Re-visiting York: And there came raiders from the sea

I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.

We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).

York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)

We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.

The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.

After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”

With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:

His virtues were equal to his descent;

By abilities he was formed for publick,

By inclination determined to private life…

He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,

In friendship sincere, in domestick relation

The best husband, the most indulgent father.

His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.

Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.

On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)


Beginning-of-life crisis (or, You’re not a freak)

Although the Duchess (who’s seen me through many, many weepy outbursts) will tell you otherwise, I’m pretty good at hiding my existential terror from most people. If I don’t live with you, chances are, you think I’m completely okay. If I know you from around college, and you’ve asked me what my plans for next year are, I guarantee you I’ve given you some form of the following: “Well, I’d like to go into academia, but I need to earn some money to pay my way through postgraduate degrees, so I’m taking a year out to work in Oxford–I’ve signed a lease on a house with four friends–and I’ll apply for an M.St. next January.”

I almost certainly have not mentioned to you the following things:

a) I’ve already applied for that M.St., this past January. I didn’t get in. So, yeah, I need some cash, but I don’t really have a choice about it either. And, yeah, that makes me feel like a pretty big failure.

b) I’m terrified about the implications of that failure. The course I applied for is one of the most oversubscribed around (English lit 1550-1700), but what if that’s not the major reason? What if I actually cannot do the thing that I have spent my whole life believing I will do, the only thing that I have ever felt in any way good at or qualified for? And what if, when I apply again next year (to more than one university this time), it still doesn’t work? I mean, when might it be time to give up?

c) I’m terrified about next year. It’s not because I fear the world of work: I’ve worked before, all through high school and the summer after first year at Exeter, at the bookshop. But I got that job when I was fifteen, and my dad had been such a loyal customer there, how the hell could they not have hired me? (He bought me a book every Friday after I turned two. Every Friday. At primary school we had to do a counting worksheet where we counted things like how many stairs there were in our house, but also how many books we had. I don’t know if we were meant to count our own personal libraries or our parents’ books, but I did the former, and I had something like one hundred and thirty-five. You want to know why I did an English degree, that’s why. Thanks, Dad!) I mean, I turned out to be good at the job, but I don’t seriously believe that I actually got it because of my innate competence.

I’m terrified about next year because seriously what if I can’t find a job. I’ve already given up on doing anything “career-enhancing”: first of all, what does that even mean when you want a career in academia? Most people don’t use research assistants these days (thanks, Internet) and I’m pretty sure the ones who do don’t exactly pay them a living wage. And secondly, there don’t appear to be any “real” jobs in Oxford for someone who’s just finished a B.A. The closest thing I could find was a graduate traineeship in Jesus College library, which fell through (whatever, as if I wanted to be picking up the phone and going “Hello, this is Jesus” twelve times a day. Except I did. I totally did! Wouldn’t you?)

So I’ve been submitting my CV to cafes and trying to think things like: “This is fine, I can get a job or two waitressing somewhere, make some money through tips, and have a little time to focus on writing poetry, articles, maybe getting them published, doing some general reading–all the stuff I haven’t been able to do for three years.”

Which is a good mental strategy but only gets you so far. Because there’s that back corner of my brain that isn’t as tiny as I’d like it to be, and it keeps saying things like this: “So, what, you got a degree from Oxford? What’s that degree doing for you at the moment? You think you’re smart? Oh, okay. You must just be misunderstood, I guess. Especially by the graduate selection committee. What a shame.”

That corner of my brain is an asshole. I know this. Unfortunately, it’s a rhetorically gifted asshole. It is a modern-day Cicero, if you will. It is frequently very convincing.

Anyway, I don’t have a tidy moral lesson or a particularly happy ending for this post, I’m afraid. Fundamentally, of course, I have faith that things will turn out all right. In a way not quite religious but somewhat uncanny, I have been thinking, right from the moment of rejection, that this was meant to happen. Something out there–circumstance, if you don’t believe in anything else–wants me to have a year to explore my own life, before I go back to the rhythms of studying. But I am still really scared. I’m afraid that I won’t get a job, but I’m also afraid that if I do, this one year off will turn into two, then three, then a lifetime. That I’m signing up for a life of anxious mediocrity.

I think maybe it’s useful to let other people know that you can be scared. I keep feeling like a failure–as a Finalist, as a student, as an adult human being–for not having the thrilled anticipation that everyone else seems to have about the rest of their lives. There must be other people who feel the same trepidation. To you, fellow worriers, I have this to say: we are not failures. We will not be failures. We will be okay. It is all going to turn out right.

