This is the opening of the Novel
I Dream Of John Ruskin
It starts with a dream.
Or perhaps, more correctly, a vision.
I am standing near Hinksey and around me the ghost of John Ruskin whistles and howls.
His face is a large canvas kite; his body trails behind as its tail.
He's out of control.
He's flying around me.
One minute he's flapping around my ankles, then he's soaring off into the sky.
He crashes into my face, roaring: "Today is St Valentine's Day. I must fight with the Devil".
In front of me the empty road stretches out.
But not for long.
There are only about 20 yards of road paved so far.
Nowhere to go and going nowhere.
The Hinksey Diggers are not digging today.
Oscar Wilde is at home, having tea.
The road to socialism stretches out in front of me.
The means to a new and better society is in my hands.
But I have no pickaxe or shovel.
And who is even trying to build such a road today?
No one to dig any more.
“Diggers wanted. Apply within.”
Socialism: Can you dig it?
The Fool On the Hill
Picture a perfect summer day. The sky is blue and infinite, unclouded and unhurried. The grass is green and succulent, fresh-scented. The sound of someone playing blues on a steel guitar drifts lazily through the air.
I am on the top of the castle mound, gazing down on the perfect city. Picture a pre-Raphaelite hero, slim and slightly androgynous, with curly long locks flowing in the wind, film-star good looks and beautifully tailored clothes obvious at a glance. Think of a fusion of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot, Merlin and Jerry Garcia. This is my inner-self, the self that pervades the land of Cockaigne. This is how I appear to the initiated.
Now step, for a moment, out of Cockaigne, and see the real me: fat, grey, balding and fiftyish. Unemployed and unemployable - drowning in the shallow end of my abandoned Open University courses. This is the self that the uninitiated observe. Even I occasionally glimpse it in an unfriendly mirror.
The real Oxford lies sprawled before me. Presently, it is a disjointed muddle, a mixture of towering spires, perspiring proles, stagnant traffic, green parks, commercialism and squandered opportunity. Even this small piece of history, the place where Matilda fled from Stephen across the frozen Thames, tricking the eyes of the besiegers by her white clothes in the dazzle of the snow, has now fallen to the enemy and is a mere adjunct to a luxury hotel.
But for a gentleman with vision, such as me - Johnny Frenchman -, sitting up here on a beautiful day, there is time to see another Oxford. I can step back and look forward or step forward and look back. I gaze around and reinvent. I have all the time and space I need to reflect the past and deflect the future. I determine Oxford, as it should be, Oxford as I want it to be. I can see the past, the present and the future all combined.
I sit imperturbably, wrapped in a hat of antique shape and a cloak of grey, smoking a pipe of peace - Old Holborn - since, any moment now, one of Oxford's fine upstanding constables will be seeking to move me on.
I look at my life and I look at the Oxford Landscape. Neither of them is as I would wish: both hover on the extreme edges of their potential. Change one for the better, and the other will improve. It seems easier to change the landscape.
I gaze into the past and summon the ghosts of my ancestors to my aid. Let them relive their lives, make better choices and Oxford and I will both be transformed, will be perfect. Cockaigne is all around my brain. I drift off into sleep and perfect vision.
A Lunch Date in 1873
Mad Dog is sitting in a corner of The Fishes in the village of South Hinksey, a pint of mild gathering dust in front of him. This is a distressingly literal description, for he has tied back the doors of the bar in a vain attempt to attract custom from the road-gang. All that has so far been persuaded to enter is a chalky cloud of dust, roused by the gang’s activity, which swims through the interior shrouding the solitary figure in a gentle fog; an appropriate visualization of his mental state.
Sir Percy is, for the moment, perched on his shoulder but in a kind of post-modern, ironic way that indicates that he is striking an attitude rather than following a law of nature. “Lunch” he squawks as Polly comes past carrying a few 19th century bar-accoutrements. “Lunch, Poll”. Polly knows better than to hesitate. Sir Percy is not a bird to be ignored.
Mad Dog and Sir Percy dine together, Sir Percy enjoying the tastier morsels and Mad Dog contenting himself with what is left. As the meal progresses, Sir Percy’s mood becomes sunnier while Mad Dog grows more sullen: a difficult task, which he accomplishes with ease. It is clear that his open door policy is not bringing in the punters who can still be heard grunting and straining outside, dust continuing to billow through the doors as a painful reminder of the success of their exertions and the failure of The Fishes' attractions. Out there a few callow youths are disconsolately picking at some stones under the negligent supervision of the famous John Ruskin, the Professor of Art at Oxford University.
Mad Dog’s brain seethes and kicks itself into a higher gear than simple motor functions. It is not overly fanciful to trace the development of modern marketing campaigns back to this transcendent moment. Mad Dog realizes that he will have to employ some kind of stratagem to provide himself with customers and, casting his eyes around the gloomy, dusty interior in search of something more compelling than his stale ale, his eyes lock onto the sight of Polly.
Thus begins the connection between advertising and sex.
Mad Dog is not a man to mince words and much of his vocabulary is supplied by physical aggression. What he says to Poll is something like:
Poll ***!!!!! those ~~~!!!!!! a F***>>>@@@!!!!!!! drinks
which I have translated and rephrased for my gentle readers as:
“Poll, it strikes me that if the drinker won’t come to the ale-house, then the ale-house must go to the drinker. Take a tray of ale and see what your charms can accomplish on those gentlemen out there. And dammee if we let them have a drink for the usual price. Charge them another penny a pint for the trouble I’ve had sending you out there. Don’t come back until you’ve sold the lot if you don’t want a good hiding.”
So at a stroke, Mad Dog invents:
The links between pretty girls and beer that is the basis of all beer advertising
The groundwork for all future unfounded price mark-ups
The staff incentive scheme
England’s first Poll tax.
And Polly stumbling outside with a tray full of porter is confronted by a row of bums and discovers that the labourer is more prone to make remarks about pretty girls than to them.
“I say,” shouts Lord Featherington, turning round, hitching up his trousers and lowering his shovel. “Here's a sight for sore eyes.”
“Your eyes are the only thing that can be sore, Featherington, for you’ve done little but watch me toil all day.” quips a young Oscar Wilde, who is leaning at a rakish angle supported by an unblemished spade.
“Well I’ll make up for it now, for I’ll make short work of this task. Come here, my dear, and show me what you’ve got to offer.”
“The finest porter, sir” says Poll, keeping to the sales pitch.
“And very kind indeed, I’ll relieve you of your burden” and Featherington picks up the tray and sets it down beside him.
“That’ll be a sovereign sir," says Polly
“No such animal present. We’ve only 3 lords and an earl between us," says Featherington, “But dammee that seems a trifle high.”
“Oh, pardon me," says Poll “I took you for gentlemen of quality.”
And at this point I enter the story. Tired and weary after a long journey from France, I arrive from the station in a cart of the most doubtful roadworthiness, passing a large contingent of bearded middle-aged men marching in military formation along the road a short distance from the Inn chanting “Hi-Ho, Hi- Ho. It’s Useful Work you know.”. My striped jersey is still clean and uncrumpled despite my journey of several days. My beret is worn at a jaunty and attractive angle. I have plenty of fresh onions with me. In the back is my precious cargo of green bottles and a bicycle of the latest design – the Tropcyclette. This is a prototype from my cousin Pierre de Trop's new bicycle factory near Verdun that I have promised to road test over here in England. Pierre tells me that his design is streets ahead of anything currently available in Britain.
I am accompanied by a youth of about sixteen called Jerome who I have befriended on the train from London and offered a bed for the night in exchange for his help in loading and unloading my cargo. He is currently a railway worker enjoying a railman's holiday although he tells me he has ambitions to be both an actor and a writer.
“Leigh Hunt knew my father” he impresses upon me at frequent points throughout our conversation.
“My father knew Leigh Hunt” he affirms whenever the conversation seems to be flagging.
