The low door. A mind-travel to Oxford

It began with a twig of ivy this dark December morning, a little piece of intense greenery in the bleak autumn grass next to a grey stone wall. ”The eye has to travel”, Diana Vreeland, legendary fashion editor, once said. But also the mind has to travel, and often, it is not along the highways of the senses that the mind prefers to trail, but instead along the byways, lanes and dead end streets of memory. The core of this blog is about guidebooks to Rome, and about historical as well as contemporary travels to Rome. But every now and then, other journeys and other stories, of the eye, the mind, or the body, find their way into the blog too.

It began, ominously, with a twig of ivy, and later today, I happened to see a still from Brideshead Revisited, the TV series from the 1980s, based on the novel by Evelyn Waugh. The protagonists Charles and Sebastian (iconically interpreted by Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews) strike their characteristic poses, teddybear and all, in front of some sort of monument. Much as I adore the imagery of the series, as well as the novel itself, my professional self could not help but focussing on the fact that there was actually a Latin inscription on the monument behind them. Fragmentary in the photo, only some scattered word could be read: alternis vicibus, fines curriculi, nec latet ignotis, Phoebe das noctu.

Still from Brideshead Revisited.

Still from Brideshead Revisited.

I am, sadly, not particularly highly educated concerning the topoi and topographies of Oxford, and someone more versed than me in the whereabouts of the city may recognise a 16th century sundial, which took me some googling of the words in the inscription to locate. An article about Queen Elizabeth I depicted as Urania, the muse of astrology and the poetry of the heavens, kindly provided me with an image of the sundial and the full text of the inscription: an elegiac couplet about the stars, the sun and the moon, a very appropriate theme on a sundial. It begins: Aspice perpetuo labentia sydera cursu (”Behold the the gliding stars in their eternal course”), and continues, after having addressed the sundial as alma columna (”kind column”), with a wordplay on the names Phoebe (goddess of the moon) and Phoebus (Apollo, the god of the sun): Namque dices pariter, Phoebes Phoebique labores, Tempora, quisquis dies, mensis ac annus erit (”You will indicate equally the periods of time, labours of Phoebe and Phoebus, whichever day, month and year it will be”).

From the college-like surroundings in the background, I supposed that the sundial belonged to Christ Church, Sebastian’s college in the novel. And my mind began to travel.

I’ve only seen Oxford once, and in fact, it was a visit with an epigraphic genesis. I had found out that the British Epigraphy Society would hold their Autumn Colloquium in Oxford, and I immediately joined the Society, only to be able to get a reason for going to Oxford. As if one needs a reason – but I wanted to go there as a professional, as a Latinist, as an epigraphist, to be able to view Oxford from inside, not from the outsider’s or the tourist’s perspective. I wanted to be on the inside of the gate.

The Colloquium was to be held at Corpus Christi College – which I, mistakenly, read as Christ Church College, and so found myself erring around its gigantic emerald green lawn until someone showed me the way to the smaller and cosier Corpus Christi close by. And when I just now googled my way to the location of our old friend the sundial, it turned out that it is not located in Christ Church, but instead – in Corpus Christi. So I must have passed by without noticing it that day in Oxford, and why Sebastian and Charles chose to pose there for the still from the TV series I don’t know.

I had gone to Oxford by plane – this was before the happier era of travelling on the ground – and had reached Heathrow after dark an autumn afternoon, and then headed on to Oxford by bus. When I got off at the bus station, I was disappointed. The place looked much the same as any bus station in any smallish town in Sweden, a smell of hot dogs lingered in the air, and no dreaming spires could be seen. My hotel was in Banbury road, a bit north of the city center – of course, I would have loved to stay in a college, but instead I found myself in a very cold and rather unpleasant little room of an uncharming hotel.

I was in Oxford. I had dreamt of Oxford ever since I first saw Brideshead Revisited on TV as a youngster with academic aspirations – and then I read the novel, first in Swedish, then in English – and was further fuelled with longing when I came across Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers.

