Posted by Simon Parke, 24 March 2017, 6.00am
I’m back in Oxford.
I’m here for an interview with Radio Oxford. And we’ll be talking about my new historical novel, ‘The soldier, the gaoler, the spy and her lover.’
This is the idea at least, but you never quite know with interviewers. They will go where they want.
Oxford has its own history of course and as I walk from the station up the Banbury Road, I realise some of it is mine.
I was a student here at the end of the 1970’s.
I was turned down by my first choice college, St John’s.
I’d been told they were ‘good for history’ but they didn’t become part of mine…or only their rejection letter, the first of many I’ve gathered down the years.
But they did tell me I’d been accepted by St Edmund Hall, another college and apparently ‘good for rugby’.
And on arrival, I went along for a university training session, having been pretty handy as a scrum half at school.
My handiness met its match, however.
I needed to be at least five stone heavier (and probably a foot taller).
I was hammered in a relentless onslaught and spent the next twenty-four hours lying on my bed in my little student room drinking condensed milk from a can.
To this day, I don’t know why…but I didn’t feel well.
I was better with words…and rage.
And it was in Oxford I started, with my friend Nick Newman, the satirical magazine ‘Passing Wind.’
Nick has gone on to a super-successful cartooning career in the Sunday Times and many other publications and now has a West End play about to appear ‘The Wipers Times’.
How good is that?
And of course we gave a large leg-up to Ian Hislop who has similarly shone. He took over the editorship of Passing Wind and went straight from there to the helm of Private Eye.
Have you ever felt left behind by friends?...
But seeds were sown in Oxford, good seeds.
My Special Subject for my history degree was political change in England 1640 – 1660, (Charles, Cromwell, Pride’s Purge and all that) tutored by the excellent Blair
Worden - then a young research fellow, now a world authority.
And forty years on – as one stumbling unknowingly through the mists of time - my novel of the era appears.
And then there was my spiritual awakening in Oxford, which changed my direction…probably the single most significant event in my life.
And nothing happened.
Or at least nothing to report, apart from waking one morning – after despair the night before – with an inner experience of freedom and oneness with the world.
It was not like anything I’d glimpsed before; nor how I had ever been.
For the next two days, so energised was I, I could only run around the town. I couldn’t walk.
It was happiness unknown, delight unknown…and if this was God, God was good.
Down the years, and without my knowing, the church dulled both those gifts to me.
They didn’t fit into the religious narrative of the institutional church, which tends, as do all institutions, to prefer rules over freedom and to promote labels over
This is why institutions can never be the flame-keepers for us.
By nature, they are too boundaried.
But the Oxford candle, so strangely and quietly lit, never quite went out.
And of course I returned to the city (after some time in London) to train for the priesthood.
Theological College in the shape of Wycliffe Hall was a pretty good intimation of the hell I didn’t believe in.
How I managed to hold onto God amid the emotionally-stunted wankery that is called theological education (it may be better now?) and the insecure church
groupings taking pot shots at each other – well, only heaven knows.
But I also started married life here in Oxford, in two upstairs rooms in kind Mrs Bowdler’s house on the Marston Ferry Road.
I pause by the windows on my walk to the interview.
And it was also in Oxford our first child, Chloe, was born. I remember I sprinted out of some ‘very important exam’ to be there for the birth.
So yes, many memories as I walk from Oxford station up Banbury Road for my appointment with Radio Oxford.
Inside, the receptionist, discovering I live near the place, asks me about suicides at Beachy Head.
The day before, she’d read of two twins from Yorkshire throwing themselves over holding their parents’ ashes.
She tells me she’d probably do it sitting in a car, exhaust fumes, ‘it’s like going to sleep.’
I take these images with me into the studio, where the cheery, banter-filled presenter, who clearly hasn’t looked at the book, wants to talk with me about writing for
Spitting Image while being a priest.
He finds it odd, not quite right.
But I don’t find it odd at all. I say that the two always sat quite happily together inside me.
‘Satire is a one-trick pony – but it’s an important trick. It exposes nonsense, dismantles power. And good religion will expose nonsense as well. Religion is part
of the madness, of course, but good religion will know its own madness and expose it in others. Jesus did quite a lot of exposing and if there’s a God in heaven, I’d imagine he’d be pretty keen on that continuing. It is a holy calling to expose nonsense.’
We do get to the book in the end…the book he probably hasn’t looked at.
Fortunately, I have.
Later, I get on the train back to London. It pulls out of the station towards Reading, Slough, Paddington… and away from Oxford.
I leave a lot of myself behind, I realise that now.
But until today, I don’t think I’d appreciated quite how much…