He has already made good use of his elegant vellum notebook to jot down several of my "bon mots" on the train. When not speaking of Leigh Hunt he tells me that he, himself is of a melancholy, brooding disposition, affected by growing up in London with “its haunting terror, the awful silence of its weary streets and the ashen faces with their lifeless eyes that rise out of the shadows and are lost.” Even the railway reminds him of some failed enterprise of his father’s to build a railway to Stoke Newington. I begin to wonder if I have been wise to encumber myself with such a humourless companion but, like Mark Tapley, I expect these are creditable circumstances in which to try and make him jolly. Perhaps, I will take him for a trip on the river.
Meanwhile, I pull up the cart outside the Fishes at the point where the road has deteriorated into a muddy ditch.
I pull out a case of my green cargo from which a couple of bottles have already provided me with solace on the journey and lift it onto the wall outside The Fishes.
Now there are 10 green bottles sitting on the wall - an echo of a rhyme that amuses me.
"Gentlemen" I cry in my attractive French accent. "Perhaps you would care to try a little of my refreshment on this hot day. The first glass is complimentary but the second glass will cost you dear." - I believe in the honest form of marketing.
"Well, dammee” says Featherington. “A Frenchie offering free drinks. You can keep your over-priced porter. I will take up your offer, Monsieur."
I unpack a small glass and my equipment. I open a bottle and pour a little of the green liquid into the glass. I place my spoon over the glass and put a little sugar on it. Then I take a bottle of water from another case and drip some over the sugar. As I expected, the road-menders are now all encircling me, watching with fascination as I complete the ritual and hand the glass to Featherington. He hesitates and a shudder runs through him - he has some sense that this road does not return and his eye catches mine in a plea for release. But we both know it is too late. He cannot turn back and he seizes the glass and knocks it back. As the wormwood catches on his throat he grimaces, starts to utter an oath and then the alcohol hits the spot. He smiles but it is the smile of the damned.
"Dammee, but that packs a punch. And yet it stimulates the senses. I believe that I'll write a sonnet in praise of our endeavours. Another glass, Monsieur?"
"Indeed my Lord but this one will cost a sovereign for I sell this by the bottle only."
"And what is it that is so expensive?"
"Absinthe, Monsieur. The finest French Absinthe available nowhere else. Monsieur Ruskin, allow me to present you with a bottle with my compliments. But for everyone else a glass is free but a bottle is dear. And believe me, no one who has had a glass can resist a bottle"
"Nonsense" says Lord Featherington “And to prove it I'll drink another glass"
"I'm much obliged to you my dear fellow" says Ruskin who is sitting on a bench overseeing the work. "But I could not possibly accept a gift from someone to whom I have not been introduced."
"Perhaps, you will allow me to say, Monsieur Ruskin, that your reputation has preceded you. I am a great admirer of your work"
"Ah, yes indeed, my dear fellow. My work. I am afraid that yours is unknown to me. Do you have any inclination in that direction?"
"Frankly Mr Ruskin, where work is concerned, I seek to avoid it at all costs. Or rather, I seek to avoid it at no cost. And so far, I have been very successful. I fear it runs somewhat contrary to your philosophy but, to plead mitigation, I am always most happy to admire other people's work. I am something of a connoisseur of other people's efforts."
"God intends no man to live in this world without working, Monsieur, not even the French."
"But so many do, Mr Ruskin and there is too little employment." I protest "My labours would be at the expense of another's livelihood. I could not have that on my conscience. And especially since I do not enjoy work."
"Then you have not yet found your vocation my dear sir for it is evident to me that the Lord intends every man to be happy in his work."
"It is not a vocation that I need but a vacation."
"On the contrary, it is only from work that one can be happy."
"Indeed I find I am never happier than when I am away from work. But I take it that is not your meaning? How do you justify such an outrageous proposition, Mr Ruskin?"
" My dear sir, I believe that there are but three steps needed for perfect happiness:
First you must be fit for the work you do Second you must not have too much of it
Thirdly you must be able to enjoy success in it."
"Ah., then we are in agreement for I have already taken all 3 steps and indeed I am perfectly happy: I am fit for nothing, I generally do nothing but not to excess, and I am more successful at doing nothing than anyone else I know."
"Mr Ruskin, I fear I shall have to abandon your teachings to sit at the feet of this new Master" says Oscar Wilde, who has been listening to our conversation. "This philosophy is considerably more persuasive to my aching muscles than yours."
"Nonsense, Mr Wilde, I shall make a soldier of the ploughshare of you yet. I by no means despair of you yet coming to understand that certain kinds of labour are good for men."
"Sir, like my young French friend, I have always been aware of this. Labour is good for other men but it is not good for us contemplative souls."
"Indeed it is generally the curse of the thinking classes." I concur, "Although, as a subject for study it is quite fascinating. I find myself able to watch it for hours."
I notice that Oscar and Jerome are both recording my observations in their elegant vellum notebooks.
"Pray Mr Ruskin" I enquire. "Which of us would you consider the happier: you or I?"
"Ah there I fear you have the advantage of me."
"Then by your own logic I must condemn you as the idlest of men."
"And so indeed I am" admits Ruskin, with a smile.
"And yet I find you out here in the heat of the sun, apparently trying to build a road. Do you think at your age this is right?" I enquire.
"We are engaged in a little social experiment" says Mr Ruskin. "All of my labourers with the exception of young Watts over there" - he gestures at a young and lanky labourer who, although he looks like the weakest of the crew, is the only one who is still working. indeed appears on inspection to be the only one of them who has done any work so far - "are young gentlemen from the University who are more used to toiling with the pen than the spade."
"Is good labour so scare in Oxford then?"
"Not at all. My contention is that these young men will profit from a little honest labour."
"And do you have a group of young labourers currently trying to study in the Bodeleian?" I ask.
"Ah me. That is an interesting idea, young man" says Ruskin, making an entry in his elegant vellum notebook. "Perhaps a college for the working man might work."
Meanwhile, all the other undergraduates with the exception of young Curly Watts have joined our little circle of disputation and a lively debate on the merits or otherwise of work of all kinds ensues while young Watts labours on, doing the work of all to the ultimate benefit of his immortal soul.
Mr Ruskin takes little further part in the debate and a gentle snoring tells us that he has found more comfort in his dreams until about half an hour later when the contingent of bearded men come tramping around the corner from the direction of Oxford.
"Ah here comes my friend, Morris" remarks Ruskin, waking up.. "He is bringing a party of his fellow Hammersmith Socialists to observe our work."
As the bearded men approach, a figure in purple flared trousers and an archaic smock with some sort of rural motif detaches himself from the general throng and cordially greets Ruskin.
"Good afternoon, Topsy" says Ruskin "You find us being seduced away from our honest toil by this young Frenchman and his decadent absinthe." and he indicates me with a graceful wave of his hand, thus avoiding the embarrassment of either introducing or ignoring me.
"Ah, indeed" says Morris, whose beard outstrips his nearest Hammersmith rival by about a foot although it is still 6 inches short of Ruskin's. "A most potent brew." He pauses to reminisce and a smile appears in the middle of his beard. "It reminds me of a trip that Philip Webb, Charley Faulkner and I took down the Seine from Paris. We had all been working too hard - I had been having fits of giddiness and punching myself in the face from time to time, Philip had been busy designing the Red House to my specifications, and I suppose Charley had been over-exerting himself on some sums - I'm never quite sure what these mathematicians do, but they seem to think it counts as work - or should I say they think counting is work? " Morris stops to laugh at his own joke and generously waits for us to catch up with him before continuing:
"Anyway, we decided that we should go up the river on a boat. We didn't want to risk our lives on any foreign contraption so we arranged to have a boat delivered to Paris from Bossum's boatyard here in Oxford.
Well of course, when we arrived to collect it, it had a hole in it. Made me quite mad, I can tell you. I knocked my hand against the parapet I was so cross and Webb and Faulkner had to haul me off for a glass or two of absinthe to calm me down. First time I had had the stuff and I don’t mind admitting it was pretty potent. Some of my most elaborate wallpaper designs owe their genesis to that particular afternoon. But to return to the boat. When we finally got it mended, we loaded up and set off from the Quai du Louvre. There were the three of us, each with a carpet bag and two bottles of wine - the bare essentials of life. All the bridges were lined with Frenchmen cheering us on - I suppose they have little else to do over there - they don’t seem to understand the benefits of hard-work. Mind you, neither do Webb and Faulkner - as I recall I practically rowed that boat single-handed all the way. Still, what a trip that was!" he laughs. "I have worked it up as a humorous piece which I would like to publish someday - I've called it "Three Englishmen Are In Seine."
