Review: Real Oxford: There are passages of raw beauty in McGuinness’s book
Patrick McGuinness’s Real Oxford is the latest instalment in the long-running Seren series. The Real… books follow a pattern: dividing a city up geographically by quadrant, focusing on the quotidian. For the places represented early in the series – Cardiff, Newport, Wrexham, Aberystwyth, Merthyr, Llanelli – this was a genius move: a way to champion the local character of spots that might not be high on internet lists of ‘best UK tourist destinations’ (in fact they aren’t; I checked). But Oxford?
Oxford is a relentlessly photogenic city, and most of us could summon a mental image of it if required – a college quadrangle or the Radcliffe Camera, maybe a Harry Potter-esque dining hall or begowned scholars doing their thing. But that Oxford of our imagination, fed by countless novels, films, and television series set in the place, is only one part of its long story. The ‘real’ Oxford, ‘city of tiny chasms’, is inescapably coloured by its university – universities – and McGuinness’s long relationship with the city, from childhood to professorship, allows him to tease purposefully and easily at the seam between town and gown.
In this way McGuinness’s Real Oxford is similar to Jan Morris’s Oxford (1965). Like Morris, McGuinness takes us people-watching in the Covered Market and wandering the main drags, chatting with locals about this and that, but then McGuinness lingers a bit longer in the industrial estates and the underpasses, peers over garden walls and through empty shop windows, sings odes to hardware stores and those empty places on the outskirts of town that offer the best lager.
For McGuinness and for Morris travelling through Oxford, whether by foot or bike, on road or water, can be fraught with obstacles, but in Morris’s book, where the ring road served as a conveyor belt of vistas and perspectives, in McGuinness’s book the ring road acts as a kind of force field, always making its presence heard in the distance and propelling him forever inward. Journeys out of Oxford are both implied and evident in McGuinness’s narrative, but the magnetic pull of the city and university are the underlying theme at every point of his Real Oxford compass.
McGuinness peppers Real Oxford with apposite verse and quotes from literature, but as I read, I kept hearing a line of lyric (and in my world, this is high praise) by David Bowie. ‘Where Are We Now?’ is a paean to Bowie’s memories of Berlin, a city where he recorded two of the most important rock albums of the 1970s. Once its refrain, ‘just walking the dead’, popped into my head, it was difficult to shake it out. This is not to suggest that Bowie or McGuinness wallow(ed) in nostalgia – on the contrary, McGuinness writes that ‘the past should hurt. It should bite and scratch. Here in Oxford it often does.’ – but both men mine that universal feeling of returning to a place and recognizing the past in it, or of walking a familiar path and seeing unexpected shadows in unlikely places.
McGuinness sees and senses ghosts everywhere in the city: he takes some by the hand, while others he simply acknowledges and then moves along. There are passages of raw beauty in McGuinness’s book, and they accompany those moments of sudden autobiographical recall. I won’t call it Proustian, but I will say that there is an interesting coincidence between Bowie’s thirty-year reassessment of his life in Berlin and McGuinness’s assessment of his thirty years of academic life in Oxford.
McGuinness’s awareness of time and history and the porousness of place is filtered onto most pages of Real Oxford and is something that clearly accompanies him everywhere, perhaps most notably into one of the charity shops in the north of the city:
I’ve always found clothes here that fitted me uncannily well – many of them bespoke-tailored, like the ones my grandmother, Bouillon’s couturière, made for me when I was sent to school in England. I possess a wardrobe of tailored jackets, a suit, and several shirts that fit me so perfectly that I feel she’s there, on the other side, using the charity shop, that portal between worlds, to attire me for my adult life.
I’m always looking out for her latest confections, which reach me through the vestimentary Ouija-boards of Oxford’s charity shops. I’m wearing my favourite jacket right now: hand-made for someone exactly my size, with embroidered cuffs and a silk lining, it fits me perfectly while having been designed for someone else. It strikes me as I write that this is how I feel about my life in Oxford.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I will admit that my attraction to this book is personal. Or rather, academic. As a new Fellow of one of the newer Oxford colleges, I have been reading as much as I can about the place, trying to imagine what my ‘real’ experience will be once my teaching and research there is no longer exclusively virtual. I will not have the luxury of a thirty-year career at the university, I will never take Umberto Eco out for a meal, but at least now I know what to look for during my walk between college and faculty (neither mentioned in the book, but no less real for that) along a route unromantically trodden by McGuinness in the opening section. Or perhaps now I know simply how to look for the unexpected.
Real Oxford is published by Seren. A copy can be bought here.