(But try not to drink alone too much. Really, that is too sad.)


…is, supposedly, the greatest feeling in the world.


Like most things that are supposedly great (nightclubs, Valentine’s Day and birthday parties spring irresistibly to mind, but I could think of more), it was never going to be able to live up to expectations.

Which isn’t to say that it was terrible. It was great to finish, great to scribble out one word at the bottom of an essay and write in a clarifying phrase just as the invigilator called time (rendering my handwriting shaky with adrenaline as well as cramp), great to throw down the pen for the last time and wait smugly for my script to be collected, great to walk down the stairs of the Exam Schools wearing a red carnation and smirking a little. It was great to have water thrown on me by my friends once I got back to college (although that took a long time, since I went to the bathroom and found, when I emerged, that the other English students had left without realizing that I wasn’t with them. Awkward.) It was great to have pasta afterwards. It was great to have two bottles of cava all to myself, have a disproportionately enthusiastic chat about Game of Thrones with another English finalist, tipsily crash the second-years’ Middle English class, lurk in the quad for the entire afternoon absorbing the resentment of everyone who hasn’t finished yet, devour a fajita, return home and watch an inebriated two episodes of How I Met Your Mother with Darcy before collapsing into bed. That was all wonderful. But it was also somehow deeply, unsettlingly weird.

I was given a balloon at some point after my trashing, and lost it within twenty-five minutes–I tried to tie it to a bench in the quad, and of course it floated away. I jumped for it but didn’t catch it, and off it went, its little blue body swaying drunkenly in the breeze (much as I was to do several hours later). Apparently, from the age of about three, I’ve always both had a talent for losing balloons and been utterly miserable about it (my mother told me this when I called her to reassure her that yes, I had finished, and no, I hadn’t fallen under a bus yet). But quite apart from this, it still made me feel ludicrously sad. This must happen to most people: reactions they know are out of proportion, but can’t do anything about. As the balloon went, so did most of the self-control which had (still has) prevented me from having a complete crack-up. I felt strangely weepy, and–in a stroke of brilliantly embarrassing behaviour–actually did cry, for about thirty seconds, in the front quad.

I’ve tried to rationalize this as the result of what, for lack of a more precise metaphor, could be called a very sudden loss of carbonation. For months I’ve been fizzing (simmering, maybe?) Every train of thought I’ve had has been subjected to interrogation; I’ve become accustomed to relentlessly examining my own opinions, trying to work out where they’re wrong or weak, or where they could go the extra mile and be really clever. This has rendered my thought processes infinitely (and irritatingly) self-conscious. And, although I have found that Oxford’s not nearly as  blatantly stress-inducing as other places appear to make their students–Harvard, for example, cultivates its own image as a hothouse of academic self-castigation, but I’ve never felt particularly pressurized by anyone other than myself here–a certain level of stress is inevitable. Still, since I’ve been my own harshest critic (as far as I know; possibly my tutors have just given up on me, but they’ve kept that to themselves if so), I couldn’t help thinking, and still think, that I should have been more unhappy, or at least more uncomfortable, while revising for Finals.

All of this may explain why the sudden disappearance of a balloon made me irrationally upset. Or why, when people keep asking me how I feel, I don’t quite know what to say (I’ve settled on “happy but directionless”, which keeps them content while still gesturing towards honesty).

However, I did go to the Trout yesterday afternoon with my aunt and uncle, who came down for a day visit, and the Duchess. It was sunny and we all had fish, which felt summery. My uncle was forced to order Pimm’s for me, my aunt and the Duchess, which he did with a sense of great shame and unmanliness (apparently Pimm’s is a sissy drink, perhaps because it has fruit in it). He tried to recover this with a large beer, which worked admirably. After lunch, we had a walk down by Godstow lock. Young cows wandered freely across the path, and we pointed them out to each other as well as the various buildings of Oxford’s skyline (we found Exeter chapel!) On the way back, another walker silently but excitedly pointed out a warren of baby bunnies, which appeared entirely unconcerned by people. We stalked them for several minutes, making squealing faces as they hopped about within a few feet of us. A boat was going through the lock as we came back, all blue and shiny silver. The woman standing on the prow called something to us as the boat descended, hard to make out, but we gathered that it was a houseboat, beautifully appointed and tidy. It seemed a particularly lovely evening, yesterday, for messing about in boats.