"I would be most interested to read it, Mr Morris" says my young friend. Jerome.
“Allow me to introduce myself. Jerome K at your service. I might also mention that Leigh Hunt knew my father.”
“Indeed” says Morris. “Did your father know Allingham too?”
“Er, I don’t think so”, says Jerome, stuttering a little from embarrassment:
“But my father knew Leigh Hunt.”
"Speaking of work, Morris" says Ruskin, reclaiming the conversation. "You have found us on the very point of resuming our labours"
"Excellent, excellent" says Morris, "We are ready to get started at once" and he gestures to his companions who have remained standing somewhat forlornly in formation but now march over and seat themselves around us. Morris stands up and addresses his companions:
"Fellow socialists. We are here today at Mr Ruskin's kind invitation to observe the value of useful work." The socialists applaud and John Ruskin bows gracefully before resuming his seat. We all watch as Curly Watts labours on single-handedly. Soon William Morris is inspired to comment: "We may observe that this good man belongs to the class of people who work so hard that they may be said to do nothing else than work and are accordingly called the working classes."
"Indeed, indeed" say the Hammersmith socialists, watching Curly Watts more intently.
"Whereas my friend Ruskin and his students belong to that class of people who work but do not produce and consume out of all proportion to their due share."
"True. Well put." say the Hammersmith socialists, looking at Ruskin who has nodded off again and Lord Featherington who is drinking absinthe.
"So our first duty as socialists must be to abolish that class of men privileged to shirk their duties as men, thus forcing others to do the work they refuse to do." adds Morris, indicating Ruskin and his undergraduates with a contemptuous sweep of his hand.
"Start the Revolution" yells a particularly keen, and well-bearded, Hammersmith socialist.
"Up the Revolution!" chorus his colleagues.
"So when class-robbery is abolished, every man will reap the fruits of his labour, every man will have due rest" continues Morris, indicating Curly Watts with a majestic sweep of his hand.
"Hurrah!" cheer the Hammersmith socialists.
"But Nature will not finally be conquered until work becomes a part of the pleasure of our lives" concludes Morris, with a passionate cry.
"What do Socialists love?" cries the keen Hammersmith socialist.
"Work, Work, Work!" chorus the Hammersmith socialists as they sit back and watch poor Curly sweating away.
"No gentleman could love work" says Lord Featherington, knocking back another absinthe.
"Johnny Frenchman!” roars Mad Dog who has stumbled out of the Fishes to check on his marketing campaign. “Dammee but I'll tan your hide for you this time."
"Bonjour, Mad Dog” I reply with more sophistication. "I bring regards from all the family" I know that, as his cousin, I should kiss him on both cheeks but the prospect is revolting to both of us so I content myself with an ironic bow and he responds with another courteous oath. Honour is satisfied on both sides of the family.
"Where's my bottle of that stuff?" says Lord Featherington tugging at my coat-sleeve.
"Where's my sovereign, Monsieur?” I reply
"Damn it - then here it is but you understand that I only buy this because it amuses me. I shall dine out on the story and the colour of the abominable stuff will make it an amusing diversion for my friends.
"Of course, Monsieur, but understand that the price of this drink rises constantly. The next bottle will cost you 2 sovereigns."
"By god man, you’re even madder than your landlord friend” says Featherington turning his head away and attempting to take a surreptitious pull at the bottle.
"I believe I'll trouble you for a glass of this liquid too" says Oscar Wilde, detaching himself from the crowd of eager individuals around me.
“By all means, Monsieur.” And I pour a glass for the wittiest man in Oxford.
“Thank you” he remarks, wittily, as he drains it in one swallow. “How green is my valley” he says somewhat incoherently as the alcohol takes hold.
“Dammit, Johnny F” roars Mad Dog, waving his arms around in a passable imitation of the Windmill at Le Foucquet . “Do you mean to ruin me completely?”
“I am too late for that I fear. But no, I come to make your fortune. The future is bright. The future is green. The future is absinthe. My dear cousin, let me enlighten you. I shall of course cut you in for a share of the profits”
“Dammee, but its good to see you, you old rogue” says Mad Dog changing tack effortlessly. “How are the rest of the damn Frenchies?”
“Business is, as you say, blooming, Monsieur Chien Enrage and all the family is thriving. However, I have had a little disagreement with them so I have come to visit the English branch of the family and the English branch having shrivelled somewhat, that means you.”
“Well I hope you can earn your keep for life here is not as comfortable as I would wish.”
“Ah but it soon will be. For as well as Absinthe, I bring the answer to your dreams. Together, we will build the land of Cockaigne”
“What are you blithering about now? Have you been drinking that infernal stuff, yourself?”
“Yes indeed I have “
“And so have I” says Lord Featherington wobbling unsteadily towards me brandishing an empty bottle “And Damme if it doesn’t seem to be watered down.”
“It is supposed to be watered down, Monsieur. But I do not believe you can have drunk all that and remain standing”
“Well one of us won’t stand for it” says Featherington and, just too late I see that the bottle is swinging towards me.
There is a loud crack and then nothing.
Lexicographer on A Bicycle
Young James Murray has been persuaded to try out a new velocipide constructed by his cousin, Adam Scott. Accelerating down a steep hill into Hawick, the machine runs out of control. James swerves to avoid a heavy farm dray and shoots through a hedge, dropping thirty feet and falling off the bicycle into a midden. He is in shit creek without his saddle. The machine is ruined. If only he had been riding a Tropcyclette!
Its advanced breaking system keeps you on the right road.
In the Fishes and out of Water
When I wake up, I am in the parlour of the Fishes reclining on a make-shift chaise longue constructed out of several of the basic chairs and stools that furnish the needs of the rude clientele. Polly is gently mopping my brow with a wet flannel - a sensation that I allow myself to enjoy for a while before giving a delicate groan to advertise my return to consciousness.
“Lay still, sir” says Polly “I’ll get you a brandy”. She removes the flannel and steps over to the bar. I try to look around but a shooting pain in my head dissuades me and I lie back. From this position, I can only examine the ceiling of the parlour, which is dusty, smoke-blackened and criss-crossed by old beams. I become aware of movement and a flapping sound in my head – then I see Sir Percy settle on a beam diagonally in front of me. He squawks nonchalantly, turns round and then launches himself towards the corner of the room behind me. As he glides effortlessly overhead there is a gentle “plop” and a shit-load from Sir Percy drops on me like manna from heaven. Surprisingly, it seems to have a restorative effect and my sharp-shooting headache disappears. Polly returns with the brandy and mops my sticky forehead with her flannel. As she leans towards me solicitously my hands come up and I clasp her towards me, locking our mouths in a deep salty kiss. She responds with enjoyment before recoiling with propriety.
“Sir!” she declaims“, I see you are much recovered”
“Pardonnez moi, Mademoiselle. But your beauty made me a little delirious.” I respond gallantly, propping myself up raffishly on one elbow and wiping the residue of bird-dung from my eyes with the other.
“Dammit, Johnny, get your hands off my property, you lascivious foreigner” yells Mad Dog, clearly delighted at my recovery. He has been standing behind the bar, consoling himself with a pint of ale. Sitting at the bar is Oscar Wilde who gives me a laconic smile.
Fortunately, there is no sign of the hooligan Featherington so I am not obliged to exert myself on behalf of my honour. Being French can sometimes be so exhausting.
“Bonjour, My English Chappies” I say, sipping the brandy which, in keeping with all of Mad Dog’s stock choices, is execrable. “Where is the amiable gentleman with whom I have a little account to settle?”
“Lord Featherington was persuaded to leave” says Oscar. “He will be sorry to have missed you.”
