Places don’t change easily inside our heads. We rarely allow them to. So often they’re just the way they were when we first knew them, much as my old school friends, whether captains of industry or grandfathers now, are always the scruffy, shifty, misbehaving boys I first met at fourteen. If you’re surrounded by a place, you don’t notice its changes; and if you’re exiled from it, you refuse to accommodate the ways it’s grown if they don’t fit the story you tell about your life.
Growing up in Oxford I looked out the window and saw low grey skies and red-brick walls, a deeply fixed and bounded place. ‘Can’t complain’ was the brightest affirmation I heard; ‘could be worse’ spelled almost ecstasy. My parents, eager products of British India, took me to see Lear at Stratford and we all noticed the power the old patriarch wielded at the play’s beginning, even if he was notionally dividing up his kingdom. We didn’t see that the broken, weeping, almost posthumous king at the end might be closer to the spirit of the land around us.
We moved from north Oxford to southern California in 1964 – when I was seven – and suddenly I noticed that living in the future tense could be as treacherous as living in the past; it was ideal so long as you were young and on the move, but it could be exasperating if ever you wanted to lay foundations underneath your feet. Small places were more conducive to enmities and smugness, I came to see, as soon as I was in the devouring open spaces of the Far West, but they were also home to idiosyncrasy, a sense of fun and to privacy.
I went to see Lear again when I returned to school in England, and now it spoke to me of how Britain treated its imperial stepchildren; the old king was cruelest on those innocents who loved him most. These days I fly back to Britain and see another Shakespeare play unfolding in which everyone is in disguise, princes as vagrants and fools as wise men, boys as women (though played by boys), and all reminding us daily that the course of true love, even when it comes to empires, never did run smooth.
The heads I see as soon as I disembark at Heathrow are turbaned, and the voices don’t even begin to sound like the ones in Colin Firth movies exported across the globe. I stop off at a newsagent’s and recall that British food was always redeemed – at times – by British snacks, a reminder that it was the grace notes, not the accepted text, that gave British life its savor. Along the racks of magazines, the same lesson is everywhere: since they’re not much interested in factual accuracy, British papers are most engaging when they take wild liberties with the truth. I sheepishly fork out for a copy of Private Eye.
Wheeling my luggage cart down the long sloping ramp towards the Underground, and then through long empty passageways – no attempt is made to welcome the newcomer or to brighten or distract him – I come to the ticket machines and see that it’s America now that seems old-fashioned. Britain has moved into the age of technological convenience with more readiness and elan. The view through the streaked windows of the train is just the one I recall from boyhood: the porridge-grey buildings with their cramped gardens, the narrow, pinched high streets, the damp, dank no-colour that hangs over everything.
But the people around me are importing brightness and hope, even if – and largely because – they’re mostly not speaking English. Two kids in leather jackets are embracing as fervently as if they were in Paris. Big blond boys in Harvard T-shirts, well-coiffed women from the Bay Area with copies of Jane Austen peeping out from their carry-ons are peering into the gloom to get traces of the Downton Abbey world they’ve come here to inhale. Poles, Jamaicans, Nigerians make space for one another with the reflexive camaraderie of fellow outsiders, who accept that all of them are sharing a home that may never be their own. The ads along the wall – ‘adverts’, I’d have called them once – are irreverent, cool and hip.
I follow the veiled ladies and high-booted girls from Taiwan up to the crowded street at Knightsbridge, and clatter off down a line of boutiques, where the voices I hear suggest Tokyo, Milan. It may again be only for export, but the country is in places so far from the dowdiness I recall that I wonder who ever expected London to grow young so fast? I walk through still-elegant, leafy squares – mostly peopled by Pakistanis, it seems, and Muslims from Java – to a dusty B & B that does its best (with little golden plaques on doors saying ‘Clarendon’, or whatever) to serve up the image of a never-never England where Hugh Grant might feel at home.
But the friendly girl at the desk is from Italy, and the burly man beside her has the gravitas of Bulgaria. The nightwatchman might well have been a reggae maestro’s cousin. Of course they’re serving classic English breakfasts, buffet-style, in the basement; the tall guests in ill-fitting suits are from Bangalore, Moscow, Istanbul and no less eager to consume the England they’ve devoured from afar, as fixed in time as the Queen upon a stamp.
The Britain I grew up in was one where everyone could be placed within a second of opening his mouth; the privileged may affect the demotic now, while newcomers from Calcutta can sound as if they’ve just stepped out of a Wodehouse novel, but it will take longer to change people’s reflexes, as we ask innocent-seeming questions or fish for cadences so we know where we stand in relation to those around us. Once – though this has happened everywhere from Nara to LA – I found myself in a tiny guest-house in the Paraguayan jungle several hours from the nearest town. It was dark and I’d just got off a long-distance bus, and I needed to have dinner before I slept.
I went into the deserted garden of the place and sat down. There were two other travellers there, and they came over to say ‘hi’. But they were from Britain, and so was I, and someone’s accent was too high or too low, so they retreated to their dark corner of the courtyard to eat alone, while I ate alone in mine.