I need a sunburn

I know I promised not to freak out too much here, about revision or life in general, over the next few weeks, but it seems as though I frequently gloss over or ignore the less positive parts about being a student; I pretend they haven’t happened or I don’t write about them, and it doesn’t feel right sometimes, that sort of lying-by-omission. Oxford is wonderful and rewarding and it has probably saved my life, but it is also hard and exhausting, and if that hasn’t come through in the past few years’ worth of posts, it ought to come through, just a little bit, now. Here’s the truth of what’s happening now: I’m tired of this.

I’m tired of the weather. I’m tired of the chilly winds, the mild drizzle, above all the ceaseless greyness of the sky. I’m tired of not seeing the sun all day, of being woken only by the lightening of grey outside my window, of going through twelve hours that are like a prolonged dusk before the encroachment, in the evening, of darkness, that quality of light at six or seven o’clock in the afternoon that makes you feel the rest of the evening will be hopeless and makes you want to go to sleep immediately, without any dinner. I’m tired of trying to revise all day and not being able to do seven or eight solid hours and feeling as though I’m not doing enough because I so quickly reach the point where I can’t do anymore, can’t focus hard enough, where I’m simply forced to take a break. I’m tired of trying to watch what I eat and failing because I don’t want salads or sensible yogurts when it’s only ten or fifteen degrees above freezing and raining every day; I want sausages and potatoes and sticky toffee pudding instead, but they fill me with guilt and, because I’m a diabetic, that food makes it harder for me to concentrate and work well anyway. I’m tired of wanting to go outside every day but finding, when I get out, that it’s utterly unrewarding, because of the raw or stinging cold, a stiff breeze, dampness hanging uncharitably in the air. Above all, I am so bloody tired of winter.

I want last year’s spring back again. I want sunshine to be hot and golden on my back. I want the fields dense with tall green grass and dotted with sweet flowers. I want the blackthorn winter of white blossoms scattered so thickly upon hedges that it looks like snow. I want the delirious blue of the sky. I want the wink and glare of the sun setting on a clear day and lighting up the back garden. I want to be able to sit outside again with a cider or a G&T and read in the sun loungers. I want to wear dresses without tights. I want to go all day without feeling the need to consume pasta or bread or starch of any kind. I want to feel better.

Above all, I really want Finals to be over.

They haven’t even started.

A castle on a cloud

There’s a world in my head which is exactly like the real, everyday world, except it’s only the good bits. I am far too easily irritated–or not even irritated, just discouraged–by things that aren’t done properly. (It’s a family trait. My brother used to come home from school in a cloud of enraged misery because, oh, let’s say, a band concert that he was meant to be playing in was disorganized and underprepared. It’s the kind of thing that just happens in life, but we’re not the kind of people who can just shrug it off, or rather, we can but we need to have a mighty good bitch about it first.)

Consequently, whenever I see things done well, or whenever there’s a lovely day, or evening, or a good meal, or a wonderful conversation, they often go into a little file in my head, marked “Perfect World” (well, not actually, but sort of). If, for argument’s sake, there’s a heaven, and if it’s unique to each of us, these are the things that will go into mine.

Here’s my newsflash: I have found the Perfect World’s village shop.

Compton tea room


It’s in Compton, West Sussex. It’s actually a village shop/tea room (which probably explains much of my attraction.) The first half of it is the shop, with a magazine rack that contains not only four different magazines on field sports (two of which had virtually identical headlines, something along the lines of “Find and train the perfect gun dog!”), but also the Literary Review (with a cover article on Oscar Wilde biographies) and Private Eye. Along with chocolates, biscuits and crisps, the shop stocks a small but well-thought-out inventory of essentials: proper cheeses, local sausages and eggs, lavender and honey (also locally sourced), yoghurts both normal and Greek, esoteric juices (pear and raspberry) as well as apple and orange, two pestos, Nutella, sauces–basically, it’s everything that might at some point crop up in a recipe and make you think, “Oh, I need that, but I think we’ve run out.” They also sell fresh vegetables, and probably fruit in the summer, and baking essentials. Nothing is excessive, but nothing is missing. It is literally perfect.



The tea room is in an annexed room on the side, six or seven tables and a window overlooking the village square, pub (an extremely picturesque Coach and Horses) and old well. They sell soup (parsnip and red chilli today, which was well worth it) with cheese scones, jacket potatoes, sausage rolls, baguettes and the like, with tea and coffee, and of course a vast array of homemade sweets: lemon sponge, coffee sponge, chocolate sponge, Victoria sponge (I do love a sponge cake, me), sweet and savoury scones, flapjacks, tiffin slices and chocolate caramel shortbreads.

