Boyd Tonkin: Excluded and vexed, I fell right down the rabbit hole

No doors ever looked more
barred than the Bodleian's on Monday night.

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"It was just like a dream," people say, usually about some minutely-planned red-letter day or wallet-emptying interlude of luxury. But we know what dreams are really like: the bizarre and grandiose surroundings; the nasty surprises; the panic and bewilderment; the public humiliation; the feelings of frustration and powerlessless.

On Monday 2 July, around 8.30pm, a middle-aged man in a suit could be seen acting suspiciously around the firmly closed ancient gates of the Old Bodleian Library in Oxford. Parties of Japanese and American tourists saw him hammer crazily on the stout arched wooden doors, although the library had shut hours before. He made several calls on his mobile, and crossly prodded in some messages. He walked around the building to inspect the other gates, a sort of self-advertising bourgeois burglar hunting for another means of ingress.

Then he returned to the Great Gate, and thumped again. A passing guide was asked by one of his party about the Bullingdon Club. Could this be one of their sinister plutocratic rituals? Or else, more plausibly, the shoot for the final scene in an episode of Lewis, with that nice, cheery Kevin Whately – or maybe moody, troubled Laurence Fox – just about to leap out of the shadows and arrest the agitated suspect?

Reader, the suspect was me. Inside the library, under the fan-vaulting of the Divinity School, the admirable Caine Prize for African Writing was being awarded. Coming from work in London, I knew that I'd be late. What I didn't know was that, by the time I arrived, the outer gates would have been barred, the porters would have left their lodge, and the guests within would turn off their phones to hear the speeches. After what felt like an age, the speeches ended; phones sprang back into life; the gates swung open to admit me. And the prize? Won by the excellent Rotimi Babatunde from Nigeria: check him out.

In the meantime, dream-logic took over in all its absurdity, its indignity, its compulsive folly partnered by a sense of utter paralysis. That, along with the infantile rage against exclusion and rejection that a barred door – and no doors ever looked more barred than the Bodleian's – can arouse. Later, two Oxford-linked classics came to mind: Hardy's Jude the Obscure, with the college gates slamming in the poor stonemason's face, and (of course) Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Somehow, I lived both in half an hour.

Simon Kelner is away

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