My ticket said Oxford, but it was more than a city I was travelling to. For thirty-five years, Oxford has been an admonition, an unhappy symbol of all that I have ever failed to do and be. Like many who did not win a place at the university (and it remains a mighty prize, whatever we may say about a more egalitarian age), I have always carried a lurking sense of failure, of having fallen foul of my own shortcomings and life’s caprice. I’m not alone. Gradually, fed by ordinary disappointments and a ceaseless tide of Morse, we ‘Oxford rejects’ can easily stray into bitter counterfactual culs-de-sac of if-onlys and what-ifs, imaging all sorts of other outcomes for our lives — often remarkably similar to the real achievements of our friends. (He’s a bishop, she’s a judge. What have I done with my life?)
It was with such things on my mind that I was recently heading north from Marylebone in one of the swanky new trains of the Chiltern Line, through flat green farmland, past the retail heaven of Bicester Village, with announcements in Arabic and Cantonese to inform the well-heeled shoppers. At Oxford I was decanted from the train into a truly ‘beautiful city!’ that is (as Hardy’s Jude insists) ‘so venerable, so lovely, so serene!’
I was spending next day with future colleagues at Magdalen College School and was generously accommodated in College that night, with Choral Evensong, dinner at High Table and Betjeman’s ‘multiplicity of bells’ to rock me ‘and the sailing clouds to sleep.’
Evensong was perfect. The full sound of a cathedral choir in a chapel’s much more compact space gives a focus and rich intensity, with added intimacy, like a bedtime story. Outside the chapel door, bright young things sauntered through the cloister, talking of Dostoyevsky. From a carefully-striped lawn drifted the thwack of mallet on ball, as if a perpetual game of croquet was mandatory throughout the summer, perhaps from Athanasius to Mary Magdalen. If I’d known my Hardy better, I’d have looked at the players and said bitterly with Jude that ‘my failure is reflected on me by every one of those young fellows.’ I’d have been talking nonsense, of course. But I’d have said it.
Dinner restored me, fending off any subcutaneous negativity. We entered the refectory in a gowned Hogwartish fashion, attended to the Latin grace and fell to our salmon keenly. I had feared being stuck (not least for words) next to a cantankerous historian or maybe a cripplingly shy professor of Syriac. But I need not have worried: the company was as warm as the excellent venison stew. Declining the additional dessert of post-prandial fruit, port and snuff, I returned happily to my room, significantly calmer than when I had arrived.
Next morning, I took in the scene from my window. The walls had a colour between straw and gold; the stone seemed to breathe, alive with the sun’s brightness. Sticky leaves sprouted and clung to a scattering of pigeon-dolloped statues that gazed into the distance, ascending through the foliage. Tower, turrets, spires and crenulations completed the portrait of perfection. But to be in it was enough. My need to be of it had subsided. I no longer yearned to look back on a life of early achievements and carefully-chosen pathways leading to the prize of a glittering career.
All of this can still beguile: Eliot’s rose garden behind ‘the door we never opened’. And I am certain it is very lovely. To publish one’s fourteenth book or speak with distinction in the Lords is no doubt as good and pleasant as opening the bowling from the Kirkstall Lane End or playing Prospero on the big stage at Stratford. But it is not the life that I have lived which, with all its faults and flaws and failings, has been and will by grace remain a wonderful life, replete with incident and oddnesses, loyal friendship and abundant blessing, from Adelaide to Athens, in cathedral and classroom, singing and keeping silent, as novice monk and family man.
When I was a curate on Tyneside, doing lots of funerals and often stumped for something to say about someone who had done nothing very dramatic with their lives beyond work, family and an occasional game of bowls, I would remind the gathering that anyone can get to the moon. All you need is a rocket. The far harder thing for a human (and the more commendable) is to be for an entire lifetime a loving partner and parent, a good neighbour, a reliable workmate. These things require qualities and the sort of unflashy depth of character that an age of success and celebrity no longer appreciates. When even the clergy are constantly televised (or contriving to be), and going viral is the highest mark of value, we easily lose the ability to appreciate the life that we have lived, the good that we have done, the person we ourselves have been and will uniquely be. And in failing to look kindly on our past, we will find it hard to step hopefully and joyfully into our future, to open unknown doors and savour the smell of unfamiliar blooms.