Michael Beloff

That sweet city

What do they know of Oxford who only Oxford know? Justin Cartwright, a raw colonial from South Africa, arrived as a prospective law student at Trinity in the mid- Sixties. Now, a prize-winning novelist, he has contributed to a series ‘The Writer and the City’ and succumbed for a second time to charms which he found irresistible on first and fresh acquaintance.

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This Secret Garden: Oxford Revisited

Justin Cartwright

OUP, pp. 223, £

What do they know of Oxford who only Oxford know? Justin Cartwright, a raw colonial from South Africa, arrived as a prospective law student at Trinity in the mid- Sixties. Now, a prize-winning novelist, he has contributed to a series ‘The Writer and the City’ and succumbed for a second time to charms which he found irresistible on first and fresh acquaintance.

What do they know of Oxford who only Oxford know? Justin Cartwright, a raw colonial from South Africa, arrived as a prospective law student at Trinity in the mid- Sixties. Now, a prize-winning novelist, he has contributed to a series ‘The Writer and the City’ and succumbed for a second time to charms which he found irresistible on first and fresh acquaintance.

He makes his apologies at the outset. This is a book about the University, not the urban environment in which it finds itself fortuitously located; gown trumps town. His eye is critical but he does not criticise. An American who spent a year in Oxford in the same era as his undergraduate years wrote a book

entitled These Ruins are Inhabited; Cartwright, by contrast, relishes the stone of Oxford, ‘mostly a sort of washed-out russet like the skin of an obsolete apple’. It is consoling for those who still consider Oxford one of England’s glories that in seeing it again he does not claim to have seen through it.

There is in Broad Street a kitsch exhibition called ‘The Oxford Experience’, advertised with effigies of such modern icons as Mrs Thatcher and Rowan Atkinson. The author recognised a need for an Oxford experience of his own. He attended freshers’ night in his old college, underwent a tutorial on various poetic gobbets with a young English don, attracting the judgment that if he were a first-year student he would be admonished, ‘Must read more attentively’; toured the four Oxford museums and the Bodleian Library, happy to find himself still on the roll of readers; wandered through quads and gardens, and

travelled the towpath by Port Meadow, Oxford’s verdant perimeter.

But wherever he is and whatever he sees and hears, he has a writer’s eye for the

idiosyncratic. Much time is spent on the relationship of Isaiah Berlin, a candidate for celebrity don of the 20th century, and Adam von Trott, a Balliol man hanged for plotting against Hitler, prompting him to reflect on liberty, loyalty and love. In the New Bodleian, the architectural antithesis of Wren’s Radcliffe Camera, he ponders on the global status of the First Folio, special while not being unique. On his broad canvas the errors are trivial: the Anson Reading Room, in the Codrington Library, is not a ghetto for those who are not Fellows of All Souls, but rather for another disadvantaged minority, the lawyers.

The author is not oblivious to the turbulence within the University; the revolt which led to the denial of an honorary degree to Mrs Thatcher, so creating a convention that any Oxford graduate who attained the highest political office in the land should forever be denied the University’s highest honour; the defeat of the Vice Chancellor John Hood, New Zealand bred, (part) Oxford- educated, another insider-outsider like the author himself, who tried to inject a dominant lay influence into the University’s councils, the constant political pressure for reform of the admissions process, a harbinger, it may be, of a wider assault of what is perceived in Whitehall as the University’s unruly administration.

But what was familiar to the student then remains familiar to the author now. The ‘pale girls, few in number’, whom he admired as an undergraduate, have been unexpectedly followed by a regiment, anything but monstrous, of young women of divers hues — the best single example of Oxford’s capacity for virtuous reform; but the twin features which identify Oxford among its peers — the tutorial system and the college within which it continues, if under strain, to flourish — are much as they were four decades ago. In his récherche du temps perdu he discovered that plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

After the last Conservative administration, which was largely Cambridge generated, and a temporary tartan influx to the corridors of power during the Blair years, the natural order of things has reasserted itself. The dark blue young Turks of the Labour front bench, the Milliband brothers, the husband/wife combo of Balls and Cooper, Jacqui Smith and Andy Burnham are matched by their Conservative challengers, Cameron, Hague, Osborne and Gove. Oxford still rules, whether OK or not. This elegiac and elegant essay shows why so many of the best and brightest still aspire to Oxford, and why Oxford still has so much to offer them.

Michael J. Beloff was President of Trinity College, Oxford from 1996-2006.