Thursday, 20 February 2014

Thoughts on a Walk to Hospital, Through Town, and Home, With Ghosts

Today was meant to be a London day. I bought a ticket a while ago which allows me a dozen discount journeys, and haven't used it yet. I fancied just turning up and seeing what happened. But on Tuesday I telephoned the doctor about my annoying ankle, and yesterday he telephoned me at ten to nine in the morning, and arranged for me to come in and see a colleague an hour later. This was impressive service. But the doctor, muttering dark hints about "osteo-arthritis" told me to go to the X-ray people and see how much damage I've already done to these wretched joints. I toyed with going straight there - I was already nearly half-way - but I was feeling out of sorts, and postponed it until this morning.

So, off to the Churchill Hospital, to the X-ray drop-in, only it's not really a drop in, as you have to have a grand letter from your quack saying "URGENT". It isn't urgent. You have to wonder what the code is for really urgent. Maybe it's just "go now"? This bit of the Oxford medical empire was named in honour of the Prime Minister's wife, Clementine, in 1940. I had to look that up, and it surprised me - Churchill only became PM that year, and no one was entirely confident that he would do a good job (he'd been First Lord of the Admiralty, Home Secretary, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, and had ballsed them all up, one after another, so he had previous, but it must have been a more forgiving age). My father used to say that the family's scrap yard in Wandsworth in South London had once been owned by the Spencer-Churchill family, and that someone - never knew who - had seen Sir Winston coming to collect the rent. Well, it became ours later.

Arrived, soaked by driving but not cold rain, and waited. The receptionist said it might be 30-45 minutes. I allowed an hour and a half, and rather wished I'd brought Sir Harold Nicholson's biography of George V instead of Private Eye, but no, I was wrong, after 35 minutes I was seen, and within 50 I was on my way back out into the rain. I dimly remember X-rays in childhood being rather a glamorous thing, like firework night, when you light the blue touch paper and retire as far away as you can. This was altogether more high-tech and less scary. One of the people at whose obsequies I was asked to preside in Chelsea was a physician who had worked with radiation at the St George's Hospital at Hyde Park Corner in the 1940s. He had told his family often that he had absorbed so much of the stuff that he'd never make old bones. He lived to be 96.

And so, suitably irradiated, to continue my journey into town. I had planned to cut across to the London Road to catch the bus, but I dithered, thinking that the cut across would be as long as a walk down the hill to a spot at which I would consider taking the bus ridiculous. So I walked, and avoided the ridiculous bus, in part out of determination that all this arthritis talk was not going to make the slightest difference.

That part of Oxford is annoyingly uninteresting to walk in. All roads lead to the three roads that lead to The Plain, which is the roundabout before Magdalen Bridge, the only entry into Oxford City from the East. There are few interesting alleyways, or shortcuts, you become sieved onto the main roads whether you like it or not. There was a glimpse of the majestic dome of the biggest local mosque in Cowley Road, and only a petrol-bomb's throw away from it, SS. Mary and John, Cowley, where I took my friend's mother's funeral last year, and whose vicar and his wife were so kind to us after our civil partnership, asking us to house-sit during their summer holiday. Undistinguished architecture, but happy memories.

Magdalen Bridge, and its approach to Oxford, is one of the city's best known views. The Tower that looms over it, four or five times taller than the buildings out of which it grows, was Cardinal Wolsey's first attempt at contriving something for his own posterity. He was the bursar of the college at the time, and bankrupted it, fleeing Oxford into the King's service, and doing rather well, and having many more opportunities to make his mark in the years he had left. One of them became Christ Church, my old college, and I decided to make a detour towards its Meadow, to see how the floods had treated it.

