It's to do with Javier Marias' All Souls--a book which I selfishly maintain paints one of the most stunningly accurate portraits of Oxford I've ever come across. It's not about the city; it's about my city. And here's why: his narrator and I share a space. We both inhabit a world where, "there's no one here who knew me as a...child."
And I almost can't tell you what that means, because it means so much. It is, stripped of context, what it means to live somewhere else. It means that when you meet friends for a drink and you look back, through the cider haze, what you see and what they see exist in parallel universes. This is the lonely side of it.
The happy side of it is that sometimes, just walking down Broad Street or cycling past the gaze of idle pedestrians, you have the strangest feeling: you've become weightless, your skin translucent like a fish, your mind lucid. Time overlaps with itself; Georgian architecture with Classical and Norman, Wren, Wolsey, Aldrich, a collage of names and periods. And your name? Unknown. You float down Turl Street, past the mouths of three colleges, each one guarded by a stiff porter in bowler who watches you without interest, who has seen a thousand just as young, and as possessed with the charm, beauty, and blamelessness of this youth, as you are. Oh, but this is freedom. Terrible, beautiful freedom. You are separated from your own history and yet at one with it. You can be things, where everyone around you must pretend.
So you become like a candle: self-contained, brief. I feel abbreviated here, and if I didn't enjoy that feeling, I wouldn't have stayed. It's been nearly three years, and I can still pinpoint the moment at which I shed my history--which is full of wonderful things, ranches, farms, children, family, laughter, freshly picked fruit, waves and hills, sunkissed cheeks, but also of anxiety, selfishness, selflessness, a paralyzing shyness and a destructive self-pity. But then one day in May I stood in Christ Church Meadow and watched some little boys in stained cricket whites jogging across a field and thought: I'm not my past, my past is me. And then-- is it coincidence?--that night, I was free and light enough to appreciate an encounter that could have been as tiny as an atom in my memory, and now here I am and that encounter is sitting across from me, and our past begins at the point where I felt for an instant that I had no past.
No one here knew me as a child. It's the greatest blessing and also the greatest curse you could possibly imagine.