“I could wish that he had missed me” I reply, rubbing the back of my head unnecessarily to emphasize my humour. Unnecessarily and unwisely as it brings my head-ache stabbing back. I wince and Sir Percy, who has apparently been monitoring my progress from the rafters, drops another restorative dollop on me.
“Why have you remained, Monsieur?” I enquire of young Oscar
“For the chance to improve upon our acquaintance, Monsieur. I believe that we are kindred spirits.”
“And will you not be missed at dinner?”
“Absinthe will make the heart fonder. It will be worth the fine for not dining”
“So, Monsieur, it is my absinthe rather than me that has retained you. I am green with envy. However, allow me to present you with a bottle. And please present my compliments to …”
“Lord Featherington” prompts Oscar, perceiving a lapse in my memory
“…and inform him that I will be delighted to grant him satisfaction at his earliest convenience tomorrow.
“You shall be able to tell him yourself for, as he is no friend of mine, I have no intention of seeking out his company tonight and Mr Ruskin is dragging us all out here again tomorrow to work on his infernal road.”
"Where is my young friend Jerome, from the railway?" I ask
"He has borrowed your most excellent bicycle - a most innovative and startlingly modern design if you will allow me to say so - and has gone into Oxford to take in a theatrical performance. I gather he has aspirations in that direction" says Oscar. "I, myself have ambitions to write for the stage so we have talked about a possible collaboration. He was most anxious to tell me that his father knew Leigh Hunt and apparently that Leigh Hunt also knew his father. However, he seems a most agreeable young fellow, if a trifle unschooled and labouring under the misapprehension that the same name will serve for both Christian and Surname. However it has given me an idea for a dramatic work, which I will provisionally entitle "The Judiciousness of being Jerome" - indeed I had better jot it down while I remember" and Oscar makes another note in his elegant vellum notebook.
Mad Dog who, no matter how drunk, always has business affairs at heart has secured my precious stash of absinthe in the store-room behind the bar and Polly retrieves two bottles for me, one of which I present to Oscar with due ceremony. He and I both know that he will pay for it later but only I know how. He smiles conspiratorially at me and slips away into the night.
I dismantle my chaise longue, open the other bottle of absinthe and tip the remainder of my brandy onto the floor. Sir Percy swoops down to lap it up. Meanwhile I pour myself a measure of absinthe and settle into the most comfortable chair to catch up on the family history with Mad Dog. “A little water if you please Polly” I ask
“Excuse me sir, It will take a while for I will have to fetch it from the village” says Polly “You have used our daily supply already.” Looking at Mad Dog, it is clear that he has no great need for water. I tell Polly where she can find a case of my fine Vichy mineral water for me. Mad Dog pours himself another pint and raises his glass in toast.
He will have none of my absinthe but he has already had plenty of his own ale so we are able to understand each other.
“What has happened to that old scoundrel, Jacques?” he enquires after my father.
“Who knows? The last I heard of him he was in Dieppe, having fallen in with some bohemians. He is apparently going to be the next great thing in the Art world.”
“And what brings you over here?”
“Absinthe. The market in France is, as you might say, saturated. I believe that I can corner the market over here. And apart from the delights of visiting the English arm of the family, Oxford provides the perfect target audience for this most delightful of all drinks.
“Bah! A pint of good English ale is what folk round here need. Not that disgusting green muck. I won’t have it in my bar. You’ve wasted a journey.”
“Au contraire, mon ami. It is not so much a drink, more a lifestyle choice. And bien sur it is not a lifestyle for the patrons of the Fishes. I will be selling my bottles direct, bringing my customers a la cart, so to speak.”
“Well good luck to you, you’ll need it. I suppose you’ll be wanting a bed for the night?”
“That would be most hospitable of you, cher cousin.”
“Pah! Polly, show this rogue to the room and don’t be too long about it for we have customers to serve” And indeed, during our short conversation two or three people, of whom the best that could be said was that they did not look out of place in The Fishes, had entered Mad Dog’s establishment.
Polly shows me through to the back, up some ramshackle stairs which it would not be wise to attempt in the dark and to a small back bedroom which is furnished in a style that could be called rustic dirt. Our footsteps in the room disturb a thick silt of dust on the floor which rises into the room. I wrestle with the small grime-encrusted window and manage to open it a little while Polly presents me with an enormous key and goes out, leaving the room emptier, dirtier and duller. I sink onto the bed, raising another cloud of dust. There is a fluttering sound and Sir Percy arrives in the room, not through the open window but through the door having apparently followed us up the stairs.
“Pretty Polly” he squawks.
“My sentiments exactly” I reply
Cockaigne All Around My Brain
The morning dawns too bright and too early. There are no curtains in my little room and there is nothing to protect me from the sun’s rays or the birds’ singing. My head feels sorely in need of Sir Percy’s restorative. It comes to something when one is desperate for bird shit. Unfortunately, Sir Percy is apparently not around to oblige, having crept away like a thief in the night. Very much like a thief in the night, I discover when after several hours of painful wakefulness, I drag myself up to find that my beret is no longer hanging on the back of the door. I descend the ramshackle stairs - forgetting in my hung-over state just how ramshackle – and, stumbling over the uneven drop, I give my poor head another crack on the overhang. I disintegrate into the parlour in a heap of bones, curses and shooting stars. Fortunately, there is no one to witness my undignified descent.
The parlour of the Fishes does not look at its best. The remains of last night’s drinking are scattered around on the tables and the floor. Across the room from me, the embers of last night’s fire still struggle on in the large fireplace. In front of it, someone has dropped a large pile of rags.
I pick myself up and wend my way through the broken glass and pools of spilled drink, dancing through a curtain of dust to the door.
I pull it open and grab a couple of restorative lungfuls of fresh air. Then I step back inside in search of breakfast. The tiny galley kitchen behind the bar does not have anything wholesome to offer. It is a good job that it is hidden from the sight of the pub’s customers. As I look back round the bar in search of inspiration, the pile of rags in front of the fireplace stirs and Polly emerges, looking less pretty than the night before.
“Good morning, Man-sewer” she greets me.
“Surely those are not your usual sleeping quarters, Polly.”
“No, I sleep in the room you had unless Mad Dog wants me”
“Ah, Mademoiselle, a thousand apologies – I did not know that I was taking your bed.”
“Not mine sir. ‘Tis Mad Dog’s. Everything in this establishment belongs to him and is for him to do with as he pleases.”
“We shall see, Mademoiselle. And what does Mad Dog provide for breakfast?”
“I’m afraid that the establishment is not much centred around meals, Sir, particularly at this time of day. Mad Dog will not stir much before noon and when he does, it will be a drink rather than food that he requires.”
“This is terrible, Polly. Nutritionists will be in despair. We must remedy the situation immediately. While my boorish cousin, Mad Dog, is clearly beyond help, you and I may still have a healthy and invigorating petit dejeuner. Pray, step outside and collect half a dozen eggs, some oranges from the trees and some croissants from the bush – that’s a kind of bread roll my dear. Meanwhile I shall clear a little space in that hovel at the back.”
“Sir, your drinking last night must still be with you” says Polly, tactfully. “We have no chickens, and oranges and bread do not grow on trees in this country – or any other that I know of”
“Don’t doubt me girl, go and look”
I usher her outside with a wave and she decides that, as I am mad, outdoors is the best place. She backs away from me and steps through the door to freedom.
I step back through the bar to prepare the kitchen. Pushing open the window is the hardest task. Having accomplished this, I scoop up everything within the vicinity of the filthy stove and fling it through the window. Then I select a jumble of combustible material from the rest of the room, dowse it in a generous serving of Mad Dog’s brandy, place it in the stove and set fire to it with a taper lit from the parlour fire. The stove smokes and splutters, but the fire takes hold. Now there is only one more thing needed: Coffee.
As I am about to solve this conundrum, Polly comes back into the parlour, arms full of eggs, oranges and croissants.
“Sir, Sir” she shouts excitedly “You are right, Come and look”
From upstairs, there is a thunderous roar. “Shut yer damn noise yer hussy or I’ll shut it for yer.” Mad Dog has woken up early. Before Polly can react, there is a loud rumbling snort which indicates that he has not stayed awake long.
