It felt like entering Narnia, the magical world created by C.S. Lewis. I was in Cambridge but brought Oxfordshire with me, such is the way we interpret the world with what we know, see what we want to see and make invisible what we don’t understand. C.S. Lewis was both an Oxford and Cambridge man, in that order, holding office in both universities across his life. He was a cracking intellect who wrote some cracking stories, as well as holding down his day-job and being good company in the pub, so I have heard. I can’t come anywhere close to even comparing myself with the giants of the intellectual world but have been close enough to enough of them to have felt the magic, and always hope for a little of their angel dust to land on me. Indeed it was a Nobel Prize winner whom I met and talked with in Papua New Guinea who inspired me to anthropology at a time of life when what I did could have gone in so many different directions. And I continue to meet members of this august club of intellects and doers. I held an academic position at the University of Cambridge for eleven years, and now at the University of Oxford for twenty one years. Entering through the gate to the Newnham Riverside Club felt like I was entering the world constructed by C.S. Lewis, the wardrobe in the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. But backwards, from the Oxford end.
I have huge thanks to Rose, who suggested and invited me to this very special place. I know Rose from the Serpentine swimming Club, and what led her to suggest a swim here was that we both have Cambridge University in our backgrounds, and that I had never been to this wonderful place, despite having spent so many of my younger academic years at Cambridge. I kind-of knew about the club when I worked there, but couldn’t work out where it was nor did I meet anyone who was openly a member who could help me. Going to the Newnham Club could have evaded me forever, if not for Rose – thank you again.
Rose is both passionate about swimming, and is deeply kind and enthusiastic in a Melbourne-smiling-positive way. “No worries” means just that, but also no hurries, knowing that if she has agreed to do something, it will get done, no need to follow up. In this case, Rose agreed on this visit and I knew it would happen, even though Covid-19 changed the earlier plan.
Rose has the key that opens the door (really, the gate) to the Newnham club – she showed me. Entering the gate-wardrobe door into Narnia on this the hottest day of the year was not disappointing – the Narnia was a lush green and warm and friendly paradise. Getting to Cambridge, agreeing a meeting place, Pauline and I started by acting on a small misunderstanding of where to meet. We drove to Cambridge good and early, found a place to park (ever more difficult in this city), convenient for meeting with Rose we thought, but not so. We arranged to meet at the Canoe Club, but we were waiting at the wrong one – town, not gown. Rose messaged; we worked out who was where; we acted on Rose’s instructions; we apologised; ultimately we wanted to swim, needed to swim as the sun reached it height. Rose was patient and explained the misunderstanding on our part as we opened the door to the wardrobe. The river swimming club was originally a canoe club, and was still known as such. Local knowledge of which Pauline and I were lacking. Of course; should have known; Cambridge has many mysteries – the wrong canoe club… This brought me back to many confusions while I worked at the University of Cambridge. I never understood the place when I was there – as a criminologist friend explained to me, “the University and its Colleges have much in common with criminology – you can never understand it, you can only get a feel for it”. This advice came late in my tenure at Cambridge, but it has served well at the other mysterious place, Oxford. Now I try not to understand things too directly, and by doing so find that understanding something can creep in unannounced, silently through a side entrance. It can tip-toe towards the bench I am sitting on, sit down next to me and wait for me to stop my treadmill mind long enough to pause and look around to see it smiling softly.
There were few clues to finding the Newnham wardrobe – much as I experienced Cambridge life in the 1980s and 1990s. A few wet-haired friendly-smiling folk walked in the opposite direction on the same track from and to the club, in summer dishevelled loose fitting clothes. This offered some sign that we were getting near, if only I had noticed as we were approaching the club. The gate-wardrobe door was visible from just a few meters, and was a welcome sight. Turn of key, creak of gate, what would be there? Water of course, but there are many ways of doing water, doing swimming. Once inside the wardrobe, a chalk board offered knowledge of water temperature, so important for most swimmers - plenty warm enough today. Then a short path, which opened out onto a be-lawned bay. Walking on, there was another bay, then another after that, each separated by hedgerows. There were people showing more than is usual on a hot summer’s day, but there were also people in their togs. The people I saw, engaged with, seemed to have magic in their eyes – placid and smiling gently. We wore our togs, Pauline and I, taking the lead from Rose. We found shade (that late afternoon the car registered a temperature of 39 celsius). We changed; we found the step ladder down to the River Cam; we stepped down slowly into the cool water, waiting our turn; we nudged the small-leaved green water-weed aside getting in waist-deep. Then we dropped full-body into the water, and gave a sigh of gratitude – to the hot dry sunny day, to the welcoming Cam, to the friendly club members, to Rose especially, and for just being alive, in Narnia.