I came across this photograph when surfing idly on the Net the other day. Sometimes I allow myself to zone out whilst trawling the Web. I let my subconscious take over, guide me down subliminal paths, use Google to search my own mind. So the picture appeared on my screen as a surprise.
I instantly felt the sweep of those fields, the way that the sun would luxuriate over them in its setting, allowing the stubble to turn the same umber as the buildings before finally allowing night with its lazy bats to fall with a thump. My grandparents lived in the shadow of the tower in the distance and I used to visit them almost every holiday. Seven or eight years old I would wander through the empty rooms of the long L-shaped house, imagining myself a Renaissance Prince, a Romantic dandy, a second world war soldier on the run. Or I’d curl up on the swing chair in the garden and read – PG Wodehouse, Enid Blyton, Stephen King… I devoured books on that fusty cushioned chair with its dog hairs and creaking. And in the way that the mind sometimes brings these things back to us, I feel myself in that chair sometimes now when I’m lost in a book, when I am truly given up to the pleasure of reading. I was on the Tube the other day reading Georges Perec’s Life – A User’s Manual and I suddenly found myself sitting on that chair again, and the creaking of the train was the squeaking of the rusty swing.
I remember one morning waking very early in Italy. It was my last day of holiday and my aunt would be driving me to the airport the next morning. I walked out into the fresh morning air, down the steps and into the orchard. There, pecking and preening at the foot of an olive tree, were three hoopoes.
I sat and watched as they kicked at the dusty ground, rising and lowering their extraordinary crests. I was very young, but I remember thinking: “I will miss this”. And it is very rare that even as adults we are aware enough of our good times to really savour them, to hold our world carefully in our minds to protect it from the degradation of fading memory. So I stood there until the morning woke around me, and I felt the nostalgia building even as the hoopoes rose into the thickening air.
Years later I was walking down New College Lane after finals, having wasted my time at Oxford utterly, made a mess of my exams and frittered away the extraordinary opportunities that had landed in my lap there. And the same feeling came to me. I imagined myself into the London future that awaited me, and how I would look back on the boy who walked down New College Lane and envy him his youth and the luxury of his melancholy. And, as I turned under the Bridge of Sighs, I imagined I saw three hoopoes scratching on the cobbles of Radcliffe Square.