PsychoGeography #32: The Oxford connection

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Whenever we walked from the centre of town to Oxford station, my father would gesture towards Worcester College and say, "C'est magnifique, mais n'est past la gare!" He never seemed to tire of this ancient quip, but I did, oh yes I did. I thought about this the other night as I took the same route, and having traversed the terminus façade of Worcester, then humpbacked over the river, I encountered a cool new chunk of modernity between me and the station.

With its dressed concrete walls and gently inclined wheelchair ramps, its vast, plate-glass windows revealing toiling students cable-knitted to their state-of-the-art computer terminals, the Said Business School was truly magnificent - who cared whether it was the station or not? I wish I could've dallied there, reading econometric analyses put out by the University of Michigan Press until late into the night, before cycling back to my equally cool and rational study bedroom, where I would drink too much instant coffee and argue with my girlfriend about the PSBR until dawn silvered the spires and campaniles of this ancient seat of learning.

Instead, I pitched up in the buffet and waited for the 10.15 Paddington train, while dunking an ATM brownie in a cup of ATM tea. The station was quiet save for one of those panhandlers you only get in the provinces, a guileless girl spinning some yarn about missed buses and sick aunts, in order to get money for a fix, or a hit, or a bottle. She was quite taken up with her own imagined guile and grinned as she milked driblets of change from placid cash cows. I was so taken by her shtick, that I failed to notice another young woman who was staring at me with slightly glassy eyes from a distance of about four feet. "Can I help you?" I said eventually, and she replied, "Yes, yes I think you can."

This was Francine, who'd just been ditched by her boyfriend and was on her way miserably back to London. She'd recognised me and, as an aspiring writer who'd once read a short story of mine, she thought she'd strike up a conversation - anything would be better than the post-boyfriend caesura. Francine - by her own admission - was a little drunk; she was also - to her evident satisfaction - very weird. At any rate this was what the ex-boyfriend had told her in his valediction: "You are the most individual person I've ever known," he'd said, or so Francine relayed it to me.

Francine had 30-dernier tights, a short, vaguely paisley-patterned skirt, a low-cut top, clumpy suede knee boots and a leatherette jacket. She had a few glittery bits scattered across her nose and cheeks, along with charmingly non-professional - and presumably cried-upon - maquillage. I didn't doubt her estimation of herself as "very weird", but I was also astounded by how like the young women I'd dallied with in this self-same city 20-odd years ago she was, right down to the gnawed cuticles and split ends. I was encouraging Francine to untie the small bindle of her youthfully peripatetic character, and display its contents - I take my status as a mentor seriously - when we were joined by Gary, another youngster seeking intercourse.

Gary was an archaeologist working for a private company in Reading that did site surveys for building contractors. Initially Francine looked a little put out by Gary barging in, but I decided to make the best of my extempore colloquy, and encouraged Gary to talk to us about his work. This he did, with great circumlocution. One felt, listening to Gary, as the train rattled its way through the dark Oxfordshire night, that his mode of discourse must have been affected by his profession. For each sentence took so long for him to say, that the time between the verb, its subject and its objects became impacted with sub-clauses and qualifications, each of which needed to be carefully freed from the soil of his own cogitation by the veritable teaspoon of his interlocutors' ears. That's how I felt at any rate - I can't speak for Francine.

Gary talked about the friction that exists between the builders on a site, and the archaeologists who've been brought in - under sketchy rather than mandatory provisions - to ascertain whether there is anything of interest prior to the foundations of the new shopping centre/office block/ prison being sunk. But a certain clarity overtook him when he came to describe the gearing system of a 12th-century water mill which his team had uncovered on the banks of the Kennet: "It was completely intact, and when you turned the shaft, all the cogs turned as well. That did impress the builders."

It impressed me as well, but Francine seemed completely underawed - being incredibly weird extracts its own toll on wonderment.