Home Coming: Oxford
An intimate tour of one writer's hometown, one dodgy booze shop at a time.
(Photos: Chris Bethell)
When I was nine years old, locked out and snackless, a meatloaf-style low ponytail and face like a bowl of cream, I once tippexed a small heart onto a brick by my front door. That brick, and my heart, has now been painted over. The front door is a different colour, the bush by the bins gone, and I no longer have a key to lose.
I grew up in Oxford – a city known throughout the world, but home to relatively few. Say its name and people will think of spires, books, bicycles, punting, philosophers and meadows. Few will think of cheap European lager, samosas, hardware shops, GCSEs, underage drinking, the number 3a bus or going twos on a roll-up beside a mental health hospital. They may not even think of the car factory, the warehouses on Botley Road, Powell's timber merchants, the registry office in Clarendon Shopping Centre, The Star pub, plantain sandwiches or Fred's Discount Store. But that's the Oxford I grew up in.
My childhood was plotted out across an ignored city – east of Magdalen Bridge, out of sight of the colleges and quadrangles, between the Iffley and Cowley Road, full of terraced houses and Pakistani greengrocers and bus stops and people who pronounced it "sallatape". It isn't on postcards, isn't in Evelyn Waugh novels and I loved it. Even though I left it the minute I could, and barely went back for decades.
Driving into Oxford from London, the first stop we make – after passing the old bingo hall where I did my Grade One piano exam and Bury Knowle Park, where at least one girl in my class lost her virginity – is probably Headington's most famous landmark: a shark. A huge fibreglass shark tearing through the roof of an otherwise anonymous red brick house over the road from Oxford United Football ground. My dad knew the man who'd built it, of course. I think he'd also built a huge pair of white gloved hands that used to thrust out from the front of the Penultimate Picture Palace on Jeune Street.
It would be easy to say that this conspicuous rooftop sculpture epitomises Oxford's long history of eccentricity, peeping out through the most ordinary. But, in truth, it's just a big petrol-coloured shark, and I don't know how it doesn't let the rain in. I do know that it's always reminded me of Max Romeo's song "Wet Dream" – a typically explicit 1968 hit ["Lie down, girl / Let me push it up, push it up"] that Romeo claimed was simply about fixing your leaky roof.
As well as being home to that troll-wrangling bore, JRR Tolkein, Headington was also where I went to school. Pulling into the carpark, outside what was once my science classroom (a lightly renovated boy's toilet block), I was struck once again by the fact we were overlooked by a mental health hospital, and how positive that is – that the facilities are here, on the hill, in the community, overlooking the dreaming spires and Year 8 Biology lessons. I wonder what they made of us – all red jumpers, record bags and sexually frustrated hugging, sneaking through a gap in the fence to smoke B&H silver in South Park.
My house lay down the hill in the red brick streets of east Oxford. Standing outside my old front door, now painted a rather garish pink, I thought about how very little it all seemed. Bigger than any house I've ever lived in since, certainly, but much too small to hold an entire childhood. To think that so much feeling once existed behind that hollow-sounding wooden door, that an entire person's formative memories could have grown out from somewhere as blandly tangible, that so much of who I am took root within those blank brick walls seemed unlikely, if not unfathomable. The witch who lived over the road, and once read my tarot cards to help me decide which university to go to, now seems to have left. The small mole-like man who lived down the road and single-handedly explained GCSE Maths to me in a single evening may have moved away. My best friend, whose house I could see from my attic window on the hot, sunny days when I'd lean out onto the warm grey roof slates, is now a mother and living in Portsmouth. Your home is only your home while you live in it, is what I'm saying.
Luckily, there are some east Oxford institutions that haven't gone. The small bearded lady who walked our streets carrying a book bag while chuntering to herself, and the ancient street-sweeper who did his rounds in nothing but a kilt and a high-vis vest may be strolling no longer, but Silvester's is – praise be – still open and doing business.