Breakfast with Polly is a delight. A symphony of freshly squeezed orange juice, strong coffee and croissants. I have sent Polly back outside to find clean clothes and to bathe in a fresh spring and she has returned looking like a vision of a barmaid. The regular snores from Mad Dog upstairs add a soothing contrapuntal bass line to the singing of the birds outside. My naturally good spirits spill over into exuberance. There is melody in the air and a song rises to my lips:
“In the Big Rock Candy Mountains,
It’s a land that’s fair and bright,
The handouts grow on bushes
And you sleep out every night;
The box-cars are all empty
And the sun shines every day
I’m bound to go where there ain’t no snow
Where the sleet don’t fall
And the wind don’t blow
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Polly hums along adding a beautiful harmony, while I slap my thighs in a complex rhythmic accompaniment to Mad Dog’s expressive bass line which has grown in both volume and energy to mesh perfectly with this ad-hoc musical arrangement.
I feel that at last this is starting to be the best of all possible worlds and the smile on Polly’s face tells me that she cannot be too far from the same thought.
“I wish this could last forever”, she says when I run out of words and breath almost simultaneously and come to a gasping, humorous, crescendo-ing stop.
“Well of course it can” I say confidently. “We are in the land of Cockaigne. Everything is possible”
Polly looks doubtful and scared. “Oh sir, what have you done to me? Am I drugged? I have heard dreadful things of you artists and poets and your drug-taking. Is this a fair way to repay a poor girl’s hospitality? Am I already a drug fiend?“
“Relax, Polly, my dear. You have misunderstood me. This is no drug – I have no C-O-C-A-I-N- E . I spell out the word for her. I am speaking of something altogether different: C- O- C- K-A-I-G-N-E. This Cockaigne is a state of mind – or rather a state in the mind. A state where we are all free to pursue our own pleasure and where life provides us with what we need. Welcome to the land of the free.”
“It doesn’t matter how you spell it, sir. What matters is, what is it? What have you done to me? Have you slipped me some of that foul green French liquid.. I know very well that the world is not this pleasant – not for a poor wretch like me.”
“Ah, but it should be, Polly. It could be. It can be. It is. Do you not see how simple a grammatical progression it is. People of the world rise up. We have nothing to fear but fear itself. We are born in chains but we can be free. Life is ours for the taking. Let’s take it” and another verse rises to my lips as my hands slap away on my thighs:
“In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
Little streams of alcohol
Come streaming down the rocks
Oh the shacks all have to tip their hats,
And the railroad bulls are blind
Here’s a lake of stew and gingerale too
And you can puddle all around it
In a big Canoe,
In the Big Rock Candy Mountain.”
Polly has not been able to stop smiling again but she makes an effort and puts on a stern face to scold me for my misdemeanours.
“So it is alcohol, then sir. Its streaming down the rocks and its got into my skin. I’m a poor girl, I am not a hardened drinker like you. I am not used to such depravity.” She giggles “ And yet, I must admit I had no idea it was so pleasant. Who would have thought, to look at the drunken sots that I have to serve in the Fishes, that they enjoy such visions as these. I must confess I feel a little sympathy for them. I can almost imagine dedicating myself to such a life, for while it may be brutish and short on the outside, the inside is far superior to anything I have found while seeking my living in the world.”
“No, Polly. For the last time it is NOT alcohol and it is no drug. Cockaigne comes from within. You don’t see life as it is, you see life as it should be. Then you realize that life is as it should be. Then you realize that you are seeing life as it is. Everyone else is seeing life as it shouldn’t be. Just because there are so many more of them than you, they are able to convince you that they are seeing “real” life and you are living in a fantasy. But once you realize that they are deluded fools, then you can see your own heaven and leave them to their own hell. Come I’ll show you, lets take a walk around our kingdom to walk off that excellent breakfast.”
“I must stay here, sir, to wait on Mad Dog when he wakes up.”
“Trust me, Polly. He will not wake up until long after we return.” Mad Dog’s snores swell magnificently in majestic confirmation of my words. Polly has to laugh again, a sound that I am coming to appreciate as one of life’s wonders.
“All right sir. If I am to be damned I may as well have some fun first.”
“That’s the spirit, my girl. But remember that in the land of Cockaigne there are no social distinctions. You and I are on the same footing now, my lady”
And I bow, which sends Polly and, therefore, me into paroxysms of mirth and merriment.
It is a full ten minutes before my stomach has recovered enough to let us sally forth towards Oxford.
The first few steps are along Mr Ruskin’s road, which is at least a clearly defined path for about 20 yards, then it peters out into a faint and muddy track for the remaining three miles walk into Oxford. However, Polly and I are now in the land of Cockaigne and here the road has already been finished and is much improved.
The walk into Oxford becomes a triumphal procession. The faint and muddy track becomes a paved ceremonial path, lined with a cheering, jubilant yet respectful populace.
Preceding us are clowns, jugglers, circus acrobats, magicians, wizards, fairies, crowned princes and ballerinas, medieval knights with ceremonial jousting and bands of musicians playing triumphal marches. As we pass the Castle mound, a merry but mysterious, hatted and be-cloaked stranger perched at its apex watching a couple of people dancing around the top, salutes us with a joyful wave. The cheers of the crowd buoy us up, the swirl of the parade hurries us along, and in no time at all we turn into Christ Church Meadows, as Sir Percy leads a ceremonial fly past of birds of all species, spelling out the way. A red kite puts on a particularly spectacular aerial display swooping down to present Polly with a single red rose that it has been carrying in its beak.
Polly has by now grown into her new role. At first embarrassed by the opulence of the procession and unwilling to acknowledge her central position – after all there are only the two of us in the actual parade – she has soon started to enjoy herself and discovered that the more she participates, the more natural and enjoyable the whole process seems.
By now, she is acknowledging the cheers and good wishes of a grateful populace with a delightful regal wave and more than regal smile. She is skipping, dancing and even turning elegant cartwheels as the fancy takes her. As we emerge from the meadows and turn left onto the High Street she owns it. This town is hers. As we reach Carfax, an obsequious town official removes his elaborate headgear and bows to her. It is Alderman Stokes although there is no reason why she should know who he is. Alderman Stokes has no business in the land of Cockaigne. The red kite still circling overhead drops a smelly bombshell onto his uncovered, bald pate. Out of a misty dream, our path emerges for a while and then it closes within another dream. It is a day of wine and roses.
While we are in the centre of town, I decide to spruce up my appearance a little, using some of the profits from my absinthe sales. I go into Frederick Margetts in Cornmarket and purchase his famous half-guinea hat , then I go on to Oliver's where I am measured up for a suit of Scaboro Serge. I shall soon be quite the Oxford Dandy.
We return home refreshed and happy. Mad Dog is still asleep but when he wakes up he is delighted to see us. Young Jerome has returned with my bicycle and is full of excitement at the theatrical performance he has witnessed. He is also amazed at the capabilities of my bicycle which is apparently well ahead of anything currently available in Merry England. No one can resist the power of my Cockaigne. We have a delightful supper together and Mad Dog keeps us entertained with his charming anecdotes of life in the hostelry business. Then, Jerome tells us about the talking fish which were the top attraction of the theatrical performance he attended at the Theatre Royal. Polly remembers seeing talking fish there 10 years ago when she was taken on an outing with a friend of hers by Mr Dodgson who is now famous for writing Alice in Wonderland, supposedly about the Dean's daughter, Alice Liddell. "She's apparently the real Alice," says Polly.
"Never mind that. Were they the real fish?" I ask "And what did they say?"
"Ask them yourself," says Jerome, "They're in the bar sharing a jar or two together right now" And he laughs uproariously when the rest of us look around.
"Talking of Fish" says Sir Percy, sitting on his perch.
That evening, Jerome makes himself up a bed down in the bar by the fire and I try to do the gallant thing and give up my bed to Polly but she will have none of it. The best I can achieve is a compromise. We share it.
