Updated: May 24
Abba is the happy-music that pops up when I am happy. Life somehow is less than surreal, but it could go from stage two back to stage one again if the people are not sensible. So we were sensible, cycling to Godstow Lock, at the top of Port Meadow, Oxford (only my head was silly, Abba-silly, at Godstow Lock). We bumped into Alex and Adela, two people in their thirties whom we similarly bumped into earlier in the week, down at Hardwick Lake. Alex is very taken with water – to be close to it, watching it, swimming in it. The two of them were on bikes as we were, recent to Oxford, having work-travelled much of Europe since Romania unlocked from its communist years. ‘Like sleep-walking, 500 hundred kilometres from the sea’ said Alex. He had never seen the sea in his childhood, and was making up for it since. Happy with life, with the UK, with Oxford, now he needed to find somewhere to swim, and as talkative as he is, he needs a community. I felt I knew the local-Oxford swim-community, but seven weeks into lock-down, I couldn’t say, couldn’t introduce him to people, couldn’t help him find a way into the water. “Waterloo - promise to love you forever more… Waterloo – knowing my fate is to be with you” – the words seemed perfectly formed for the place. I couldn’t resist the song, the train station, the movie (here we go again…), the old Eurostar terminal at Waterloo a decade and more ago now, when European travel meant more trains than planes, when Inter-railing was the way to explore and find a way around Europe, when Inter-railing brought me to water, the Mediterranean, the Northern French coast, to the rivers of Germany, and the Swiss lakes. Scandinavia was to come later. There is nostalgia in my 65@65, going back as well as going forward, the lock-down allows for it. Many of the swims I have done so far have back-stories; there were to be more, but they won’t happen as part of this project. They have become future-swims, maybe even fantasy-swims, of which there are many. Alex and Adela were both talking as I came back from mind (Abba-Waterloo-Europe-water, always water) to the reality in front of me. Well, Alex was doing most of the talking, Adela was smiling and polite, clearly in love with the man. He talked of how the furthest he had swum was 1.5 kilometers, and then in an event, and then he came last; “so convincingly last…” smiled Adela. But he loves the water and has to swim; like, HAS TO SWIM, and she loves him – “Waterloo, knowing my fate is to be with you…”
Abba is part of the worldly sound-scape for me, like the Beatles. I don’t have their albums, never have, but they are not needed because they are part of the everyday. Abba are part of the land/sound/waterscape at Godstow. The opening scene of ‘Mamma Mia 2. Here We Go Again’ was set in Oxford, at graduation, during which the young protagonists rip off their gowns and crowd surf the graduation hall then glam it on bicycles up to Godstow to dance and sing on the top of a canal-boat at the lock. Today at the lock, a canal-boat is there waiting for Abba, the Abba graduation party long-gone, but the music is playing on in my head – Lily James rocking it on the canal boat. To set the scene in current-time, this is May 2020, and usually the start of the most stressful yet the delightful season at Oxford. Exams are sat, theses and dissertations handed in, exams and dissertations are marked, in quick order. Right now, as I write, I am avoiding the five 10,000 dissertations that I have planned to mark today. The delights intersect the stresses – Oxford is in bloom, the gardens made more glorious in contrast to the grey-brown leafless winter (but Oxford is fantastic across all the seasons, just differently so). Revising for exams doesn’t allow students much opportunity to look up and smell the flowers (apart from May-Day madness), but they nearly all want to do well, to shine, to make their parents proud. But after exams there are garden parties and long afternoons sat in the University Park, Botanical Gardens and College grounds wasting time beautifully, talking about futures, pasts, what passes for philosophy, and general stupidity. This is indeed the time of year, when all is finished, for stupidity.
The stupidity for me in my increasing seniority is captured in two days in June when duty of the most responsible kind intersects with pleasure. This is Encaenia day, when honorary doctorates are conferred, when there is Encaenia lunch at College after a morning of (sometimes) vivas and finalising exam grades with external examiners, an afternoon seeing students sometimes for the last time (make me proud, do great things, I say to some of them) then the Vice-Chancellors Garden Party at 4pm. This, the Encaenia garden party is dress-up day for grown-ups (as it is for those that attend the conferral of honorary degrees – I never have, but feel I must). This is the one day at Oxford when, if you come from another (non-Oxford) University you can wear your own colours. Mine are London (King’s College), but I never bought the gown, having rented for my PhD degree ceremony, to shake hands with Princess Anne. I prefer to wear my MSc gown with University of Oxford hood (my MSc gown is actually Cambridge, bought way back in 1986, but in twenty-plus years at Oxford, no-one has noticed the subtle difference between the two, or at least politely not mentioned it) with black suit. This is a gown that I wear maybe just over a dozen times a year, for specific meetings within the University and College, and the occasional College Dinner or Feast (yes, really. Feasts. Really called Feasts). On dress-up day, it is as if the lorikeets had descended upon an Oxford College garden. Gowns and hoods from across the world (Harvard and Salamanca are particularly distinctive) stand out in the flock of red and blue that is the Oxford DPhil gown, and the equally prominent black birds such as myself, in the Oxford MA (with red hood) garb. In this flock, there are many notables, including several Nobel Prize winners, the occasional (deep) celebrity, as well as the great and good of Oxford. In previous years I have met and talked with former US President Jimmy Carter (sharp as a razor), Philip Pullman (what’s happening with the second movie? It’s in the hands of the lawyers), Yo Yo Ma (the world-music thing – where are you taking that?). In 2018 I went with contemporary dance choreographer Rosie Kay. In a previous year I took Vivienne and Andrew, visitors from Adelaide, who always seem to dress as though expecting a garden party. In this particular year their expectation was met. They were appreciative; this gave them practice ahead of the receptions they told me of at the Venice Biennale, their next stop. The Venice Biennale receptions are, I am told, the top of the range. That Encaenia garden party was held at St Catherines College, a modernist wonder by the architect Arne Jacobsen (of Klampenborg beach fame). After sandwiches and finger-food, strawberries and chilled white wine on the College Lawn, the time came to stroll across Oxford to my College, St Cross, with my guest and other Fellows of St Cross for another, more intimate garden party, followed by dinner there. The next day sees the examiners meetings, followed at the end of the afternoon with the Departmental Garden Party. Summer jackets and straw hats displace gowns and hoods, at least for the men. Posh frocks and heels seem standard for all three events for women. It used to be that George (G&D’s Ice Cream Café Oxford-fame) would turn up on his bicycle at this garden party with two tubs of ice cream in his front basket. George studied anthropology (of course he did – this is Oxford) and has made a great success of his ice cream company. George and Danver; George and Davis; George and Delila; these are the names of his cafes. Danver, Davis, Delilia… I am told these are the names of his dogs, across time. I don’t know if he needs to get a new dog to open a new ice cream parlour, but this being Oxford it wouldn’t surprise me if that were part of his business model. With the craziness of the approach, he is a good businessman and makes a superior product. At the end of this day, at the end of three garden parties in two days, after ice-cream, if George comes along, it is fitting to jump in the Thames at Port Meadow. This completes the celebration of the end of the exam season. But this year, in the absence of garden parties, the plunge will be all that there is to mark this end of season and transition back to seriousness.