We walked the streets of Oxford and I couldn’t help but sink into the depths that reside layer upon layer over the whole place. What caused my fascination, what made us tread an endlessly circling path around the city? Was it the architecture, the way the Colleges stood like castles protecting their intellectual charges while advertising their long role of influence? Or the history and status this place emits, the living, breathing bellows of students coming and going full of their intent on life and learning? Was it the knowledge that the high and famous had passed through these same streets on their way to notoriety or celebrity? I think, most importantly for me, was the sense of story, the palpable ever-present theatre – how Oxford invokes the thinker to dream and create and produce of his own gift. The place was alive with the past and we became immersed in it – the eloquence of the stone facades declaring the intent of the benefactors of these ancient edifices of the mind and soul but proclaiming more loudly the spiritual heart cry to God. The Latin inscriptions were a call to a forgotten foundation of the founding of the University. The crypt that housed those very first meetings now set aside for coffee and gourmet rendezvous’. That I should pace in the footsteps of Lewis and Tolkien, where orcs would fear to tread, these learned professors, elves of the mind. And what of fiction? It lives and breathes in the walls, in the passages and lanes, in the courtyards. On the tow path and canal-side. Even the wildlife has a voice in this place and it’s one that is living cheek by jowl with man’s pursuit of knowledge and looks at you with beady expectation expecting conversation.
Our lodgings were basic, a narrow-boat on the Oxford canal, a stone’s throw from those that begged a living. Our abode was warm and comfortable but the thin skin of the hull allowed the feral night-life of the town to penetrate our flimsy cocoon. Drifts of reggae, conversation and a random ukulele managed to unsettle our sleep and although the people were wandering in amiable chatter, at 3 a.m. each noise made us wary of intrusion. Our middle class safeness was challenged daily by the brazen poverty of the homeless. And to live for a few days as travellers brought other people’s choice of reality into stark focus, however not enough to make me engage person to person. Come on, we were tourists no less, their cash cow of survival. This ever-present rash of people ‘failing’ at life unsettled me. Whenever I am in close proximity, I wonder what I can do, if there is anything I can do or whether their choice is so cemented in what they know, there is no lifting them from the life they lead. And yet even here they scratched a living, milking the opportunity to sell their crude crafts. One homeless couple guided people through the minefield of the car park ticket machines, saving people money by explaining the charges. I was taken by their lightness of manner and cheery advice. Their pitch at the ticket machines a chance to afford hostel accommodation each night, dishing out change and helping confused drivers. The first evening they saved me £3.50 and while I waited for the three minutes to pass so I could get my ticket at the reduced rate, I petted her old dog as she waited for her partner to change shift. A day of dealing with people’s suspicions didn’t dampen their spirits and they won through by being indifferent to begging by serving confused drivers. I felt heavy with money and knew two pieces of paper could ease the girl’s nagging worry that she hadn’t collected enough small change from grateful drivers for a nights safe sleep. I had to park each day overnight there and I was glad of this small window in which to give into the homeless community. The service they were providing for the city was a little gateway into the humanity of the city. The laws of the place have tried to banish cars from the many streets resulting in less pollution. There is even a feel you are between centuries, not in a modern city at all. The strict parking signs and costly fees give a less than friendly face to the authorities even though this is needed to render the city open for the bike, the walker, the wanderer, the wonderer, the traveller. The clear impression of Oxford I will leave with is of a city that takes from those that come but in doing so the environment pours out its opportunities and riches. Officialdom has no public face except in what it endures and to some respect it endures the homeless but they provide a rich ingredient to the city as I pondered on my own life in light of these people that attempt to live and sleep a hairs breadth from the milling throng and in their way add their own flavour to Oxford’s seething brew.
I go back to the ‘entrepreneurs’ of the car park and their business of aid. This was Oxford conversing with me, caring for me, wanting me to come away with a good experience. In their need they gave and I hope each day they know the good they do this great city because in their small way they are making an impression.