The Road Begins
Arturo and Angelica have finally arrived at the Castle Mound and now Onanism is in full flight. The Oxford North American Native Indian Society of Mystics (President: Arturo Diaz, Vice Chairman: Yours truly, Johnny Frenchman) is having its AGM - Our Annual General Madness as our membership, Angelica, likes to call it. Angelica is sitting on the top of the castle mound bashing out something which she thinks is rhythm on her emaciated bongos. Her pigtails bounce enthusiastically against her denim dungarees.
Angelica is too good to be true, She's the belle of the ball, the Queen of the May, the blessed damozel of delight. If her brains matched her beauty, she would be unbeatable.
Arturo, dressed courtesy of Country and Western Fan at Oxfam gives us his impression of a Hopi tribal warrior. A performance, which is deeply indebted to John Travolta and 70's disco movies. Sunday Afternoon Fever.
Meanwhile, I am celebrating the start of a better Oxford for which I have already set the wheels in motion. "There is no wealth but life" says Ruskin as he sets out to build a better world with his undergraduate help. "Life is but a dream, therefore there is no wealth but dreams", say I remembering how to prove things from my school algebra classes. I have dreamed my enterprising ancestor into action to give his endeavours success and now I can actually see the Ruskin Road stretching picturesquely from South Hinksey to the centre of Oxford. It winds through a still rural setting, a delightfully unhurried route into the centre of the city. It is the start of my Oxford Cockaigne, my perfect vision of Oxford. The road is ready and coming along it I can see the inaugural procession coming towards us - there is Poll and the original Johnny Frenchman. If I can see them, I can join them. Laughing, I skip down the hill and charge onto the road to join in the celebration. Bounding towards my great great grandfather, I jump for joy, I leap to laughter, I dance with delight. Suddenly there is a loud roar and the face of John Ruskin rushes towards me, red and enraged. He crashes into me yelling "Devil!"
I Dream of James Sadler
I am standing in Christ Church Meadows and above me the fire balloon of James Sadler rises into the sky. Mr Sadler, with Firmness and Intrepidity, ascends in a vertical direction to 3,600 feet. In his elevated situation he perceives no Inconvenience; and being disengaged from all terrestrial Things, he contemplates a most charming distant view.
After floating for nearly half an hour, the flying pastry chef, whose business is in The High, descends and lands on a small Eminence between Islip and Wood Eaton, about 6 miles away.
A wondrous enterprise successfully achieved by the powers of chemistry.
This is the form of air travel in the land of Cockaigne. The sky has room for lots of balloons, large and small. The road has room for pedestrians, bicycles and horses.
The railways will run safely, often, fast and free.
Behold my integrated transport policy.
When I wake up, I am in a room at the top of the John Radcliffe Hospital. As my vision swims into focus, I see that Arturo and Angelica are sitting by my bedside. John Ruskin is standing a little further back - he smiles at me apologetically. Young Jerome cycles past me on a penny farthing and disappears down the corridor, singing:
“Leigh Hunt knew my father. My father knew Leigh Hunt.”
A nurse comes up to me and a doctor is summoned. Arturo, Angelica and John Ruskin are sent away. Evidently, I am unwell. I feel terrible. William Morris in a white coat comes in. accompanied by a nurse dressed up like Florence Nightingale. He's aged 30 years since I saw him riding by the castle mound. Now he's got a long white beard It takes me a moment before I realize that he is supposed to be the doctor.
"Lie still" he tells me, unnecessarily, as I cannot move. "You've had an accident. You're all right now although you have been badly concussed so you may be a little confused. Mind you, your friend Angelica, tells me you're usually confused so, you never know, maybe you'll see things clearer now. Nurse, he'll probably need some more soft furnishings."
The nurse goes off and I struggle to talk to Morris.
"Don’t try to talk, old chap" he says "You've had a nasty shock. You need a little rest. We can carry on without you for a bit. Ruskin and I can pretty much handle everything between us, from wallpaper to roads." Before I can protest, the nurse comes back with an elaborately embroidered bedspread, which she puts over me, propping my head up on some embroidered cushions. Then she pulls a white screen across at the bottom of the bed, clicks a switch and a slide saying "The South Coast Amusement Company Welcomes You To The Land of Cockaigne" is projected onto the screen. A small dapper gent in a trilby hat and fashionable grey suit appears, pulls out a pointer and clears his throat.
"Welcome to this evening's lecture" he says "Cockaigne in the medieval world is where life is ideal, work is forbidden and food and drink appear spontaneously. This imaginary land where ragged trousered philanthropists…" but I am asleep. I dream of nowhere. When I wake up I see daisies on the wallpaper.
The hospital seems to have become Victorian overnight, even though it wasn't built until about 30 years ago. The doctors and nurses all appear in 19th century costume and, more worryingly, seem to have a distinctly 19th century knowledge of medicine.. I could cope with this but what worries me is that the hospital equipment all looks decidedly Victorian too. I know the NHS is short of funds but I don't fancy my chances with the devices that I see around me. It doesn't make my headache any better.
William Morris comes over to examine me. "How's your head?" he asks me
"Aching" I reply, truthfully.
"Try looking at the wallpaper" he suggests. "It’s a pattern of my own design: Daisy. The yellow background is very soothing. The dye is also of my own manufacture, made by boiling poplar twigs."
A young undergraduate comes bounding up. “Good Morning” he says, smiling at me.
“Tollers is the name. Word on the street is that you’ve been hit by a bus. Nothing to do with me I hope.”
I look at him in some bemusement and he hastens to explain.
“Fact is we had a bit of fun ragging the town last night. Geoffrey and I captured a bus and drove it up to Cornmarket making various unearthly noises followed by a mad crowd of mingled varsity and townies. It was chockfull of undergrads before I reached the Carfax. There I addressed a few stirring words to a huge mob before descending and removing to the “maggers memugger” or the Martyr’s Memorial where I addressed the crowd again. You won’t tell the Vigger Chagger will you?”
Seeing that this explanation is making my headache more, he comes to a considerate stop.
“I say, have you had any brekker?” he asks “Here I am boring you with my pragger jogger and you may be starving for all I know.”
“I’m sorry” I say. “I can’t understand a word you say. You might as well be speaking Elvish for all the sense that it makes to me.”
“Elvish “ he says, pulling an elegant vellum notebook out of his pocket and making a note in it. “What a splegger idegger. I say that isn’t William Morris over there is it?”
I indicate that it is and my young companion dashes off at last.
“Mr Morris, I’m Ronald Tolkien” he says in a deferential and sensible tone.
“I’m working on the letter “W” for the Oxford Dictionary and it would be a great honour to talk to you about “The Well at the Worlds End” and also the meaning of “Work.”
Angelica comes in. She's dressed in Victoriana too, in a long silk dress with an enormous bustle. She looks stunning.
"You've been in the wars" she tells me. "What possessed you to do it?"
"To do what?" I ask. My mind is a little hazy.
"To dash across the Botley Road like that. We couldn’t stop you and the bus driver never even saw you. You ran straight in front of his bus. We thought you'd had it"
"I wasn't on the Botley Road" I say and then I stop. Angelica is sweet but a little slow and explaining Cockaigne and the sudden appearance of the Ruskin Road to her is going to be too much effort. My head is aching so much that it doesn’t occur to me to ask her why she is dressed as she is. Johnny Frenchman, who has come in while I have not been looking, winks at me and goes out again. A moment later the nurse comes in and stops Angelica in mid-protestation. "Time he got some rest" she says and Angelica has to go again. After she leaves, Johnny comes back and pulls up a chair. "I think its time you and I had a little talk." he says
"Aren’t you just my imagination?" I enquire
"What a question to ask of your great great grandfather. Its time I gave you a piece of my mind" He replies. I am powerless to shut him up. I close my eyes and try to ignore him, but he drones on, forcing me to listen "You have over-reached yourself young Johnny" he says, addressing me like a naughty ten year old. "Cockaigne is not something that you can create so easily. It requires a lot more effort than you realize to sustain an alternative reality. And to keep a whole road in existence is going to tie up enormous energy. But then, one little road is not going to bring to life all your dreams by any means. And even for those that it will, you need to give it time, time to let the right ideas flow into the city and enrich it.. Take my advice, don't over-reach yourself. Give all these ideas of yours a rest. And now I must leave you for I have an absinthe delivery to make to Mr Ruskin"
"He was here" I shout or try to, but it is too late - my great great grandfather has left.