It was a lake! The footpath round the Meadow was cut off by officious metal barriers. I went to inspect them, hoping to find "No Entry By Order The Dean", but alas, they came more mundanely from the "Gardens Department". When I was an undergraduate in the 1980s, some musical types had tried to move a grand piano in the cathedral (our college chapel, a uniquely cosy arrangement) and one of its legs had caught in the ancient and uneven flagstones, and come off, and the whole thing dropped to the ground and smashed, with what I am told was the most wonderful reverberation through the whole building. At a cost of £20,000 it was repaired, and returned, with a curt note sellotaped to its lid "NOT TO BE MOVED BY ORDER THE DEAN". The soggy Meadow and its footpath seems not to have attracted such lofty attention, so it was left to the gardens department to warn us not to be so daft as to venture onto a windy flooded footpath bordered by a fast-moving over-flowing stream (the Cherwell) on the one side, and a treacherous drainage ditch on the other.

And then the bells of noon chimed. First Merton, then Magdalen, then Christ Church's Tom bell. Not quite in synch, but how dull would that be? When I was first an undergraduate in the autumn of 1985 there was a history programme which played a recording of Oxford in the 1930s, and those same bells chimed just the same, and I wondered what I had found myself in, what cycle of repetition, what sameness and stillness of predictability. And yet, back then in the 1930s, my own families were all striving to find their food for the day, they hadn't yet spawned a child who could moon about in a strange town thinking about bells.

It was time to get to the bank, but as I left the Meadow, a gate that was usually open was shut, and another, was open, and I saw for the first time in years the little stairway to the Old Brewhouse, where John, the Registrar of the Cathedral, had lived long ago. Before him - quite a bit before! - it was where W H Auden (a fellow old boy) lodged at the college when he was in town. Auden by then was becoming something of a drunken bore, and would embarrass people at high table by asking them whether if they had to, they would piss in the sink. He was trumped eventually by the new Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity, John Macquarrie, who said "Not if there's an open window handy". Canon Macquarrie (since gone to a well-earned glory) was the first priest for whom I served at the altar. And his successor as professor, Rowan Williams, with whom I lodged for a while with my first boyfriend, well, I can't remember what happened to him.

Through Tom Quad and out past Pembroke College, and memories of another tutor - one whose career as a fellow and chaplain ended in a newspaper sting, seemingly caught trying to sell off places at the college to the highest bidder. They all do it - not often, and not much, but these ancient stones need a lot of upkeep, and there's no one else to help - but you wouldn't have chosen this particular chap as your Arthur Daley spiv if you had an ounce of sense in your head.

Business done, and so to Blackwells for a couple of little items on a book token (a discounted church diary with a lectionary in it, and a learned pamphlet about the Synod of Whitby by one of the nuns at Fairacres (who was my thurifer the first time I celebrated at the high altar and scared the living pants off me), and to the bus back to Barton. It's never a long wait - not a cheap service (£2 for a single) but a brisk and regular one - and chocks away, back through the territory I'd walked through earlier, avoiding the roads the buses use. In Headington the new Sainsbury's has opened, in the premises of what was formerly Peacocks. Now we can buy food there, and at Waitrose, the Co-op, Iceland, and Morrisons, but there's nowhere to buy clean underwear or handkerchiefs.

And then I noticed another passenger, or rather, the Inner Mugger noticed his watch. It might have been a Canal Street fake, but it looked the real thing, much good quality gold, with a mother-of-pearl face. I was a little too far away to see clearly, and as he had his hand half in a jacket pocket on his lap, too close a look might have been taken the wrong way. I found myself becoming more concerned about the authenticity of this bauble, as we powered through bourgeois Headington towards lumpenproletariat Barton. But it was OK, he got off at the last respectable stop, and my fantasy of the foolish Oriental student wearing his thousand pound quality bling in broad daylight was untarnished.

And so into Lumpenproletaria, and after a cheerful twenty minutes or half an hour resting on the bus, struggling to walk properly, and remembering how the day had begun. But what a lot of very cheering ghosts I had met along the way.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
February 2014


  1. I am sorry about your poor ankle but since it produced such a brilliant bit of writing, it is perhaps some sort of heavily disguised blessing.
    Wonderfully descriptive, evocative and geographically interesting too, I was captivated from start to finish.
    The first time I've ever read a blog twice.

  2. How very kind of you to say! And don't fret about the ankle, this is all about facing up to a reality that was always going to happen. Fortunately, I happen to have collected walking sticks for many years - I was accompanied yesterday by a sturdy and handsome bit of ash!