Also, it’s run by local ladies and they are just the best. The very phrase “local ladies” sums them up. You know what I mean. Efficient service, fabulous cooking, friendly faces.

There is definitely a place for Compton Village Shop and Tea Rooms in my little heaven.

Rainy, shiny, night or day

Hello, gentle snowflakes, from the utterly deluged, indeed saturated, West Sussex-Hampshire border! It’s the second week of the Easter vac and I’ve just got stuck into revision for Finals: eight-hour days, early mornings, early nights, and lots of reading. Unfortunately, I am not a revision machine. I can’t work for fourteen hours at a stretch (though I know some people who can), and I can’t do nothing but revision all the time. Most of us can’t. Herewith, a few of the things that have been working for me, so far:

Learn to do something. English isn’t really a skills-based subject. (Well, I mean, it is, but they’re very abstract skills. You learn how to use your mind, not your hands.) I haven’t had to learn how to do something really practical and basic for years–probably the last time was when I was about fifteen and Mum insisted that I at least learn how to boil water for pasta. The Revered Ancestors, with whom I am staying, have a proper log fireplace, and today I asked how to lay a fire. It was quite a revelation (I had no idea there were so many ingredients: newspaper, twigs, kindling, coal and finally the logs on top of all that!). Moreover, it helps you feel that you’ve at least accomplished one concrete thing today, which is comforting if the reading’s going badly, and further vindication if the reading’s going well. (Also, in my case, it means there’s now a fire crackling merrily away, which is very cozy.)

The village from the top of Harting Down (not today, obviously)

The village from the top of Harting Down (not today, obviously)

Get outside. So, okay, it has been raining, which has made it difficult to walk, but I love walking, once a day at least and twice if I’m up early enough to take the dogs. Walking is a very effective way of relieving tension and feeling as though you’ve done something nice for yourself. I have two favorites when I’m here in the village: one takes you nearly the length of the village, up North Lane and then down the long field on the other side. The other is to head in the opposite direction, up New Lane, which leads you right to the foot of Harting Down. There is a path that goes straight up the side, and it does make you feel terribly good about your cardiovascular activity if you follow it. It branches halfway up; the rest of the ascent ahead is dangerously steep, but the footpath carries on to the side along the shoulder of the Down, rising gently, and you get to the top more easily that way. The views are stunning: miles on either side, and in one direction, if it’s a clear day, you can see all the way to Portsmouth, which is really very good. Unfortunately I suspect the footpath will be muddily impassable at the moment, so I haven’t been up there yet.

Control what you eat, and, if possible, when. This is probably a personal thing, and some of you will undoubtedly consider this bizarre, but I find it a lot easier to cope with a day when it’s broken up by meals at specific times. If I know how long my mornings and afternoons are going to be, I can plan what I’m going to read or get done in that span of time. Controlling what I eat is partly because, being a diabetic, a sedentary lifestyle is the worst one possible, so if I’m going to be sitting down all day, I need to not be eating biscuits every fifteen minutes (which, permit me to assure you, I would do, and have done.) A small breakfast, lots of water, hot lunch with many vegetables and a slightly smaller dinner tends to work pretty well.

Read something irrelevant. Several things irrelevant, in this case. I’ve got two books on the go at the moment. One is Doctor Thorne, the third book in Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series. I absolutely adore Trollope for comfort reading. He’s funny and irreverent, but his novels are gentle enough that you know nothing will happen to seriously upset you. (Especially the rural ones. In fact, being chez les Revered Ancestors is a lot like being in a Trollope novel.) He’s also clever and articulate–the Palliser novels, his other big project, are really incisive on Victorian political life, and The Way We Live Now, which I read over Christmas, is probably his masterpiece. It’s not vapid, but it’s not complicated, either: perfect for relaxing after a day grappling with medieval mystics and their contemporary critics.

In the beautiful new Penguin English Library edition. I love attractive books.

In the beautiful new Penguin English Library edition. I love attractive books.

The other book is Nigella Express, which I’m reading cover to cover. You’d think that this would make my self-imposed strictness of diet more difficult, but in fact I like to look at the pictures, and every time there’s a recipe without too much bacon or cream (admittedly infrequently), I jot it down. More abstractly, it’s also very nice to read something without a plot. No one should ever underestimate the delights of reading cookbooks cover to cover for this very reason. Having wrestled with literary criticism all day, there is little more delightful than being able to read something for which your powers of memory are not at all necessary.