The man in the next bed is also keen to talk to me. "Well, you've caused quite a stir" he says "I hope you've learned your lesson. You gave the poor bus driver quite a shock. He's in another ward, under observation. I expect he'll be along to see you soon - he came before while you were still unconscious. You owe him a big apology."
"Does he look like John Ruskin?" I ask
"No, more like Walter Pater" says my companion and then he looks puzzled. That's funny I didn’t know who Walter Pater was when I came in here. Yet, now I know that he tutored Oscar Wilde and wrote "Studies in the History of Renaissance". I even know that he withdrew the conclusion from the Second Edition and I could speculate for an hour or so on the reasons why although God knows why anyone would be interested. Maybe I'm suffering from concussion or something myself. Found myself listening to Radio 3 this morning and enjoying it. That's never happened before. I'd better have a little rest". He lies down on the bed and soon slips into a gentle snoring. He is back in the land of dreams.
James Whistler comes past, carrying an old woman, dressed in black and grey who he seats in a chair across the room from me, where she sits looking impassively towards something to the left of me.
"Have you met my Study In Grey and Black?" he asks me. Then he catches sight of someone coming in from the corridor and goes off hurriedly, leaving his mother behind, still staring to the left of me.
William Holman Hunt appears with what looks like the winning entry in the Victorian beard of the day competition and hangs “The Light of the World” on the wall opposite me where the figure stands looking at me.
“Jesus Christ!” I exclaim in surprise.
“Indeed” he remarks, affably. “You’ll be doing me a great service if you look after him for me as I fear Keble are neglecting the painting shamefully.”
Jesus Christ walks over to me with his lantern.
“Can I get you a cup of tea?” he asks, with concern and when I stammer out a refusal he smiles at me, places a hand on my forehead, blesses me and returns to his place in Holman Hunt’s painting where he continues to hold his lantern which now serves as a night-lamp for the ward. I don’t have the heart to tell him that his blessing will do me no good as I am an atheist.
John Ruskin comes in. This time I am prepared for him and I understand that he may be impersonating a bus driver. And so it proves:
"Strewth, you gave me quite a shock, Guvnor and no messing" he says in a breezy Cockney accent. This sounds unconvincing, even to me, so he has another go.
"Oi what the f*** were you doing running under my bus like that?,"
I grunt an apology and he becomes more conciliatory, taking a chair.
"That's all right. The doctor tells me you’re going to be ok. You've had a lucky escape. Gave me quite a shock I can tell you."
He looks around. My friendly neighbour appears to be asleep as do both Whistler’s mother and the Light of the World who remain immobile. The NHS is as short-staffed as usual: there are no nurses or doctors in sight.
"Matter of fact" he says, conspiratorially, "I think I'm still suffering from some sort of hallucinogenic false-memory. Just before I knocked you down, I thought I saw something. You didn’t see it did you?"
"See what?" I croak, with reason.
"Er, like a procession of some-sort."
"What acrobats, jugglers, clowns and the like?
"Yes" he says quickly. "What the hell was going on?"
"Cockaigne" I reply
"I don’t touch that stuff" He says. "They tested me for everything. I was clean"
"No not drugs. A fantasy world. You saw into my fantasy world" I say. I am getting excited, this means that it does have a reality, other people can see it. I can create my Oxford Cockaigne. My great great grandfather is a fool. I've only just begun to see what I can do. Dream on.
"Get real" Ruskin says "What was going on?"
"The Ruskin Road" I say "It was the opening of the Ruskin Road"
"But the Ruskin Road was an ill-fated social experiment that John Ruskin tried with a few undergraduates in South Hinksey in 1874. It never came to anything" He breaks off, puzzled "How did I know that?" he asks "I must be iller than I thought. I'd better get back to my ward and lie down" He goes off humming Beethoven's Ninth Symphony.
My friendly neighbour is awake and friendly again:
"Good to see some English faces in here" he says "This place is crammed full of damn foreigners, scrounging off the NHS - even the doctors - asylum seekers the lot of them I imagine."
"Funny you should say that" I say, but of course it isn't. If he could he'd build a wall around himself inside the ward. He's already built one in his brain. I need to escape into sleep and a saner world. Its time for me to go to sleep and dream of a better past. William Morris comes back in to look at me and gives me another embroidered cushion. He smiles at me. "Dream nothing that is not beautiful or useful" he says but it is too late. I am already slipping away, the last thing on my mind is the image of my hospital neighbour building his wall - his personal Cutteslowe Wall to exclude the world…
I dream of Hope
I am standing near the Cutteslowe Walls and above me a red kite hovers and soars.
Below it, there is a crowd gathering, watching the barren and ugly wall stretched out across the road, dividing the social classes. Jude Fawley strides up and, picking up a piece of chalk, writes:
"I have understanding as well as you: I am not inferior to you: yea, who knoweth not such things as these?"
He disappears with a roar of approval from the crowd ringing in his ears.
In front of me the empty road stretches out. But not for long. Coming round the bend, gathering speed is a tank. Standing at the top, waving from the turret, is an old lady.
The crowd scrambles out of the way as she comes roaring through, crashing straight into the wall, smashing through it, scattering bricks and dust. The road is clear. The crowd cheer. My father is telling us a tale of the Cutteslowe Wall:
1934:The First Brick In The Wall
Its 1934 and I'm ten. I'm not a precocious child. I guess I'm slightly backward for my age. Now that's a first. Someone who wasn't more than average as a child. I'm the one who balances out all those child prodigies you normally read about. The ones marked out as extraordinary from an early age. Me, I’m ordinary. So ordinary that I’m below the average curve. Happy little street urchin me. Not like John Ruskin. Here's what his father wrote to him when he was ten years old:
"The Latin being somewhat difficult I am astonished at your understanding it so well & writing so like a Classic Author. You are blessed with a fine Capacity and even Genius and you owe it as a Duty to the author of your Being and the giver of your Talents to cultivate your powers and to use them in his Service and for the benefit of your fellow Creatures."
Here's what my father yells at me when I am ten:
"Oi, Johnny! Stop playing in the mud and come and wash yer hands before dinner."
I am a child of the slums. My playmates have been condemned buildings and piles of filth. Raised in a slum with a drunken father, I have learned early to duck.
Life for me has been improving recently. It starts one night when there is a knock at the door of the tenement that my Father and I share with too many other people to count.
A knock at that door is in itself unusual, for it provides no effective barrier to the outside world. Most people just shoulder their way through the rotting hinges.
I am playing my usual game of fighter pilot on the sagging stairs so I have a good view of what happens next. No one answers the door – the only strangers that come here are debt collectors or worse. Various people are already escaping out the back. The knock is repeated and repeatedly ignored. Then the door is pushed open and a smell enters the house. This is unprecedented. This house is already overfilled with odours, crammed beyond bursting so that when the door opens any unsuspecting stranger is assailed by the stench escaping outwards – in itself this has allowed several inhabitants time to escape the preliminary visits of their oppressors. Anyone living in the house soon builds up immunity to the many, but all unpleasant, stenches that make the air fetid and often visible inside. For a smell to permeate from outside to my position on the stairs is a magical event. And this is not just one smell but a whole symphony of smells, none of which are unpleasant – at least not in the league of the house smells. There is a smell of mothballs, perfumes, flowers, the countryside, rain, lemon, old age, balm, cinnamon, tea, plums, horses, horse-mint, cooking. A smell of innocence and experience, hope and despair, reason and insanity. A smell of peace and a smell of pease pudding. A smell of smells. Through this envelope of scent, a tall bundle of black clothes enters. For a moment it seems that it is the clothes themselves that are alive. A black bonnet, a black cloak underneath which is a black jacket enclosing a black blouse and a long black skirt flounced out through lots of black petticoats, a black scarf, black gloves, black boots. One of the black gloves reaches up and unwinds the black scarf from around the bonnet and suddenly a very white, pale, old face appears – almost dazzling in its contrast with the blackness of its protective clothing.. A tall old woman – in itself a rarity in this house – most people do not expect to reach such an age, and the few that do are bowed and stooped by trouble a long time before they reach the 60 or so years that this woman appears to carry. Most striking of all about her though is that her left ear has a piece missing from it, looking as if she has had an encounter with one of the hounds of hell that have been haunting my dreams recently.
