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Two days ago I bussed to Oxford to give a paper. Nothing very exciting - not a very good paper, and at the graduate Romanticism seminar - but it was a trip to Oxford, a city I love, and I was going to be put overnight in one of the colleges and taken out to dinner. So it would be a tiny adventure.
And an adventure it was! First I got lost on the way to the bus stop. In Cambridge. The city where I live. A bus stop I've been to about six times before. I wandered around The Area of Cambridge Near the Park for about 15 minutes, and finally I had to humiliate myself by asking a denizen. Great. Then, when I got off the bus in Oxford, it was pouring. Fortunately, I'd brought an umbrella, but there's nothing like tromping through a downpour to make you feel less than your best. So I waded through the puddles and plopping drops to the college where I was going to be put up, and they handed over the key to my guest room and a helpful map of how to walk the 50 yards to it. And I took the map, upped my umbrella, exited the college, and...got lost. A college cleaner had to guide me to my room.
Which turned out to be a hovel. And I don't mean a dubiously decorated room, or a slightly down-at-heels chamber: I mean a hovel. It was in the basement, with a single bed that was really more of a camp bed, and energy saving bulbs that burned a heavy yellow when they were fully warmed up, thus augmenting the lovely acid yellow walls and illuminating to a dull glow the thin felt carpet and rickety bedside "table" holding an even more rickety lamp. Off to one side was the bathroom, complete with icy tile floor and luxuriant paper bathmat - it was like the ne plus ultra of those English bathrooms I wrote about once before. Since the room was in the basement next to the outdoor stairs and under the indoor stairs, I had the dubious privilege of hearing every person entering or leaving the building, as well as all conversation that occurred on the stairs inside. Not that I overheard anything juicy, but I felt like the maid in a Victorian household.
This was a kind of room that I thought had vanished from England in the 1990s, when you found them in the cheaper (by which I mean cheapest) hotels. I certainly did not expect to find one as a guest room at an Oxford University college. I was so enchanted/amazed/horrified that I took photos. Yes, that is the staircase you can see at the back of the bathroom. If you look carefully at the top of the one of the room, you can see the large beam in the ceiling, though, which actually was quite nice.
As I used to say to Dr. Higher when we pulled up at one of the more questionable of the Ruhrgebiet hotels in which we stayed, Es sagt qualität!
So, after putting on some make-up and turning on the heater so the hovel would be toasty upon my return, it was off to give the talk! Except it wasn't, because when my fraicquaintance the convener G., and the "tech guy" (that's right: I needed a tech guy - except that he was really just a classicist working on Keats who happened to know how to set up the room projector), and I arrived at the porter's lodge to pick up the key, it transpired that there had been a change in policy over the last two weeks, and all keys to all public meeting rooms in the college had to be picked up by a member of the college. The member of the college was "Susan," the co-convener, but "Susan" was off on a research trip to London for the night. So...no key would be handed over. Ah, the English. This is where they really shine. The porters just couldn't give us the key, because despite the fact that the convener with me was a member of aNOTHER college, and despite the fact that the seminar was a weekly event and so familiar to the porters, rules were rules, and if they broke them for us they'd have to break them for everybody (although no one else was in the room). I stood there thinking, Oh, my God, I'm going to have come all the way to Oxford just so I can walk through the pouring rain to have dinner out and spend the night in the room of an abused servant. But instead we all asked if there was someone else we could see about this, and the porters suggested the bursar.
So off we went to see the bursar, who couldn't make an exception for us because that would mean contravening the dean, who'd made the initial rule, and he couldn't undermine the dean's authority (despite the fact that the dean wasn't around to know, and nor was anyone else). At that point I left the room, because I discovered that I had a rage problem - and when I say, "I discovered," I mean, I discovered it because I wanted to punch the bursar in the face. So I waited in an outside room while something mysterious happened, and we were at last allowed to have the key! So we trooped back to the Porter's Lodge, where the porters acted as if they'd never seen us before in their lives, and they were delighted to hand over the key. They were also delighted to hand over the a/v bag that contained a projector, and when the tech guy explained that actually we needed and had requested the bag with just the remote control, they made it very plain that this misunderstanding was entirely his fault. Thus did they display two more areas in which the English in service industries shine: the ability to pretend as if they've never been obstructive or irritating in their lives, even if said obstruction has occurred only seconds before, and their ability to make it plain that whatever way in which they've made a mistake or behaved poorly is your fault. As my other fracquaintance A., who arrived at that moment, put it, "The customer is always wrong."
Then I gave the paper. But that's not very interesting. What's interesting is what happened afterward, when A., G., and I all went out to dinner together.
It transpires, first of all, that A. also had a pass made at her by The Bitterest Man in the World, although hers was much cruder and stronger than mine. The only reason why this really matters, though, is because she didn't know I'd had a pass made at me, too, and when she found out and asked for an explanation of how the pass came to, er, pass, my explanation involved my telling them about getting let go by Mr. Fallen (because the only reason I let The Bitterest Man in the World into my room was because I was depressed about said letting go). I said, "Well, it all started because I got broken up with by Mr. Fallen."
Silence. "Wait --" G. said, "do you mean our Mr. Fallen?" Because he is their colleague at Oxford. And then, in between telling them about how I had a pass made at me by The Bitterest Man in the World, I also had to tell them how I got broken up with by Mr. Fallen. Except I didn't get to tell it right away, because as soon as I concurred that, yes, I did mean their Mr. Fallen, G. said, "He broke up with you for the woman he's seeing now?" and when we compared notes and it turned out that yes, he had, G. said, "I just met his girlfriend last week, and...I can't believe anyone would give up you for her. I mean...that woman had no personality."
Then I told the story. And when I was done G. looked sad and somewhat startled, and A. just sat there - in fact, she hadn't moved since I had clarified which Mr. Fallon I meant. I said, "Are you okay?" And she said slowly, "I'm still trying to put you and Mr. Fallon together. I mean...he's just so not everything you are: attractive, charismatic..." I couldn't believe it! It was like the best Christmas present ever, because these people were not my friends: they didn't need to say this stuff. I said, "Well, he was very funny." She looked at me as if I were alleging a cow was funny. I said, "And he told good stories. And remember I'm not the same person in private that I am in public." And then G. said, "Well, he can tell good jokes, it's true. But...I met this woman last week, and I mean...I don't mean she wasn't attractive: I mean she was actively unattractive."
You couldn't think it could get better, and perhaps it couldn't, but it could and did get just as good in a different way, because then G. said, "Did you think you would see him today?" And I, in my figure-hugging dress with my take-me-I'm-confident boots and my calm hair, said, "Oh, well, I didn't really think..." And he said, "Actually, though, I was surprised not to see him. He comes every week. In fact, now that I think about it, he comes every week, religiously. But he's not here tonight." And this, my friends, was even better than a dramatic confrontation, for ha HA! Dr. Fallen avoided me. Or rather, Mr. Fallen avoided me. Ha. Mr. Fallen avoided me, and a pair of near-strangers considered me superior to him.
So I think we can say that a journey that began in embarrassment and pouring rain ended pretty damn well. And it snowed heavily while I was there, so we walked to the restaurant in lovely thick whiteness.
And the next day I bought a lovely pair of knickers in Top Shop. I love Oxford.