Red trousers, dark blue suits, and the Prince of Saudi Arabia

Douglas Hurd came to speak at Exeter yesterday. No big deal or anything. (For those of you who have been living under a rock for the past twenty years, or weren’t paying attention during politics lessons: he was in the governments of Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major, but is probably most famous for being Margaret Thatcher’s foreign minister and home secretary.) Darcy secured him as a speaker, partly because Darcy has a habit of inviting himself round to tea at important people’s houses and then persuading them to come and disgorge their wisdom upon the younger generation. Don’t ask me how it works, but it does. In any case, Douglas Hurd was here last night in the rectors’ lodgings, talking about his experience working with three prime ministers, so of course I went along.

I’ve been in the same room as Hurd before; he spoke (again at Darcy’s behest) last year to the Oxford University Strategic Studies Group, and I went along to that. It’s hard to say whether he was genuinely on better form last night, or whether I’m more informed than I used to be and therefore simply better placed to get more out of him. Perhaps he’s more effective when with small groups. When I came in, he was sitting in front of the fireplace in the rector’s drawing room, legs crossed, wearing red trousers of a hue that precisely matched the carpet. He has an unusual face, quite full along the chin, with a surprisingly small nose and crinkly eyes; combined with the shock of fluffy white hair, it gives him the appearance of an elderly but merry Persian cat.

Hurd started off talking about Ted Heath, who, from his account, seems to have been rather a sad and embittered man at the end of his life and career: the impression I got was of a man with passionate interests and values, who wanted to accomplish more than he practically could, and who was too invested to survive the failure. (This, according to the Duchess, is pretty much correct.) Hurd quickly segued to his time with Thatcher, however–she was, as he said, the most “outstanding” (by which he meant “significant”) of his three PMs–and this was where things started to get surprising: Hurd spent at least as much time discussing Thatcher’s personal appearance, demeanor, behavior and “charm” as he spent discussing her politics. I didn’t think much of it to begin with, but the angle became more and more obvious as he went on. At one point, he described a trip he took with her to Saudi Arabia to meet the Crown Prince: she had worn a dark blue suit and looked “like Queen Alexandra in the old portraits you sometimes see in embassies–both of them were always very well-dressed”. The Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia was clearly startled to be engaging with a woman in public, much less political, discourse, and in one way, I suppose, that fact alone is worth celebrating. But Hurd dwelt upon her clothes. She had, he said, surprised the Saudis by reading up on the way they liked their women to be dressed, and then by dressing in a way that accorded with their beliefs and preferences. I’m not sure what he meant by this. She obviously wasn’t wearing a niqab. Regardless, he seemed to be praising her for her willingness to capitulate to a highly oppressive system, the boundaries of which are entirely determined by men.

I couldn’t help but think that such a characterization might serve well to describe her political career generally. The rector told us about her time editing the Guardian women’s page in the 1980s, when thousands of letters from female readers exhibited a widespread sense, among women, that the prime minister was not really one of them at all. “She’s a man,” one colleague said. Thatcher was not interested in feminism, but nor was she so confident in the innate ability of a woman that she could comfortably perform as a woman. She performed femininity in her dress and her “beautiful manners” (Hurd’s formulation, again); but she also famously performed aggression, masculinity: her cabinet feared her, although I don’t know how much they respected her. The phenomenon of Thatcher, in gender terms, is endlessly fascinating, and I don’t have the space to explore it here, but it seemed deeply odd for Hurd to be speaking of his former employer, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain, in terms such as “radiant” and “stunning.” He seemed entirely unaware of the incongruity. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but that is only an explanation, not an excuse.

Still, Hurd’s a deeply likable man. This is the refreshing thing about England: feeling personal affection for your political opponents is plausible. In America, public discourse is so violent, so vehement, that it’s nearly impossible to disagree politely with somebody. Americans are much less interested in politeness anyway; during an intellectual sparring match, to be courteous is almost viewed as quaint. Here, however, it is easy. Hurd’s very charming. It is possible that he’s not a particularly deep thinker: Rory Stewart, as the Duchess said when we were comparing notes later, has a much more profound way of engaging with questions, whereas Hurd’s great qualities seem to be his prodigious memory and his anecdotes. Yet I like him very much. I can see at once why Darcy wanted to have tea with him; I wanted to have tea with him. Should’ve joined a student newspaper long ago.