Two-thirds of the way through reading Justin Cartwright's curate's egg of a book about Oxford, the opening line of Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier bubbled up in my memory: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard". This Secret Garden ends in tears, too: caused by an eye infection as, like a little match boy at the guttering of the last pretty memory, Cartwright bids farewell to the Christmas lights and a huge gutted boar in the city's covered market.
Banal? Yes, but I will be kind and say: artfully so. For Cartwright is doing a brave and difficult thing in revisiting the land of lost content that was, for him, Oxford in the 1960s, and recording, warts and all, his emotions in doing so. Like too many Oxford graduates, he was and remains unhealthily overawed by the place: seduced at an impressionable age by its myths, its brilliant dons, fairy-tale architecture and time-reinforced self-satisfaction.
But he is writing for a series called The Writer and the City, the idea of which is that we see a place through the eyes of a writer for whom it is a part of their emotional landscape. So he returns to explore Oxford's mysteries, with the paradoxical and haunting experience of belonging and not belonging, circling around it physically, on foot, and mentally. He returns to his admiration for Isaiah Berlin, nervous as a schoolboy as he undergoes an English tutorial, and discovers how much he never knew.
The trouble is that we end up not knowing enough either about the writer or the city. Cartwright is not writing about a city at all: he's writing its dreaming spires. Anyone who taught or studied at Oxford will undoubtedly find it a spur to their own reminiscences, but everyone else will feel excluded. Although there are many paragraphs of tourist-speak about the founding of museums, the Bodleian's underground railway and the location of scenes in the Alice books, there is no room for outsiders at his Mad Hatter's tea party of well-worn anecdotes about long-gone Oxford dons, and his own conversations with distinguished living Oxford figures.
And yet: despite its stumblings, I still think this is a brave endeavour, which reveals some enduring truths about the unique infantilising effect of Oxford on those who study there. There is something about this alma mater that, like Kingsley's terrible Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did, can never be erased from their psyche. But there is also something great and glorious: apotheosised for Cartwright in the writings of Isaiah Berlin, and in the treasury of learning that Oxford stubbornly continues to defend.
Christina Hardyment's 'Malory' is published by HarperPerennialReuse content