Brideshead revisited is still one of the best works of fiction I know. Recently, I attended a public lecture about the work and its author, and at the occasion, the qualities of a true classic were defined by the clever and witty Ulrika Knutson: a literary classic is a piece of work that can be read and reread again and again, because it will change with you over time. Every time you read it, the fictional landscape that you enter will be entirely new. And indeed, Brideshead revisited has been with me, and revisited by me, for so long that the definition rings more than true. But all along, it has, to me, pictured the impossibilities and deficiencies of life. When I was young, the novel seemed to show how life could and should be, and yet could not be, and for a long time it moulded my youthfully pessimistic view of life as imcompatible with my ways of living it. For me, the only watering hole in the desert of life was fiction, because fiction was fantasies, and for a fantasy anything is possible. Reality was impossibility. And thus, through Brideshead Revisited, I longed for the fiction of someone else’s fictive memory of a lost world, a mirror with so many shades and shadows that one could be trapped inside forever and never find the way out.

My inner image of Oxford, thus, was formed by the nostalgia of something lost, and of the fiction of loss. Paradoxically enough, I went to Oxford to find that something. When Charles is invited to Sebastian for lunch for the first time, he recalls: ”I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opemed on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.” Sebastian and Charles are, later, depicted as wandering around in the Botanical gardens ”to see the ivy”, and we watch them disappear together behind an iron gate. One of my sightseeing goals in Oxford was, therefore, the Botanical gardens, but the gate was nowhere to be seen, so I walked through my sunken dream from college to college, up and down the narrow streets, without finding any traces of the fiction I wanted to find. I had some fine moments in the park of Magdalen college, with squirrels and holly, I admired the river and the punt boats, I saw the Bodleian library and climbed the bell tower of St. Mary, but for most of the time, it seems to me now that I went back and forth along Banbury road, freezing and feeling lonely. The road was lined with brick houses, each one of them surrounded by a garden with all the dark green plants and shrubs and trees that go so well with the reddish bricks. I admired them when passing by, suggestive at night, with long shades from the squarely cut hedges, and in daylight the houses comforted me somewhat by their assemblance to the architecture of Lund, the city of parts of my childhood and youth. The smell of wet leaves and cold earth accompanied my way along the road, and when I nowadays catch a similar smell on the way to work a wet autumn morning, it is Banbury road I recall, symbol of my failed journey in the footsteps of fiction.

The blog-author in the park of Magdalen College (taken with self timer)

The blog-author in the park of Magdalen College (taken with self timer)

Travelling, we search for homes away from home. We seek the cities of our souls, or we go looking for the home we never had. I read a brilliant article some years ago in the Telegraph about the eternal image of the same low door in the wall that Charles was looking for, and which I tried to find in the Botanical gardens in Oxford. The article even introduces the very prototype of the low door, ”the Low Door of low doors”, which apparently is to be found in – Christ Church college. But, as the article soberly states: ”Not that where a low door leads matters much: it’s the notion that’s so exciting.” Indeed. The fantasy of something hidden from reality, a life larger than life, a garden where dreams can grow, and where fiction is the queen of the emerald-green lawn.

Since then, I have come to realize that I must not look for the low door anywhere. Not in Oxford, not in Rome (where I also have done a terrible amount of looking for it over the years, in courtyards, alleyways, gardens and towers). The low door is not a passageway for escaping from reality through an emergency exit. The door is nothing else than a literary metaphor, which has fooled me and probably several other lost souls into believing that the door has a physical appearance and a fixed specific place. No, the low door, I have found, is located in myself, in my mind, and rather than an emergency exit from the world outside, it is instead a door through which I can enter into reality, and bring all my fictions and fantasies along with me. Through that door, memories walk back and forth, and through it, reminiscences from distant places can find their way onto the ordinary lanes of everyday gloom, sprinkled as dark and shiny leaves of ivy along the way.

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