November 4th, 2007


Pred but dreaming

Since the beginning of this term I've been singing with Pembroke College choir, where I sang for (most of) four years as an undergraduate. I hadn't planned to go back to my alma mater, partly because I've never really felt that way about the place, and partly because I thought it would seem a bit odd -- trying to turn back the clock, if you like, and relive my student days. But when I came to look through all the colleges' websites to find information about their choirs, Pembroke's seemed to be one of the most welcoming to 'outsiders' like myself. I decided it would be just as silly to avoid the old place as it would have been to have had my heart set on going back there, so I decided to go for it.

It has been odd, being somewhere familiar (my feet still know their way around the college) and yet strange (so many things have changed just a little, just enough). I try to avoid saying "when I was here" and "in my day" and all the other things that would make me feel older than I already do, confronted with wide-eyed freshers, world-weary second-years, and nervous finalists (though I do still get asked what year I'm in and whether I'm a fresher); but I can't help spotting the trivial differences, wondering when the choir started being allowed to use Broadgates Hall for its mid-rehearsal coffee and cake, wondering when the wheelchair ramp was put in by Staircase 8, wondering when those ugly statues were moved from the back quad to the second quad.

It's not that I feel that nothing should have changed, it's just... differences. It's like going back to my parents' house and finding, each time, that they've changed one more thing. That they've bought a new bed, or redecorated the dining room, or moved that bookcase from the hall to the computer room, which isn't really the computer room any more anyway now that we all have laptops and the oversized Mac G3 is now in our house, by which I mean "mine and Owen's", not "my family's"... and eventually "me and Owen" will become "my family", my immediate family, and "our parents" will become a separate thing from that. It's hard, sometimes, to remember what "we" and "our" mean. What I mean when I say "I've left it at home". I've left a lot of things at home, and carried a lot of other things with me from house to house, city to city.

It's been strange being back in OUCS, too, where again, things have changed and remained the same; it's odd to find myself standing in the office which used to be the late-access computer room, talking as one member of staff to another, knowing that at some point 10 years ago or thereabouts a younger version of myself was sitting at a computer in this room, not really feeling as though I was in the room at all but rather in an IRC channel, a place where I could hide from people and college and essays and stress. They've -- we've? -- recently refurbished the help centre; it looks so utterly different that I'd have barely recognised the place, but the structure of the building is the same. I've said goodbye to teenage skin (both its acne and its elasticity) but it's the same bones underneath.

(The confusion doubled back on itself, another layer of reference back, when I bumped into anat0010 in the help centre the other day. I'm always baffled when people object to the "meaningless" user IDs. These user IDs were -- and are -- my friends: scat0173, hert0145, scat0324, univ0555 and univ0556, anat0010, 'famous' people like mert0034 and mert0108 and math0001. They're as meaningful to me as ordinary names. Though I might draw the line at giving my children sable/herald user IDs as middle names. But I digress.)

I knew that coming back to Oxford would have this effect, but I said (and you're probably tired of hearing me say it) that I'd got over my relationship with Oxford enough now that I felt I could be friends with the place again. I think that was -- and is -- true; I know this city too well in too many different ways for it to have the same old hold on me now. I don't feel lost each time its seasons change; the new terms roll in and out like the mists across Marston cyclepath. I'm still attached to the place, but it can't wrap me round its spires any more. A quad is just a quad; a bridge is just a sigh.

Think how many pages have been written in and about Oxford, word upon word, covering the city in leaves like an eternal autumn. If a city could think, would it know that it was the same place underneath, would it see the paper beneath the palimpsest? If a city could speak, perhaps Oxford would look at me and say "how you've grown".