a distant echo

(Go give money to Burma and China. And then when you have compassion fatigue, come point and laugh at the non-disabled white girl who wants a pony.)

England confuses me. There are all these none-too-subtle reminders to Know Your Place, most recently when we went to Kings College Chapel for Evensong and a smiling Anglican person said “You are very welcome! Please sit in the antechapel in case the children need to leave in the middle of the service. I know it sounds horribly exclusionary but it’s not…” This after a fortnight of walking around the quite pretty public spaces in Cambridge looking through locked gates at the exquisite private spaces. It’s as if the class system here were set up intentionally to tweak my insecurities.


And as it turned out the kids did need to leave early, Anglican liturgical music not being the overwhelming cultural touchstone for them that it is for me. Jeremy packed them off home and as I sat listening to the rest of the service I thought about the imaginary England of my childhood; the BBC and imported copies of Horse & Hound, Thelwell, Penguin Classics, Maree Suchting’s back copies of Punch and my grandmother’s Everyman Shakespeare and Kipling. Little wonder that everything in Australia seemed insubstantial and derivative. I was ignoring the dark sky and the thousand lost languages, and spending all my time in Edmund Blacket’s Main Quad and Christ Church St Laurence, explicitly modelled on the Perpendicular Gothic of Oxford and Cambridge.

Everything was a distant echo of the purported Real Thing, a black swan of trespass, &c. The unquestionably real and solid thing of my teens and twenties was my horse Alfie, the source of my obsession with Lady Anne and Wilfrid Scawen Blunt and Crabbet Arabians generally. Some of the best memories of my adolescence are dawn rides through Kur-ring-gai National Park. At least I was paying attention. Being in the place I was in. And when I thought about this, in Kings, it occurred to me that my malaise of the last few weeks might be attributable to my not being in the place I am in, and instead being bugged by my 21-year-old self who would cheerfully have killed to be here, albeit as a student, not as a townie wife.

So (here is my California stint for you) I went to sit down in the Christ Church choir stalls sixteen years ago with sad baby Rach. I said, Chin up old girl. You won’t believe me if I tell you how it turns out. You’re married to this extraordinary man! And oh my god, the children, you cannot imagine it, the way you love them makes you a better person. The members of your little family are all brilliant and hilarious and they smell good. And the place you live in! And what you do for a living! And oh my god, your friends!

As I did this (California is really getting to me, you can tell) I vividly remembered a moment that bitter February when I turned 22, with no clue what I was going to do. I sat in the choir stalls beside Moira, crying silently through the readings. And then I felt the ache in my chest ease a little, for no reason, as if someone had kindly patted my hand.

Here’s the thing. I knew nothing, really, about Oxford or Cambridge. I’d never been here and I still haven’t been to Oxford. I knew no one at any of the colleges. I asked Professor Riemer, the Grim Riemer, to write my academic references, and I’m pretty sure those references were bad. (Did he do me a favour there or not? Discuss.)

What I thought about Oxford was that I would get sort of promoted out of a life where I would have to scrabble and compete and use my wits, into a world of tenure, a world full of books. I saw myself sitting by a diamond-paned window, looking out on a lawn, reading a dusty tome. Life would effectively stop. These daydreams did not involve marriage or children or grocery shopping or going to the toilet. I would hover, I suppose. I would transcend.

Sixteen years’ hindsight makes it clear to me that this was a virginal death wish. (Incidentally I think I understand Sylvia Plath a lot more than I did two weeks ago.) What I wanted was not to have to grow up. I felt I needed tenure because otherwise I would certainly be fired. I needed the ivory tower because I couldn’t possibly cope out in the big world. I needed the imprimatur of Oxbridge because there was no other way I could avoid being exposed as the idiot I am.

Now I am presented with the unexpected option of not minding about any of this. Of thinking of Cambridge as a funny, beautiful old town full of posh (and not-posh) people, with some good colleges and some bad ones. Of thinking of class as a social construct, not a measure of worth. Of thinking of myself as just this person, you know? Yes, England confuses me.

Leave a Reply

Comments are closed.