about the miners’ strike, the deployment of US cruise missiles and the Greenham Common protests. A conversation evoked the first essay ever written on an Amstrad computer. And — how shall I put this: ‘Dear Mary, please help, what do you say when asked: “Do you remember goose-stepping in your jackboots across the Chapel Quad lawn at four in the morning?” ’
Pembroke was very left-wing and very broke when I attended it, but the latter at least has changed. A handsome new quad, connected by a lovely little bridge over Brewer Street, has been added, which incidentally opens up the view onto Oxford’s only Lutyens building. All remains within the character that John Betjeman observed a century ago:
How empty, creeper-grown and odd
Seems lonely Pembroke’s second quad
Still, when I see it, do I wonder why
That college so polite and shy
Should have more character than Queen’s
Or Univ, splendid in the High.
Once I’d finally got to the UK in the early 1980s it took me eight years to return. Now it takes a few hours to get back to rural Poland and to my house, Dwór Chobielin, whose reconstruction I described in The Spectator in the early 1990s. For those who wondered what happened, yes, we did finish it. Yes, it took three times as long to rebuild as we anticipated — 15 years instead of five, and more like 20 to actually make curtains and plant flowers. But yes, the budget came in on target. In The Spectator, I claimed it would cost me no more than the price of a central London bedsit. And indeed it did not — though the prices of central London bedsits are not what they used to be.
Here in Poland, we’ve been watching the UK hacking saga with lively interest, and we’ve concluded that some of the activities of the old News of the World resemble what Fakt, Poland’s largest-circulation newspaper, gets up to from time to time. Owned by the German media group, Axel Springer, Fakt nevertheless does many things that would never be tolerated in Germany. What some would regard as vile anti-Semitic comments have appeared on its webpage, which boasts 40 million hits per month. Published photographs taken with long-lens cameras include one of the speaker of parliament having a pee in his own garden. Presumably in an attempt to discover deep secrets about me, they recently sent a drone to photograph my house from the air as well. When my mother first spotted it, she wasn’t sure whether it was al-Qa’eda, or the Russian secret service doing reconnaissance, but she did know it would hurt if it fell on her head. It was odd that they felt the need to do this, because in fact it is perfectly possible to photograph the house from the road. Other photographs of it have been published in various public places, including my wife’s cookbook, which is actually entitled From a Polish Country House Kitchen.
This is not the case in Russia, where a new extreme sport called ‘daching’ can get you arrested or beaten up by the police. Those embarking on a daching expedition do nothing more than take a stroll in the countryside in the general vicinity of one of the palatial residences of the Russian oligarchs. These are palaces with dozens of bedrooms, multiple outbuildings, formal Versailles-like gardens and very high-level security. Their inhabitants can’t have liked Ukrainians turning their deposed president Viktor Yanukovych’s similarly tasteful villa into a museum of corruption.