In a little self-service cafeteria in southern France another evening, I sat next to an old Frenchman as a white Bentley swooped into a parking place. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘good product of the Old World. In America a man will see that and say, “That could be me.” Here we see it and think, “Why does it have to be him?”’
Britain produced all kinds of brilliant, talented and original individuals, I thought, but the best Brits were precisely the ones who could never live in Britain. Lady Hester Stanhope, dressed as a Turkish man (and later a Bedouin) on her way to a life near Sidon or D.H. Lawrence criss-crossing the world on his ‘savage pilgrimage’; David Hockney imbibing Californian light and innocence with a newcomer’s unblinkingness, or Peter Brook working to rewrite the classical tradition in a global vein, in Paris, as he could best do, he felt, far from Shakespeare’s birthplace; Somerset Maugham writing, ‘I never felt entirely myself till I had put at least the Channel between my native country and me’ and returning to the France where he’d been born, to live down the coast from where Graham Greene sat among his dry, melancholy stories of old boys in the tropics sending love-poems to their school magazines and treacherous charmers trying, through polish and manners alone, to conceal their lack of faith.
England was as good at producing ex-Englishmen, I came to feel, as Tonga was at producing expats. Of course the British had a tonic sense of humor; they had so much to be funny or dismissive about.
Now I take myself by Tube to Paddington and, having purchased an unreasonably cheap ticket online, in faraway Japan, I get on the train to hear the funereal call of my boyhood: ‘Reading, Didcot Parkway, Oxford.’ When Natsume Soseki lived in England, from 1900 to 1902, he saw in ‘everything the flavour of the past’ and took the Thames – a lone boatman standing on water that never seemed to move – to be a perfect image of the Styx.
Yet as I make my way into the heart of Oxford now – in the public eye the city has always done a good job of blocking out its industrial heart and the long, bleak streets that spread out around the dreaming spires – I notice something I could never see when I was in the midst of it: it’s no wonder that Alice’s Wonderland and Middle Earth and Narnia had their origins here. The university is a children’s fantasy of secret gardens and gargoyles and quaint old customs and puzzles. As a boy I’d looked to it for signs of the adult world, and come away disappointed (it seemed such a refuge for old boys hiding in their bachelor rooms in the cloisters); now, as a seeming adult, I see how idyllic it can be for those who want a break from life, an escape.
A student town can be invigorating so long as you’re not a student; in the days when I was seeking out a future in Britain, I was asking for the wrong thing (akin to looking for ghosts and medieval mead-halls in California). Oxford – in its official, postcard self, at least – is wonderful so long as you don’t expect to find reality there.
It’s also, I can more easily recognize now, my past, whether I like it or not. All my boyhood dramas and changes took place along these slushy streets; I can no more turn from them than from my parents. Most of us devote so much of our energy, when young, to making our own way in opposition to our forebears only to find, somewhere along the line, that we have become them.
Of course Oxford is inert and insufferably twee in places and in love with its most capricious and often nonsensical traditions; that’s its place in the national pageant. To ask it to be something else is to request of the Fool in Lear that he play the King. In any case, the story has moved on and the parts are being taken by other hands.
I go back to my own college and find that there are girls there now (there weren’t in 1978) – relaxed, attractive, happy-looking girls – and the boys look more normal, too, as if they were in a college anywhere else; one, to my delight, is attending breakfast in his pyjamas. The porters are as benign as London cabbies. The guest rooms in the newly built structure near the Deer Park are inexplicably warm and comfortable, complete with their own showers and reading literature by the beds, as in any good hotel. It’s hard to recall how, as a ten-year-old at school down the street, I’d known only showers that were cold and a maximum of two baths a week (this even before the gas shortages and blackouts I knew when I was fifteen).
It’s not just that Britain has acquired a tan, I slowly realise; it’s that it’s had to let the stepchildren and foster kids take over – as at the end of Lear, perhaps. I’ve watched the same thing happen in Sydney and Toronto and Paris and LA over the past few decades, but here the difference is more pronounced, as if Virginia Woolf’s placid certainties have been replaced by Zadie Smith, writing brilliantly about the paradoxes of accent and the shape-shifting possibilities of half-outsiders like herself. I recall how Soseki, walking around the inscrutable country a hundred years ago, saw a ‘strangely complexioned Tom Thumb’ in a window and only realized, a little later, that it was him.
I wonder if that’s how England feels these days as it regards itself; its image in the shop window is shifting and wavering with every hour (and every passerby). It doesn’t know what it is or what it will become, as new possibilities come streaming in. Oxford always seemed to me a haunt of long-dead phantoms, living off its past and alien to anyone with energy and a mind on the future; now I walk among its ghosts and see them as my own.
‘This thing of darkness’ – I hear myself invoke the very words we had to learn in all our dusty classrooms here – ‘I acknowledge mine.’
Photograph © Axel Drainville