Treasure Hunts, Forbidden Gardens

I. This weekend I went on a treasure hunt in the study. I looked at all the books which are not ours, which might be the landlady's, or a previous tenant's. All the stacks of paper on the shelves which I had never before dared to investigate. These things have always been here, they've been here longer than us, and in a way I thought of them as furniture, or perhaps walls - immobile, flat.

But they are not like that at all. This house is telling other people's stories all the time, if you listen. We need a box labelled "other people's memories" to put in an empty room. The house is like a womb for the enigmatic, the wisps and shards that get left behind when someone has lived somewhere and then moved on. These things mean nothing to me, but they mean something to someone who does not even know that they are here.

Things like this: two copies of the same photograph, found in a copy of Seven Types of Ambiguity. Four people at a table in a strange wilderness. One of them gesturing.

Or the lecture notes for a conference on "The United States in the 1980s: The Reagan Years" (this house has always been a haven for academics). On one of the sheets of paper, a shopping list of sorts. "Roses. Wrapping paper."

Reagan Years Brochure

The manuscript, with the letter tucked inside, sent to this address, dated 26/7/91. Whatever became of this woman, her book? I could look it up, but it seems more poignant not to. I like the open-ended nature of it this way; anyhow, reading her letter (such a transgression! and such a thrill to read something which was never, could never have been, intended for you), it strikes me that the act of writing the book was closure enough for this woman (it "has done so much good," she says in the letter), and it shouldn't matter what became of it, or her.


So I've lived here for nearly three years and all the time these little (things? clues? stories?) have been here, like hidden emeralds. This is the thing. Wherever you are, however long you've been there: there's always a journey you can take.


Also there is Magdalen College. I have heard the bells ringing out and the choir singing from the tower on May Morning, but it is one of the Forbidden places in the city. Half of Oxford is Forbidden. That's the thrill and the tragedy of it. There is a whole city here which we never see; the city, of course, that's always been most written about, the city of college gardens and quadrangles, of cloistered walkways and great halls.

I've been in colleges before - a christening at Christ Church, for instance, or a dinner at New College during which I accidentally became so drunk (with wine, with admiration and fear) that I got lost on my way to the toilet and had to be retrieved by one of the kitchen staff who found me floundering in the larder. But it always amazes me that I can feel so intimate with this city and yet have seen so little of it. Flowers, Magdalen College

And so after years of cycling past its entrance, I finally saw the cloisters of Magdalen College, the quadrangle and the gardens, the gentle path alongside the river, the deer all asleep under a tree. The hall, dark and empty, its entrance roped off, looking grim without the cheer of loud, gowned students and serious-faced academics passing port at the high table. I leaned against a wall; a couple passed, she was saying, "...and if you were a local resident here..." and I don't know what the end of the sentence was, but I thought, that's just it! and then didn't know why I'd thought it. That's just what? I am a local resident here. And yet I'm as enchanted by this place as the tourists, with whom I stand in sunlit admiration, and a kind of solidarity, watching the stones turning golden.

Magdalen College