In East Oxford, disco balls are playing in a window display, dappling a dirty sidewalk, while around the corner, a Dickensian tower pierces a raincloud and sets a drizzle on the city; and on the movie poster hanging outside a bus stop on the Iffley road, someone in the night has written:

There is no Shakespeare sonnet
or Beethoven quartet
that is easier to love than you, or harder to forget

If you think that sounds extravagant

I haven’t finished yet

I like you more than I would like to have a cigarette

The initials after the rhyme (are they the poet’s or the graffiti artist’s?) are smudged and someone else has drawn a moustache on Uma Thurman’s face with a bubble that says, “I like men”; and Colin Firth is, according to the crudely scrawled pen marks, calling passers-by “wankers!”

But the rhyme is big: it speaks volumes, and each letter is clearly defined in black marker, and the saddest thing about it all is that it will probably be gone by tomorrow (it is probably already gone) and I will probably never know why, why was it there, what soul, in deepest late winter Oxford night, stood and put it there for me to find on a morning run.

Some digging reveals that it was originally written by Wendy Cope, once a history student at St. Hilda’s college, Oxford (if you look hard enough at things, they are all connected, and just before your head gets woozy holding all that knowledge, it all makes sense). In a romantic vision, I picture a lover’s tiff, an addicted man scrawling the biggest promise of love he can think of on a forgiving plastic surface and hoping, hoping for his love to come walking by in morning light; but I know it didn’t go that way, probably, and that maybe it was just a drunken gaggle of St. Hilda’s students paying homage to a poet, or a lone, mercenary soul looking to change the city, quietly, overnight.

The city lives and breathes at the hand of the impromptu graffiti artist: like the girls who decorated the loo in the King’s Arms one summer with the names and colleges of good local fucks; like the hand that drew the sign “make tea, not war” on the winding grey walls of Queen’s Lane. I walk around here in a perpetual state of wondering: who are you? I whisper at everyone I see, wanting so desperately to know; and sometimes I try to imagine, and picture elaborate lives for the prim girls in skinny jeans and metallic ballet flats and thin, shiny blonde hair unloading cartons of gin and tonic water outside Christ Church one sparkling Saturday afternoon, but my imagination is always limited by my own experiences, and I come up short.

If you go up the oldest tower in Oxford, you will see a city that is made entirely of twisting spires and thick stone walls; and you will also see a horde of ultramodern pedestrians trotting up and down Cornmarket street past Gap and HMV, passing from medieval buildings to the twisted intestines of cavernous Tescos and Primarks and back again. A patch of green, a tender hill, is just visible past the outermost University buildings. The notes of a bagpipe player reach you, but it is not the ancient sounds of the city calling out to you in a dream, but a man in shorts and Birkenstocks, red in the face and blowing hard for extra cash—a twist on prostitution, perhaps; a sultry occupation, an existence on the fringes of the world.

Sometimes, I wonder what the city would be like if I wrote things for people to find. Is it disgraceful to decorate one’s own surroundings, to embody the arrogance inherent in placing one’s own mark on something so daringly public? Or is it merely the way people find to communicate to one another when all else seems to be failing?

The great mystery of a piece of graffiti is its origin; but there is beauty in this, and the huge liberty to interpret. I walk around wondering who people are and why they’re here, and trying to understand by their glances if they can guess my story and if I wear it on my sleeve or hide myself well (and can never decide which I’d rather do, frankly); but I do not think so much of my own freedom to imagine lives for them, and sometimes I forget that those lives which I imagine are coloured as much by what I have experienced as by what I have read. I say to my mother when she comes to visit, and we stand beside the Bridge of Sighs, “this is where Peter Wimsey proposed to Harriet Vane!” as if they are old family friends; I tell myself, over and over again, that the dreamy spires are but a piece of something larger. I let the messages I find written on the walls prove it.

And the city goes on evolving, and each evolutionary step is an act of faith on the part of its people. We allow the disco balls to shimmer beside Dickensian-era towers: what else can we do? And I do not write cunning messages or tales of cunnilingus anywhere but in the privacy of my own home, and yet I play such a part anyway, because I am another audience. A city is merely the sum of its inhabitants’ experiences, individual and collective. It is what we make it; and what we interpret it to be. Cycling home in the rain, I am one huge bundle of contradictions and juxtapositions: my glistening Apple laptop nestled in a Moroccan bag that smells like the pigeon shit they use at the tanneries to treat the leather; the way I whiz past students in flapping gowns and red carnations who are braced against the wind and yelling into mobile phones; the way I carry my duel knowledges of this city—my literary knowledge, my actual knowledge—as if they do not contradict each other.

And they don’t. That is what I like best of all of this. There is color, black-and-white; things are vintage, futuristic; they are new, they are old, they are what I make them to be and what the man in the night has said they are: and all seamlessly.

If you think that sounds extravagant

I haven’t finished yet