Silvester's is, without doubt, the greatest hardware shop I have ever known. Peering through the window (it was temporarily closed this Wednesday) I listed to Chris, the photographer, some of the items for sale within my eye line: a dog tea towel, a potato masher, a paraffin stove, an electrical socket, a bath plug, a ceramic potato pot, some geranium seeds, a set of pans, plant pots and an array of lightbulbs. As a child, I would wander the tightly-packed, winding aisles of Silvester's with my father, thinking it as much a museum as a real shop; far more interesting than The Ashmolean and certainly friendlier than The Pitt Rivers, with its shrunken heads and chairs full of teeth.
This misunderstanding between tourist attraction and actual shop carried on, over the road, at The Fish Bowl. As a small child, in DMs and home-screen-printed T-shirts, I simply couldn't understand why all those thousands of Spanish teenagers, Japanese coach tours and camera-clicking American retirees hung around Christchurch Meadow or Balliol College when, right here, there were, like, piranhas and fish that glowed in the dark and, fucking hell, actual sharks. It was a clammy wonderland; it smelled of damp and salt and slightly old knickers; it was a pet shop, sure, but to me it was the greatest aquarium in the western world.
When you're a rotund, soft-chinned, thickly-eyebrowed teenage girl in Oxford, you can end up spending a lot of time by the river. The Thames is to Oxford what baking powder is to crack cocaine: the latter simply wouldn't exist without the former. Oxford is a river city; the name itself comes from the fact that this was once the only place for miles where The Thames widened to the point where cattle (oxen) could cross (ford) the river.
There are still some cattle, not to mention horses, on Port Meadow, and the thick, brownish ripples of this serpentine river still weave under punts, around colleges and under bridges, providing a backdrop to Wind in the Willows fantasies and poorly-executed teenage fingering alike. It is, perhaps, no surprise that I now spend so much of my time swimming beside ducks, alongside the crackling sound of ice, in muddy rivers and through opaque ponds; I grew up soaked utterly in Weil's Disease. As teenagers we spent a fair amount of time simply messing about in boats, as Ratty would say. That, and listening to the Red Hot Chilli Peppers at house parties and ogling older boys at the skate park.
I managed to find the gap in the fence where, on one of those thickly-warm summer nights that happen occasionally in your teenage years – that hum with possibility and seem to slip into an unwatched bacchanalia – we broke into the Queen's College sports ground. My friends – Tom, John, Simon, Jos (I was, as I remember, the only girl) – and I lay on sweetly-smelling grass and chased each other across the lawn with sprinklers under a full moon. I remember thinking, even at the time, that we had slipped, Narnia-like, out of our puddled, gravelled, everyday lives into this magical garden of stillness, lust, hot throats and wet backs. Looking at the grounds today, in the whip-cold wind of winter, I wonder if it ever happened at all. Although I know it did.
It seemed absurd to bring a photographer all the way back to Oxford and not go for a swim. Never mind the fact that it was February, that a post-Doris wind was howling, that not even the dogs were jumping in. In my memory, Port Meadow will always have the gentle, sticky sense of leisure after all the afternoons, evenings and dawns we spent, eating Doritos, drinking Oranjeboom, some of us experimenting with drugs, walking along the side of the water and splashing through the shallows. One winter my family and I got so lost in the fog on Port Meadow that we ended up being nearly trampled by a pack of wild-eyed horses as they thundered, nostrils flared and fiery red, through the thick white mist. Another summer, a herd of bullocks chased us from our picnics so skittishly that my friend James ended up shimmying a small tree, protected by a circular fence, and refused to move for at least an hour.
Walking back into town, through the never-adequately-explained-suburb of "Jericho", I think again of just how old Oxford is. Not quite as old as Jericho, perhaps, but there is a pub here, The Turf Tavern, that has been serving beer for over 600 years. It was a tavern and malthouse in 1381 – the Maori only reached New Zealand (where my father is from, making me a dual citizen) in about 1300. That means, as men were washing up in canoes onto the beaches of Hokianga, there was probably a pub, standing down an alleyway in Oxford, where you could buy a pint of ale and a pie. Sidenote: The Turf is also the place where – legend has it – Bill Clinton did not inhale.