Smells can be deceptive. I am overcome by a sense of evil and shrink back against the stairs,
“I’m looking for Johnny English” She announces to the house and to a few faces peering round doorways – ready to join the exodus from the back if it turns out that there are persecutors they weren’t expecting.
I hug the stairs waiting to see what will happen next – is this the bogey man’s wife?
My father appears from the back of the tenement, accompanied by his usual bottle of stout. “Oh, its you is it?” he says to the woman, clearly not pleased to see her..
“I’ve come for the boy” she says and I climb up another 3 stairs to the landing, wondering if my dreams have been truer than I realized.
“And what’s he worth?” asks my father, taking another long pull at his bottle.
“Little enough to you. That’s clear. I can offer him a decent home.”
“And he can offer me one. Those damn meddlers at the Council are giving us a nice new house. We should be out of here within the week. So, I value the lad highly. He’s my son.”
“Maybe. But you’re no father”
“And you’re no mother, you damn witch” My fears confirmed, I creep up the remaining stairs. I don’t hear what happens next and I don’t come down until I’m sure she’s gone.
“Who was that woman who came here?” I ask my father the next morning, judging it to be his soberest time.
“That was no woman. That was the mother in law” he says and laughs at his own joke – just as well as I have no idea what he is talking about. However, it is folly to persist in questioning my father for more reasons than one and as he does not explain further, I have to let the matter drop – wondering vaguely if this is some legal representative appointed to replace my own dear dead mother. As it turns out, I am sort of right, although it will be some time before I realize this.
For a few days after this, life continues as normal – in so far as life in that house can be considered normal and there are no further occurrences of pleasant smells or threatening women – there are plenty of threatening men but their threats are directed at other occupants of the house and that too is perfectly normal. I have to put up with the usual cuffs and slaps from my father, but again this is normal. All is the same with no hope of change for the better.
Then, one morning my father tells me to get my things together. This too is normal for to outrun my father’s creditors means to change each squalid tenement for a more squalid tenement whenever told. to. It is not a task that takes long.
He leads me outside and we walk down to the bottom of the road. There is a little group of us there – I recognize a few of my father’s drinking companions and their families but when I ask him what is going on he cuffs me round the ear and tells me to mind my business.
A while later a Council truck pulls up and my father lifts me and my belongings into the back. He and several others climb in too. The lorry sets off through the streets and goes north along the Banbury road. This is not an area of Oxford that I know. It is where the rich people live. The houses along the side of the road are the size of castles. I start to dream that my royal blood has been discovered and that I am about to be restored to my rightful place as King of Oxford. Outside No 78 Banbury Road, we almost collide with an old gentleman with a long white beard riding an antiquated tricycle.
"Father Christmas is staring early this year" laughs my father as he takes a furtive swig from his bottle. I watch as the old gentleman flies into the air on his tricycle, climbing high into the sky above us. Something comes flickering out of his pocket and weaves through the air sailing into the back of the lorry just above me. I reach out my hand and catch it. It is just a slip of paper. On it is written at the top: "James Murray's "Too Good To Hurry" Dictionary" and then underneath in Capital Letters the word "Bondmaid" and underneath that a number of quotations and definitions which mean little to me. However, I cannot afford to ignore portents from above so I put the slip into my pocket, hoping that that for once the next Christmas brings me something a little more useful to a boy of ten.
While I am doing this, the houses start to dwindle and become more recognizable as homes of ordinary mortals. The road starts to leave the town behind and then we turn right through a street of ordinary houses. My dreams have to be revised downwards. Still, even these houses are palaces compared to the slums we have come from. We pull up outside an enormous house of 2 storeys with apparently several different entrances.
An officious man comes round to the side of the van:
“English,” He calls out
“Here, Guv” replies my father, no trace of his usual surliness in his tone.
“No 35 is yours” says the man, and my father lifts me over the side of the lorry and drops me. I fall onto the road and pick myself up, dusting off my bruises as a small avalanche of my possessions falls around me. My father jumps down.
“Where’s Mrs English” demands the official and I open my mouth to tell him but a discrete kick from my father convinces me to leave the explanations to him.
“She’s had to visit her sick sister, Guv. I’ll fetch her here later”
“Well see that she’s here when the Housing Officer comes round. Or we’ll be evicting you before you’ve got your feet under the carpet.
Here, hurry up we’ve got a lot of you to process today” – and he strides off around the side of the house, followed by my father. By the time I’ve gathered up my possessions, cheered on by some of the people in the truck, and staggered on up the path behind them he is already on the way back. The door slams behind him and resists my attempts to open it. It is at least half an hour before my father lets me in.
The house is unbelievably large when I get the chance to explore. Even when I discover that it is actually 4 houses joined together and we live in the one at the end, I am not put out. There is a room at the front, downstairs which I am immediately told I will not be allowed into and then another room at the back and a kitchen. Behind that is the toilet which looks unimaginably luxurious. Upstairs, there are 3 bedrooms, the smallest of which is mine. It is only after waiting several hours that I ask when the other families will be arriving and my father finds this so funny that he has a good laugh.
“Its all ours, Johnny me boy” he roars out. “Just you and me.”
“And Mother too?” I ask and his good mood evaporates. He cuffs me round the ear again.
But I don’t really care. I escape outside to explore my kingdom. For the following few hours I am happy.
Just past the house, protected by an inadequate fence across the end of the road is a building site to explore. The Urban Housing Estate is building better homes for my betters. An area that is easy to slip into. Slum kids are free. Slum kids don’t care.
The next day, the kingdom is invaded. My father goes out early and when he returns he is not alone. The door opens and before I see them, I smell her. The wizened old witch comes through the door, my father behind her carrying bags which he drops unceremoniously in the small hall. I run up the stairs but it is too late – she has seen me.
“Come here Johnny” she commands and I have to obey. She bends towards me and I brace myself for whatever torture is coming my way. The torrent of different smells enfolds me and embraces me, lulling me into passivity like a hypnotized prey. She attacks my cheek with her lips and there is a wet slithering as she sucks out my soul into her mouth.
“I am your grandmother” she says. “I was your mother’s mother. I’m here to claim you.”
“Please, don’t hurt me” I say and receive another cuff from my father for my pains.
“No one’s going to hurt yer, yer little ruffian” he says “Your Nana Hope is here to look after you and make sure you turn out a credit to her slut of a daughter. An old crone looking after a young fool. Hope, the lad is a bit simple – must take after your side of the family - so you’ll have to cuff any sense into him. Now, the kitchen is through there. I’ll have a cup of tea,” and he goes into the forbidden front room.
"If he wants tea, he'll be making it himself" Nana Hope remarks crossly to the wallpaper. "I'm nobody's bondmaid."
I recognize the word from my magic slip of paper and gasp with surprise. I am about to run upstairs to my room to examine it again, to see if there is anything to connect it to Nana Hope but she is too quick for me. She bends down and enfolds me in a bewildering tangle of smells and cloth.
“Its all right, Johnny.” She says “You’re safe now.” She is right but I don’t feel it and as soon as I can I escape outside, leaving another examination of the paper-slip until later. I spend the next few days outside as much as possible, exploring my territory until I come to realize that Nana Hope is not going to harm me, that I have nothing to fear from her living with us..
Rambling around in the open country near the new house after a storm a few days after moving in, I come across an abandoned bird’s nest lying at the bottom of a tree. In the nest is a baby bird. I scoop it up and take it home. There is a shed in the garden where I keep it. I feed it on scraps and, amazingly, it survives. It grows strong and healthy and it grows up with a bond to me. When it is strong enough I release it, and it flies off, but it often returns, not least for the scraps that I provide it.
And then one day, they bring in the builders. They start to build a wall across my street.