Round the corner from The Turf, outside the Sheldonian Theatre, are 13 Roman heads made of stone, each on top of its own pillar. It doesn't take a terribly keen eye to notice quite how much these guys – particularly the one with the shit-eating grin – looks like my own father. Perhaps that's why he stayed here so long: there must be some good reason for swapping the white sands and virgin forest of New Zealand for the one-way systems and frisbee games of east Oxford. Unless, of course, it was love.
It's hard to explain quite how overrun Oxford can sometimes feel to its residents. According to the latest census, students make up 24 percent of the city's adult population; added to the fact that 7 million tourists visit Oxford every year. When I listen to the anti-immigration rhetoric of the right-wing, I often wonder if they are simply mistaking "immigrants" for "tourists". Immigrants are essential, tax-paying members of society, often from countries that were stripped bare by British colonialism, who keep our public services and small businesses running. Tourists, on the other hand, are loud, obnoxious, gormless, slow-shuffling idiots in matching rucksacks who stare meaninglessly at some mysterious point about 200 metres above eye level, and who, occasionally, cover each other in silly string and listen to Bob Marley on their mobile phones.
As a child, I hated tourists and would, without fail, give any single person who asked me for directions the specific route to Oxford's only sex shop. I've never actually been in The Private Shop (I've had very little call for pornography in my life) but I would relish, sometimes for hours, the image of some white-toothed Austrian family marching down the Cowley Road, following my hand-drawn map until they came, finally, to the boarded windows and adults-only frontage of this pantheon of dildos and wank mags.
I grew up – as in turned from child to teenager – on the Cowley Road. To talk of Oxford without the Cowley Road would make a mockery of memory and ridicule of remembrance. Every Friday night, from the age of literally 14, I would go to The Star pub with a warm, crumpled £10, some complicated and ill-advised skirt-over-trousers situation, bad make-up and pretty much everyone I knew. It was our theatre of love, lust, intoxication, battle (someone once memorably scratched "Fuck off Nell and co" on the back of a toilet door), hedonism, friendship and intrigue. We would stay for hours, playing pool, shouting jokes, having that sort of "debate" that is really just a poorly-disguised dick-swinging competition between the middle classes, smoking roll-ups or Marlboro Lights in the garden out the back, staring at long-haired men with names like "Scrutter", swooning over cocaine-bloated boys who were once our playmates, talking about school, talking about ourselves, talking about what everyone else was talking about. I have never, since, known a pub like The Star, and was half-devastated, half-relieved that it wouldn't open for another hour after we arrived outside, and I was half-denied, half-saved from walking across its wooden floor once more.
After a brief stop to buy a Sesame Snap at the greengrocer on the corner of the street where my father lived during one of my parents' longer separations, and a swing through the aisles of the notorious "dodgy" deli, where we were buying beer before we could even shave, I was back, almost where I started. I looked at the small, two-storey brick house to my left, at the name carved onto the mantle above the door: Seaview Cottage.
Oxford may be many things; the most unaffordable city in the UK; the birthplace of Lord of the Rings; a city where 10 out of 83 neighbourhoods are among the 20 percent most deprived in England; home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world; a place where one in four children live below the poverty line while the richest and most powerful people in the country enjoy "country suppers" just a few miles away in Chipping Norton; the birthplace of the Mini; and a city famed throughout the world for its beauty with some of the planet's ugliest shopping centres. But a seaside town it most certainly is not. And yet, as I stood on the narrow little pavement, a few hundred metres from the house where I learned to read, to speak to boys, to cook and how to never argue, I looked up and saw a seagull, soaring on the wind just a few metres above the chimney pots and drainpipes. Here we were, in a city famous for the wealth and beauty of its university, but where 22 percent of adults have no or low educational qualifications; in a city spread across a thousand miles of postcards that's barely five miles across; almost as far inland as we could possibly be, where seagulls fly above a brown and twisting river. Oxford is a city of contradictions, if nothing else.
And when I think of myself today, and where I grew up, it all sort of makes sense. You don't choose your parents or where you came from. But you're lying if you think they made no difference.